There’s a lot of talk at the moment of NFTs – Non Fungible Tokens. NFTs are a crypto or web3 technology that can be thought of as a “primitive”. A primitive in this context meaning a foundational structure or a piece of this new web infrastructure.
Fungible means that one item can be substituted for another. Generally speaking, one euro, one dollar, one bitcoin is worth the same as another and it doesn’t matter which one you use. An NFT is non fungible – meaning that one is distinct from any other and cannot be readily substituted. A real world analogy might be a rare coin that has a value beyond its face value or a unique original artwork.
NFTs have really taken off in the public consciousness recently and I wanted to write about why I think they are important and interesting and that folks in the WordPress ecosystem should invest some time thinking about them.
Digitally-native property rights
NFTs basically bring digitally native property rights to the web. That’s interesting because it’s never been possible before. So essentially, NFTs now make it possible for people to assert their property rights in a truly digitally native way rather than via recourse to laws and offline institutions.
This is a reasonably new technology in terms of adoption, although the concept has been around since the early days of Bitcoin (~2013) and much more evidently during the previous crypto cycle of 2017/2018 when the crypto kitties project pretty much brought the Ethereum network to a standstill.
This newness means that a lot of the current uses of NFTs are skeuomorphic, much like the early examples of websites, which were basically online magazines. This means that they represent digital versions of real life concepts. More on this concept of skeuomorphism in this Bankless episode which I highly recommend listening to.
JPEGs and right click saving
At the moment, we see a lot of examples of NFTs where they are images (of artworks generally), simply wrapped in a token. A typical NFT project right now is a JPEG picture of a monkey or cat, saved on IPFS (a decentralised storage protocol – like a BitTorrent version of AWS’ S3) and referenced by an NFT. The fact that you own the NFT means that you can prove the provenance of the picture within it as well. You can either show that you ‘minted’ (created) that NFT or you can show the chain of ownership back to the originating contract. So, yes, anyone can right click and save the image that is embedded within that NFT. But they can’t prove provenance and that’s the key – because the image isn’t the point. The ownership is the point.
So if these are early and skeuomorphic examples, what might more mature NFT projects look like?
Firstly, you don’t necessarily need to store just a reference to an image file within the NFT. You can store code. So for example, you could store the actual code for an SVG for an image or you can store an executable code snippet.
What’s interesting about the fact that you can store code is that you can then have generative or reactive NFTs (beyond the original generation from the smart contract). An NFT could be reactive to the wallet that owns it, or the time of day, or any other external factor. So a single NFT could be different:
- every time it is owned or passed on
- depending on what other NFTs that wallet owns
- even just every time it’s viewed because the time is different
- based on any other programmable factor
It’s exciting to imagine the amount of artistic creativity that this could unlock! I love generative art and the idea of being able to embed that creativity within a token that can be owned and composed with the rest of the web3 ecosystem. So it’s going to be a much more vibrant art form than just a picture of a cat or a monkey.
But what are they actually useful for?
Let’s leave aside the content of the NFT for now – be it a JPEG or anything else. We’ve got an NFT – why does that matter and how can we use it?
- Provenance – simply being able to prove that you own something (as discussed earlier) can be very useful. It can be used as an open ledger receipt of purchase, proof of ownership, proof of authenticity or proof of a particular transaction.
- As a key – an NFT could act as a ticket to get into a concert, the rights to access a warranty service, a VIP pass to an on or offline community, or as any other ‘bearer instrument’.
- Composability – because they are an integral and native part of blockchain/crypto/web3, NFTs can be used seamlessly by any other part of the ecosystem. Enzyme.finance allows any wallet to create a fund with transparent holdings and trades, and for any other wallet to buy or sell shares in that fund. The shares are themselves NFTs, so suddenly I can sell you a share in a particular fund without having to go through laborious paperwork – I can just send it to you. A more fun example might be the idea of a computer game asset that’s an NFT – if you’ve earned a particular achievement in Call of Duty, that achievement could unlock an out-of-game experience elsewhere.
- Proof of attendance or proof of contribution – if someone attends a football match by using their NFT or wallet as their key, they could receive an NFT in return that verifies that attendance. That NFT could then unlock after-match content, offers or actions (see composability above).
- Digitally-native business models – keeping things very simple, NFTs allow artists and creators to experiment with monetisation like never before. Let’s say you’re an artist. Do you sell cheap and get fast, sure sales or price high and hope that others will see the value? With NFTs you can set royalties as part of the smart contract that manages transfer. So every sale, you get a cut. But what’s super cool is that the royalty is also composable and programmable. So you could say that for every sale, the royalty % increases or decreases, or has different tiers based on sale price, or is different if a wallet also contains other of your NFTs, or if it’s rainy outdoors or anything else you can program in. This is a huge deal for creators as it gives them access to a secondary market in their creations and the ability to experiment with monetisation. These are totally new concepts and have already proven meaningful for many artists.
- Asset portability – Reddit gold. Twitter hearts. Call of Duty (yes that’s the only game I know) XP or skins. Currently there is no sane way to transfer assets along with your identity. It’s all constrained within applications or ecosystems. There’s no escape from the tech giants. You want to leave, sure, you might be able to take your content and data, but not the achievements, context and in-ecosystem assets. That’s not a free and open web. The web (and the metaverse) will be much richer when our assets are tied to our identity and we’re free to take them with us.
A new synthesis of utility, aesthetic, status and belonging
Even just examining the JPEG version of NFTs, let’s look at a project called Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). This is currently the second most popular NFT project out there (behind CryptoPunks), and is a collection of 10,000 apes created generatively. They have different characteristics, and a relatively simple program chooses from those characteristics every time an NFT is minted to compose a unique ape every time. People bought them because it’s cool artwork and they loved the idea of some apes being rarer than others due to the combination of characteristics they were ‘born’ with.
Now because it’s become such an iconic project and is contemporary with this stage of the NFT tech journey, these Bored Apes have become a collectible that sits on several important human aspects of human nature to become something more.
The first is our love of shiny things; of collectibles. This has been a human quality long before there was any formal idea of money. We collected things that had natural beauty and we used to trade them, partly because they have an inherent aesthetic quality which is a value that even humans who have never met before can share.
The second aspect of our nature that Apes speak to is social status. You cannot buy an Ape for less than ~50 ETH or around $200k (as of mid-Nov ‘21). So if you have an Ape now, you either bought it cheap and have the conviction or love for it that you don’t want to sell it for “Lambo” money, or you wanted an Ape so badly that you were prepared to pay serious money for it. Either way, it’s a status symbol, a way to flex.
I’d argue that demonstrating social status by owning an Ape is much less damaging to the environment than driving a sports car or any other other ridiculous thing that humans create to establish hierarchy.
The third powerful biological trend enough to speak to is our tribalism, our in-group/out-group mentality.
When it comes to behaviour and belonging, everyone wants to feel like a part of something. And Ape ownership allows people to feel like they are part of a club. Even better of course, it ties in with our drives for social status and aesthetics. It feels like a worthy club. A worthy and exclusive club.
These very powerful components of human nature are combining together to create this strong behavioural reaction to the NFT landscape.
Second order effects
What happens when you have 10,000 people who own Apes and feel like they are part of a group with strong emotional bonds?
Well, they’re going to get creative and they’re going to start building things. And so your Ape is now your proof that you’re a part of the community. It allows you into private discord groups, it allows you to be part of a network of 10,000 of the wealthiest, most influential, most forward looking people in the crypto space. And that human network is a super powerful force for the people within that community. They’re gonna share things with each other. They’re gonna collaborate.
The BAYC brand and commercial rights
Not all NFT’s convey commercial rights over the images within them. An NFT is created by a smart contract, but a contract is not necessarily a legal contract, and even if it is, the rights that it conveys can be tailored for that specific contract.
In the case of Bored Apes, it does convey commercial rights. So if you buy an Ape, you also own the commercial rights to use that Ape. So you can print T-shirts, you can use it online, you can create derivative works. You can licence it for use in TV, or films, you can do what you want and the benefits and profits accrue to you.
That’s really powerful and we’ve come back to this idea of digital property rights that NFTs allow. There have already been examples of celebrities flexing their Apes by wearing them as jewellery or clothing. There was a Tyrese Haliburton (a basketball player) who had their Ape printed on custom sneakers.
It feels inevitable that there will be books, movie deals and video games. And those profits? They’ll go back to the community of Ape owners (with some royalties to the creators of the project). Compare that with the current business model if you’re a musician!
And for me, it’s just super clear that we’re gonna be going around the metaverse in five or 10 years. And an avatar will walk past and people will feel genuinely like they are in the presence of a celebrity.
So why does this matter to the WordPress community?
Personally, and for a growing number of people that I find in the space, I see very many opportunities for using NFTs within the WordPress ecosystem. The point of this blog post isn’t to go into those in great detail. It’s to tell you some of the story of NFTs and to encourage you to dig a bit deeper into what’s going on. To think about the importance of digital property rights within an open source ecosystem, so that we can create a rich, resilient, vibrant and trustworthy economy to support this incredible community that we’ve worked so hard for.
So give your brain a few cycles to think about how owning a Wapuu could have similar benefits to owning an Ape. Think about how that community could unlock opportunities for human networks and collaboration.
I would love to hear your thoughts on it.