Do nonfungible tokens diminish the democracy of the internet?

In 2015, the rap group Wu-Tang Clan announced that their new album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, was going to be auctioned off as a single copy. One person would be able to have exclusive access to it, and would be able to stream it for free, but not commercially. The band’s website explained that the inspiration behind the project was a Renaissance-style patronage, conceived because they believe that streaming websites have ostensibly reduced the value of music. Their website read: “The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity … By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale.” And there is something to that – an original piece of visual art by Banksy or Picasso or whoever will go for millions of dollars, but there is nothing quite like that for music in the age of streaming. All music is publicly available, all the time; if you have a phone and a wifi connection, you’ve got access to hundreds of years of musical history. And sure, you can google images of those Banksy or Picasso paintings, but it’s not the same as seeing the original thing in person. There’s less of a difference between listening to a song on Spotify versus listening to it live.

It seemed like a neat concept; at least, it did until it became public that the buyer was “Pharma Bro” and genuinely terrible person, Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He regularly hiked the price of the drugs his company sold, to the great expense of people who could barely afford it. In 2016, he promised to stream songs from the album if Donald Trump won the presidential election. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was seized by federal authorities as part of the $7 million forfeiture in regards to Shkreli’s securities fraud conviction. Shkreli is currently in prison for that conviction, and I can only assume that some government employee is listening to Once Upon a Time in Shaolin on loop.

Flashfoward to 2021, when the term “non-fungible token” (NFT) joins the internet lexicon. I tried to find a straightforward definition of NFT, and I found wikipedia’s to be the most enlightening: “A non-fungible token (NFT) is a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable. NFTs can be used to represent items such as photos, videos, audio, and other types of digital files.” Which seems to be a pretty accurate summation.

Refreshingly, much of the dialogue around NFTs has been about the environmental impact, which is potentially dreadful. It’s nice to see that, pretty much from the start, the environmental impact is part of the conversation. There are a lot of people who can explain better than I can just how bad NFTs can be for our planet. But in this post, my goal here is just to discuss the impact of NFTs and how they affect the internet and the interpretation of internet relics as art.

The reason I feel the need to frame NFTs in this way is that the classic internet video, titled “Charlie bit my finger,” one of the first viral videos of the YouTube era was recently sold as an NFT. It sold for $761,000, which is certainly more than I would spend, even for a piece of internet history. The official title of the video was changed during the process to read: “Charlie bit my finger – again ! – Waiting on NFT decision.” The reason for this was that the family behind the video had planned to delete it, thereby giving exclusive ownership of the video to the successful bidder. Thankfully, the owner has opted to keep the video publicly accessible.

I don’t care that much about what happens with a 14-year-old home movie, but I do worry about the precedent that this would set – the family in question was wholly ready to delete a beloved piece of internet media at the whim of someone who was willing to spend an absurd amount of money on a video file. This auction had a happy ending, but which of our favorite videos are likely to be purchased for the exclusive enjoyment of some rich jerk who doesn’t want anyone else to have it?

Perhaps most confounding of all is: once you’ve bought a video like Charlie bit my finger for an exorbitant amount of money, what do you do with it? Do you just tell people at parties that you own a piece of internet history? Do you sell it to someone else with the hopes of making a profit? I would ask if you would put it behind a paywall, but who on earth would pay money to see a video that probably thousands of people have downloaded copies of? Do you invite people over to your house for viewing parties?!

Charlie bit my finger, if it were owned by only one person, it would lose almost all of its meaning. People wouldn’t remember or talk about it. But when it’s available publicly, it will still be fondly remembered and rewatched. Unlike Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, I think that if they had made it exclusive, it would actually be less valuable. In that case, it’s no longer YouTube lore, it’s just some yahoo’s home movie.

The issue with pieces of art that are deliberately made exclusive in a medium where exclusivity is not the norm – as we’ve seen with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and as we almost saw with Charlie bit my finger – is that making these pieces of art exclusive gatekeeps them from many people who might have otherwise enjoyed them. The internet has made things like music and filmmaking more accessible in a way that is, in the simplest sense of the word, democratic.

NFTs put a price on pieces of internet history, something that was wonderfully accessible for many years, and puts it in the hands of someone who can just casually drop six digits or a million dollars on someone else’s home movie, or two million dollars on a Wu-Tang clan album.

People with hundreds of thousands of dollars of disposable income will spend it on JPEGs that carry no tangible meaning, while there are people in my country who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and there are others who starve. I’m not going to sit around and act like every single dollar that I spend is absolutely essential or goes to a good cause, but I hope I’m not as frivolous to spend more than half a million dollars on Nyan Cat.

Over the course of the few days it took me to write this post, a study has come out indicating that the NFT market is in the process of collapse; the market has decreased by nearly 90%, and the number of accounts used to buy NFTs is about a quarter of what it once was. This relieves me, because it seems to indicate that people are either concerned about the environmental impact, or just smart enough to see through a foolish grift. Either way, that’s a win.

4 thoughts on “Do nonfungible tokens diminish the democracy of the internet?

  1. Thanks – I loved this piece including the story about the WuTang story, which I wasn’t across. Let’s face it, if the big media companies can’t stop us all pirating major blockbusters, I doubt the sale of “internet history” as NFTs is going to have any impact on our ability to access these moments.

    I’m also reminded of my partner who is about five decades old endlessly searching for his (pre-internet) childhood … so many stories and products that no longer/rarely exist. The other day someone in one of his groups produced their primary school lolly wrapper scrapbook containing exclusive time capsule goodness and everyone in there went mad for it.

    I am curious to see a meme-to-NFT environment comparison though – is endless replication of freely (and encouraged) meme moments actually any better environmentally than an NFT? Like how many freely shared “This is Doge” equivalate in an enviro sense to one “This is Doge” NFT? (Or whichever meme is hot right now).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jstar, thanks so much for your comment! And I enjoy your story of your partner rediscovering the lolly wrappers – nostalgia trips like that are some of the best things on the internet.

      And you make an excellent point – the NFT discussion is very heavily mired in the question of the environmental impact, but the question of the regular internet and the regular distribution of memes. Does sending a tweet to my friends lead to environmental collapse? Apparently not as much as NFTs or Cryptocurrencies, but surely it must, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah – I think there’s a real conversation there about the enviro impact of a tweet or a meme in general. And the sheer volume of those compared to what I assume is the lesser volume of NFTs.

        I did once write an essay on the environmental impact of art galleries, and with all their climate controls to protect both displayed and stored art they’re definitely not that green. It becomes a bit of a culture vs eco scenario. Although I’m sure galleries have greened somewhat since I looked into it (mid 2000s I think).

        I’ll add to the nostalgia conversation that there are some older films that are near impossible to access anywhere in any form… and small groups of fans keeping them “alive” through piracy sites. In that way I’d think it could be argued that they’re acting as archivists rather than pirates, but it’s all relative. Weren’t some of those missing Dr Who episodes that were “rediscovered” recorded by camera off the telly?

        Liked by 1 person

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