Sean Bonner

misanthropologist
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Why Web3

In the summer of 1993 I saw the World Wide Web for the first time and to this day it remains one of the most exciting moments of my life. The possibility and the potential was so obvious. This was a place where anything could happen, and everyone could see it. Over the next few years it stopped feeling like a destination and I no longer differentiated between “the real world” and “online” – it was all real and always happening, sometimes I was away away from my keyboard.

By the early 2000’s these amorphous blobs of content we were putting online started to find ways to work together. Small pieces loosely joined. We were on the verge of connecting everything and it was going to be incredible. Tech conferences felt like summer camps. All the people you’d met online coming together and hanging out in hotel lobbies. We put faces to names, and stayed up all night imagining the future. That feeling changed in 2004 when the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference was rebranded as The Web 2.0 Conference. e-Tech became Web 2.0, officially.

That year I ran into a friend outside of the conference. They looked upset, almost distraught. I asked what was wrong. They told me they’d just taken an elevator that was packed with people they didn’t recognize. They’d looked at name tags to try and find a connection and rather than seeing familiar startups or friend’s projects they saw SAP, Oracle and various banks. I said “so what?” They said, “When the money and enterprise guys show up, you know it’s over.” I laughed off the comment at the moment but thought about it a lot in the following years. That was the beginning of the end, at least of our dreams of anything being possible.

It wasn’t a night and day change and of course there was plenty of talk of “users” instead of “people” in what we now call the “dot-com era” or “Web 1.0” though we didn’t call it those things at the time. But Web 2.0 brought in the big guns. The focus became controlling what people could do, and owning their information. Our content, our data, anything they could get their hands on. This was the golden age of luring people in with free services and War and Peace length Terms of Service that no one read, so we didn’t realize how much we were giving up. Once we did, it was too late.

If you’ve been with me over these years you know I’ve been critical of Web 2.0. I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about the web and what we do with it, what we could have done, and where we went wrong. I had so much hope, and felt so much disappointment. Obviously I wasn’t the only one, which is how we found our way to Web3.

Web3 is not Web 3.0. It’s not a sequel or an update to Web 2.0, it’s a separate fork. You could maybe argue it’s a prequel but one informed by the errors of what was yet to come. While Web 2.0 was the fire started by sparks from the dot-com era, this a rewind and do-over with flameproof lining. Web3 looked at Web 2.0, saw the foundation was rotting and rather then renovating decided to build fresh on the plot next door. I could keep running with these analogies but I’m sure you get the point. When you see Web 2.0 talking heads steaming and stomping their feet that “NFTs and Crypto are not Web 3.0!!” they are right, but just not in the way they think. Web 3.0 was The Semantic Webit already happened and chances are you never even heard about it. Web3 is something else.

     Dialup ---> Dot-Com Era ---> Web 2.0 ---> Web 3.0
                     |
                     |----------------------------------- Web3

Web3 upends the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to and puts artists and creators back into the drivers seat. Without exception, every person I’ve spoken to who I know from my mid 1990’s internet adventures agrees this feels just like that. Suddenly there are possibilities again. Suddenly all options are on the table. Suddenly Anything can happen. It’s exciting. And scary. A little bit dangerous. It’s like the run down part of town where all the artists have studios because thats where they can afford lots of space. Sure you have to be careful where you park so your car doesn’t get broken into, but the creativity and inspiration around every corner is worth the visit.

After 2020 lots of people have been asking if there is actually a reason to go back to the office, to go back to a job they hate. Web3 is giving many of those people the ability to say no, they aren’t going to suffer through a 9-5 they hate just to barely scrape up enough to pay rent. Web3 offers a future where people are in charge of their own identities, not beholden to the whims of data hoarding corporations. People control their own accounts, own their own futures. Detractors are outraged that currency and wallets play a central part in this, but currency and wallets have always played a central role – the only thing that has changed is who benefits. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise. In 1993 John Gilmore said “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” and in a way that is what has happened here, but we’re talking about an economy rather than censorship. The Net interpreted walled gardens and institutional lock-ins as damage. Web3 is a creator economy like we’ve never seen – by and for the people.

Now that may sound idealistic and is, admittedly. Proudly even. Because that’s what a reimagining should be. If you are going back and starting over you need to be idealistic, you need to believe anything is possible and that the best outcome is realistic. The unified, decentralized dream is sitting right in front of us. Of course it’s not assured, and there are no shortage of power hungry or greed driven actors trying to centralize things for their own benefit. We’re already seeing compromises billed as simplification. We’re seeing sour grapes from people who called this a trend or a scam and expected it to fade away years ago. There’s no shortage of self proclaimed early adopters who didn’t adopt this early enough and are mad that they made the wrong call. That’s OK, it’s to be expected. The good is the momentum is strong and things are moving in the right direction. The secret is it’s not too late. We are still so incredibly early. The surface has barely been scratched.

Another incredibly important thing here – the kids all get it. For every person over 40 arguing about the legitimacy of cryptocurrency or the value of JPGs there are 2 people under 20 who don’t even question it. Digital gold, a catalog of avatars and identities – this is the world they grew up with. It made sense in countless video games, why not everywhere else? And when you take into account that there’s been a financial crisis almost non-stop since 2001, with an ever growing list of shysters and conmen getting caught for decades of scams and frauds, or politicians getting pay offs, or secret back room deals where almost everyone gets screwed – the appeal of a public ledger for all transactions becomes crystal clear. The next generation is all to aware of the short end of the stick they’ve been left to hold, and they are simple deciding not to.

So if you are asking “Why Web3?” The answer is simple. Web3 is the future.

Art + Activism at Esalen

Last week I attended a Track II conference at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. If you aren’t familiar with Esalen it’s worth reading up on, because it’s kind of legendary for many reasons none of which I’m going to talk about here. Like other Track II events, international relations played a big part as well as pressing global issues such as nuclear threats, climate change and cyber security. For this event there was a new addition to the normal diplomacy talks with a focus on art ant activism, which is how I ended up with an invite. I went in kind of blind but then realized I would be presenting some of my work to help with context so I threw something together one night and thought it would be useful to post here for reference as well. This was written as a talk and includes a lot of ad-libbing but I think it’s fairly readable as well. Please to enjoy.

Hi everyone. I’m Sean Bonner and I’m going to ramble a little bit here so it’s going to either be terribly confusing or make perfect sense, but probably nothing in between. In the early 2000’s the art critic Jerry Saltz once said of my Los Angeles art gallery that he looked forward to seeing us either succeed or fail fantastically, so I always try to do one of those two things. So I’m just going to tell you some stories and let some of my photos play here in the background while I do. These things are probably unrelated. 

The other night during our one sentence introductions I struggled to succinctly explain what I do because I do lots of vaguely connected things – I’m a writer, photographer, illustrator, entrepreneur, publisher, musician… Recurring themes in my work are solitude, loneliness and connections, relationships. Chasing passions, and chasing passion. Most of my work is connected to subcultures in one way or another. I call myself a misanthroplogist which is only half a joke. It’s been pointed out to me that all of my companies and projects and efforts are somehow in search of or in service to a community. I’m always hunting for my people, trying to find the weirdos I connect with.

Where I’m from is almost as hard to answer as what I do. I was born in Washington DC, but I’ve lived in Maryland, Texas, Florida, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vienna, Paris, Tokyo, and now Vancouver. There might be some things I’m pretty good at, but apparently sitting still isn’t one of them

My first job was a dishwasher at seafood restaurant Florida’s gulf coast, I was 14 and I got paid in cash under the table. Some of my friends were in bands and before long we decided they should have records but assumed there was no way any real record company would be interested so I saved up started my own. You could ask “why did you think as a high schooler you could just go start your own company?” and the only good answer I have is I didn’t know that I couldn’t. Over the next 5 or 6 years I put out about dozen albums by different bands, first releases for many and some of whom are still touring, playing live and writing new music today.

This experience had 3 long lasting impacts on my life:

  • I realized anything is possible.
  • I realized the seemingly small actions of one person can inspire someone else to do something amazing.
  • It made me basically unemployable.

That last point is important because knowing the power of the individual and that limits are imaginary is incompatible with most corporate and business structures. I’ve had a few office jobs since then, they were… well, complicated.

In the big picture I often find myself trying to identify problems to help solve, not that I’m terribly good at solving them, but I enjoy trying. One of my favorite ways to do that is to build a new thing that makes the thing causing the old problem obsolete. Don’t try to change it, just route around it. The people you leave behind will either ignore you and keep doing their thing oblivious to your improvements, or they will realize they’ve been overstepped and change their thing to try and catch up. Either one of those is a perfectly fine outcome. 

I wanted to spend some time talking about one of my projects that relates to a few of the themes we’ve been talking about over the last few days – namely open source, nuclear, art and activism.

By 2010 I had given up my half of an art gallery and walked away from global blog network that I’d started almost a decade earlier. I was pretty frustrated with both the art and tech worlds at the time and was mostly hanging out at hackerspaces and doing “black ops” for venture capitalists to help decide what companies (and teams) to invest in, but I was also trying to figure out what to do next with my weird art/tech/DIY skill set. I was privately hoping to stumble across a project I could throw myself into, though I couldn’t have anticipated how that would play out.

For a few years I’d been involved with an annual event in Tokyo called the New Context Conference. Put on each year by Digital Garage, we talked about what was happening online, and hypothesized about what might be next. Our 2011 event was planned for April but In March a serious earthquake hit Japan causing a Tsunami that crippled that Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant and generally made a really, really big mess. I was still living in LA at the time and so I called my friend and co-organizer Joi Ito to see if he was OK. He wasn’t in Japan either, and was also trying to get word about what was happening. For the most part, no one knew what was going on.

We started pulling people together to see if we could help. We’re hackers and internet people with diverse networks of smart people all around the world – if that would ever be useful for something this seemed like it would be it.

At first we thought we’d just go find the data. Turns out there was no data, as no functional sensor networks existed Then we thought we’d just collect the data ourselves. Turns out there was no equipment to be had, as essentially every geiger counter on the market had been sold in the last 24 hours to randos with survival bunkers in Ohio. So we began to realize that we needed to build a way to collect the data from scratch.

The previously scheduled April event changed from “what’s happening next online” to “what’s happening next in Fukushima” and we brought a bunch of the people we were talking to over to Tokyo and sat down in a room together for a few days to try and come up with a plan. Over the following days and weeks we’d put together the pieces and people for what would eventually become a non-profit called Safecast.

We built a hardware & software platform for people to measure radiation and share that information with each other. We didn’t know if what we were doing was legal, but we didn’t really care either and decided not to ask anyone. We’d just apologize later if we needed to.

This work revealed a new issue: Our data was very precise, existing data was averaged. Which led to the realization that all of the existing data was mostly useless and this suddenly became a much bigger project than we’d anticipated. Our data showed that evacuation zones were wrong, and they were corrected. The rest of the world had the same problem with data that was too vague, so the project quickly became global

Hundreds and then thousands of volunteers all over the world got involved and started collecting and publishing environmental data through our system – which was entirely open source and public domain.

Our dataset of radiation background levels is now almost 200 million data points – the largest ever available. Before Safecast governments had good data and the people had crappy data, if any at all. After Safecast the people had the best data available.

We purposefully pushed for the highest standard data and put it into the public domain, to ensure that the work will outlive all of us. 

UN, IAEA, NNSA, etc have endorsed or use our work and recommend our best practices. Many people at these orgs told us they dreamed of doing what we did but could never get the internal approval to do it at their agencies and couldn’t figure out how a small group of nobodies like us were actually able to do it. I tell them we didn’t ask anyone for approval, we just did it. We helped force the NNSA to release the tax payer funded data they had for the US because the data we released made their “national secrets” not so secret anymore. We met with DARPA who told us they loved what we were doing but didn’t like that it was public, so they put millions of tax payer dollars into copying our work but making it private. The president of Tepco who couldn’t believe we weren’t trying to sell him something.

Air quality has a lot of the same problems – there’s no standards and the data is closed and confusing. We’re trying to see if lessons from one can apply to the other, but they are entirely different animals so in many ways we’re starting from scratch. 

This week we’ve talked about how to pay for these solutions and if there needs to be a disaster in order to get anyone to pay attention? I’ll just say from my experience most people don’t care unless there’s a disaster, and more specifically it needs to be directly impacting them.

Luckily Safecast has shown that you don’t need everyone to care, a very few people working together can build something that benefits everyone.

The directly impacted, the curious, everyone else

With radiation, even 10 years on, people still think of this as “that thing in japan” with air quality we see the same – we have all these fires here on the west coast and no good way to know air quality around them. 

We spec’d out a distributed system more than 5 years ago and funders told us ‘sounds interesting, we’ll get back to you’ and then they didn’t get back to us until there was a fire blowing smoke right at them. By then it was too late. Once the fires were put out they weren’t interested agaibn. We said “what about next year” and they said “we’ll get back to you” Then next year when smoke was blowing into their kitchens they called asking us if we ever got that sensor network up and running. So paying for these solutions is a real problem in and of itself.

We have some air sensors deployed, but not as many as we’d like. We recently codesgned a device with Blues Wireless called the Airnote and that’s helped get some more into people’s hands. 

In 2020 the pandemic ended travel and cancelled events which basically cut us off from all of our funding and we had to lay off our entire team – we were about 90% volunteer anyway and most of the people we had to stop paying kept on working in their spare hours. This shows that people genuinely care about solving these problems, but just caring doesn’t pay rent or keep servers online.

So thats activism, but how is this related to art?

Our devices have been displayed in several museum exhibitions. Our visualizations have been published in art books. Our data has been used for all kinds of projects, including this one released earlier this year which is what we’ve been listening to in the background. 

You can go to Safecast.live and hit play in the top left, or change the sample pack in the bottom right. The audio is being driven by the live stream of the data coming in from radiation and air quality sensors all over the world. Each reading triggers a different sample. The samples are taken from vintage synthesizers, a toy piano, or from the band Nine Inch Nails who released some of their audio with an open license as well. Sensors compose the audio. We’re listening to the world, right now. It will never sound the same, as the environment changes moment to moment and more sensors come online, this audio stream will continue to evolve.

This is one of many examples of art and technology coming together to make something new and wonderful.

Data integrity is something we’ve thought a lot about, because an open data set isn’t going to be very useful if someone can mess with the data. We wanted to be able to ensure that the data we are providing is the absolutely positively the same data coming off our sensors. We currently use a distributed cross checking methodology for that, but for quite sometime we’ve also been looking at blockchains as position solutions to the question of provenance and verifiability. As part of that we cofounded the Blockchain Research Lab at Keio University in Tokyo and have worked closely with the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT.

This year, art and tech came crashing with the explosion of NFTs. As such for much of the year I’ve been playing tech translator to my art friends and art translator to my tech friends. Not one to stand on the sidelines, I’ve been making and selling NFTs of my own work and have jumped in to help build one of the largest artist communities around NFTs. I’m really excited about the potential, we’re already seeing it dramatically shift the power structures of the art world and allow artists and creators to become financially independent on their own terms, allowing them to really focus on their work. This is bleeding edge stuff but I think it won’t be long before everyone is using them, and most probably won’t even know it.

I’m working on several related projects and hope to tie Safecast in someway soon as well. I’m looking forward to talking with everyone about this stuff in the coming days and seeing where we might be able to collaborate!

You Don’t Need Your Own Discord

This is a potentially controversial position to take, but these days when people ask me how to start their own Discord server I have one simple bit of advice – don’t.

This isn’t because I dislike Discord, quite the contrary and honestly I find it to be incredibly useful and powerful for community building. The problem is there are just too many Discords. At this point “come hang out on my Discord” directly translates to “come hang out on my Discord instead of someone else’s Discord.” That’s not intentional, but it’s a limitation of there only being so many waking hours in the day and a limited number of those that people can spend hanging out on Discords. I don’t have any extra hours at this point, and judging by conversations I’m having and seeing happening between others – neither does anyone else.

Discord lets people join up to 100 servers which used to seem like an impossible limit to hit, but I’ve hit it and now to join a new Discord I have to leave an old Discord. Because I run a few Discords for various projects that eats up a few of my options, because some of those projects have sandbox servers there goes a few more. I’m relatively new to the Discord universe so I can’t be the only one who actually has less than 100 spaces available. One might ask why Discord doesn’t just up to limit for everyone, but honestly I think a better move would be to decrease it. Chop it to 50. Or 35.

Here’s the thing, just joining isn’t the issue – it’s the time you need to invest and there’s only so much of that. So every Discord server is competing for your (my) time and attention – not just with other servers but also with the rest of my life. If you are like me, you find yourself stressing about where you are spending your time, what you are neglecting, and how to be more efficient in your social interactions – none of which are very fun things to have occupying headspace.

The next question I get asked frequently is by people who have their own Discord servers, and they are wondering how to get more engagement or activity there. I have a list of minor suggestions and best practices that I’ve seen work, but those are all secondary to the bigger issue that people just don’t have the time to spend on all these servers. So unless you are offering something incredibly unique or already have a very committed audience I think spending time trying to get people to your server is counter productive. And I want to explain that a bit more.

One of the things we talk about right now is how important community is. It’s shaping up to be one of the defining factors of web3 in ways that some of us have been pushing for for decades. It’s exciting, and awesome to see. But you build community by contributing to a community, not by trying to get people away from other communities. And that’s what happening here, even if no one realizes it yet. That’s why I’m telling people in their heads they need to realize that asking people to come to their server is also actively asking them not to go to other servers.

So what’s the solution? Community. One Discord server with 20 artists is infinitely more compelling than 20 Discord servers for 20 different artists. This is the hypothesis that we’re playing with on Discord.art. I recognize that might seem like I’m asking you to do the thing I just asked you not to do, but I’m not. I’m just using it as an example. A number of us, many who had our own Discord servers that we were struggling with came together and decided to see what would happen if we combined forces instead. Invest in a community rather than trying to lure people away from others. And I think it’s worked, incredibly well to be honest. It’s super active, incredibly positive and has become a cultural hub for this moment in so many ways. That’s not because of any single person involved, but rather because the combination of all those people is greater than the sum of the parts. And hanging out together leads to further inspirations and collaborations that never would have happened if everything was segregated.

Another thing we did recently was look at what channels we have, vs what channels people are actually using. Again, looking to the community rather than trying to direct the community. We found that we didn’t need a huge chunk of those channels and deleted them – the result being a tighter and more active server. If you have your own Discord server I’d encourage you to take a hard look at your channel list and see what is actually being used, and consolidate anywhere you can. Having fewer channels means less cognitive load is needed to keep up, which takes less time and makes your server more viable. When I need to join a new server and I’m forced to pick a server to leave – 9 times out of 10 I’m leaving the ones with hundreds of channels because I’m already missing most of what is happening on them. I feel more connected to the servers with just a few channels because I know what is going on and who is there.

IF you can get your server down to just a few channels, my next bit of advice is to look around at the servers you also participate in. Are any others similar in size to yours? Some overlapping interests? Maybe even shared community members? If so, thats a prime candidate for a merger. Right now, every single say I’m being asked to join a new Discord server and that’s just impossible to manage. What I’d love to see in the coming weeks and months, is all of these disparate servers joining forces and consolidating under a unified roof. I would much rather be in 10 Discord servers that collect 10 different projects each, than 100 different servers for individual projects. And I think the communities around those projects will benefit from that sharing as well.

Let’s stop building new Discord servers and instead build stronger communities.

Avatars and Identity

My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact I can date my childhood memories really well because I was in a different school almost every grade, so depending on which school or group of kids are in the memory I know exactly when it happened. This was the source of a lot of trauma for me (as soon as I’d make friends I’d move away and have to start all over again) which led to various trust and interpersonal relationship issues that I spent years working through, some better than others. This has manifested itself in various ways, one of which is that as you might know I’m deeply fascinated by and attracted to subcultures and communities – I never had “my people” as a kid, and when I finally found them in my high school years I never let go.

I gave a talk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna once about my career, and jokingly said that bouncing from music to art to technology didn’t make any sense. The professor who had invited me to his class interjected that it made perfect sense, because the notable common thread through all my work isn’t the particular medium of the moment, but rather the community around it. He observed, perhaps better than any therapist I’ve ever been to, that in my work I’m always trying to build sustainable communities.Perhaps, he noted, because I never had a community growing up so I’m destined to spend my life chasing after them. Well thanks for that one there Prof.

But he was right.

I call myself a misanthoplogist which is only half a joke, most of the communities I dive into and immerse myself in are subculture, occulture even, and often skeptical of outsiders. Most of us are misfits and weirdos who didn’t fit in with the world we saw around us, so we built our own. Or since it’s so much easier these days, we found others like us and embraced the world they’d already started building. And once a part of this chosen family, which ever one that might be (or several concurrently, as I’ll get to in a moment) it becomes deeply important to us, shaping us as much as we shape it. We become the community, and the community becomes representative of us – our interests, our hopes, our dreams.

When I meet someone else from one of these communities out in the world we share an instant understanding and a bond that unless you are also part of that community, likely makes no sense. In fact, you might not even notice it. In this way, these friendships and communities become almost secret societies. Indeed, band logos, slang and inside jokes can map perfectly with some cryptic rune, sigil or foreign language. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t. Forget music and just consider Hobo Symbols or Warchalking – just understanding what these markings mean puts you into a very tiny group. Now apply that same logic to graffiti’d gang tags or bumper stickers.

Those are physical world examples, but it should be no surprise to you that I’m heading towards the virtual. Years ago my ex-roommate brokep made a brilliant comment that he doesn’t use or like the then common abbreviation “IRL”(In Real Life) instead preferring to use “AFK” (Away From Keyboard) because in his perception, and for those around him, online was just as real as offline and the difference wasn’t which was real or not, but which had your attention at any given moment, and he didn’t want to perpetuate the false idea that things happening online were any less important or “real” than those happening offline. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One takes this a step further by making the online more important than the offline, and the introduction of metaverses. I’ll get back to that shortly.

(A few of the NFT Avatars I own and use in various online communities)

My son has lived all around the world. I like to think this was a conscious decision informed by expert learnings and my own lived experience, but it could just as easily be repeating the same mistakes my parents made. Time will tell. But the point being at almost 12 years old he’s spent significant chunks of his life living in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and now Vancouver. And he’s traveled to dozens of other countries in the interim. When I was a kid in the 80’s jumping from school to school in city to city, I often tried to be penpals with friends I’d made but that usually lasted one or two letters until we’d both forgotten about it. The internet changed all that as we know, and with my son any school he’s been in has been for at least a 3 year stretch and he’s stayed in touch with a number of friends regularly, for years now, in any number of online worlds, primarily Minecraft where he and his friends can actually build out a world that remains the same no matter where they are accessing it from.

Knowing how insufferable I am in these posts, you can only imagine how much worse I am in person. My excitement this year about NFTs has infected every corner of my life and this has rubbed off on my son who has his own collection and is an active member of several related communities. So here’s what I’m starting to get at – when I ask him, out of all the places he’s lived and all the places he’s visited, which is is favorite – he points out that it’s not such a simple question as all the places have pros and cons. He’s a smart kid. If we’re talking about food then one city might be better. If we’re talking about hiking or snowboarding or bike riding then yet another city might be better. If he’s talking about where his friends are, then he knows exactly which Discord server he’d pick. Online or offline are the same – they are just different places where he spends time.

I get that. A few years ago I played some World of Warcraft with him, which was a game I spent a significant chunk of time playing in the early 2000’s. Walking through those in game cities felt every bit the same as it feels when I visit a city I used to live in, or a favorite place to travel. I know what’s around the next corner and where to get the good food. So I assure you, he’s not the only one who feels that way. I know a lot of people in my generation and a little older who would think that sounds crazy. But this is the future, and the younger kids all get it.

So to connect this back around, Discord servers are communities. Cyber cliques. Digital gangs. Virtual families. This is real life in every way, and the relationships we form there are just as real. I need more than one hand to count the number of friends who have had marriages end because of affairs being had with people they had never met in physical space. That’s as real as it gets. But that’s beside the point, which I know I’m talking a long time to get to, but here it is – offline I can I look at you and know who you are, know if I know you or not. Online, I look at your avatar. And your avatar can be anything. And if your avatar can be anything then you can be anyone, right? Right. That’s equal parts liberating and terrifying. If you can be anyone, how do you know who anyone is? Or maybe more importantly, does that even matter?

Going back to Ready Player One again, in the metaverse people were able to create avatars that were the perfect versions of themselves. Who they wanted to be, without the limitations of their physical lives (like, how much money they have or where they lived). And, they didn’t have to be just one person – they could be different people for different situations. This begins to really pick apart the idea of identity – but again this isn’t new or exclusive to the internet in anyway. People have had secret lives and kept separate identities offline forever. We all know someone who acts one way at the office and completely differently outside of the work environment. Or what about LARPers or Furries or hardocre Trekies. Or what about punk rockers who put on nice clothes to go to a real job between 9-5. I’m being a bit obvious but you get the point – the notion of being different people in different contexts is a very normal thing, and doing that online with an avatar in a community just makes it even more… well, real.

Back to my son – in the communities he’s a part of, no one knows he’s a kid. That’s intentional on his part, because he recognizes that people treat him differently if they think of him as a peer. And yes to alleviate any fears we know what he’s doing and who he’s hanging out with, and have regular open conversations about safety around that – but we also respect his wishes and love that he has this ability to safely explore who he is, and who he wants to be. His identity is connected to his Avatar. His Avatar shows his connection to this community, and unlocks special membership privileges. His Avatar is also a unique digital object that he owns, because it’s an NFT. There are a few thousand others who hold NFTs from this collection and while they might meet each other on the project Discord, they can also recognize each other anywhere else on the web as well. It’s a digital band t-shirt.

This week twitter announced plans to add web3 integration to the site with two examples of how they are going to do it – they are going to add tipping with Bitcoin, and verified ownership of Avatars. Now, if you’ve been reading the news or following related headlines you might have heard about the Bitcoin tipping part but likely didn’t catch the avatar bit. This is because most of the “technology journalists” writing about web3 have no idea what is actually happening and are just looking for recognizable buzzwords to drive stories and Bitcoin is recognizable but NFTs and Avatars are confusing so Bitcoin drives the story and the Avatar bit gets a passing mention just so that all the boxes are checked. I’m not just making that up, I’ve spoken with no less than 10 writers at major publications in the last 2-3 months who have all had similar stories. “I’ve written about art/web/entertainment/memes before so my editor just told me to put together something about NFTs but none of this makes any sense to me, can you try to help me understand what is happening?”

But this is a legitimately big deal. “Why would I buy it when I can just right click and save it?” falls apart the moment wallet verification is introduced, and a social platform as large as Twitter recognizing that what NFTs you own directly relates to your online identity is the tip of the iceberg. People already spend a lot of time, effort and money crafting and curating their online persona – the dismissal that they wouldn’t buy an Avatar to signify their connection to a community or social standing is silly. That’s so obviously where this is all heading. And the natural extension of this is if your identity is tied to an Avatar, and you have many different Avatars then you natively have the potential for many different identities. I might use my Bored Ape Avatar when I’m on the Bored Ape Yacht Club Discord Server and then switch to my Punk Cat Avatar when I’m on the Punk Cats server. Other people who hold NFTs from both collections might do the same, and we might recognize each other and intentionally connect those two avatars into one identity – but there’s no reason at all that I couldn’t keep an avatar in a separate wallet and when I switch to it also switch to a completely unique identity.

So far I’ve been talking about forums and websites, but as metaverses like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Sandbox, etc etc etc begin to pop up and start intermingling the situation gets much more interesting. When we’re talking about virtual worlds and not just screen names, it’s an entirely larger thing.

As someone who has been using my real name online for more than 25 years and has spent way too much time thinking about how identity and reputation and positioning impact online interactions, this is mindblowingly exciting. Scary as hell, but inevitable and totally obvious at this point. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

OpenSea And The Problem With Verification

Yesterday I was talking about a cute new digital collectable collection on OpenSea that I was considering buying into, noting that there were 10k which had recently sold out and the cheapest ones were getting more expensive by the minute. Tara was sitting across from me at the breakfast table checking it out as well. We talked about how cute they were and sent a few back and forth to look at. As Tara was getting ready to buy one she asked “wait, why are there only 800 of these, are they still minting them?” We quickly realized that she was looking at a fraudulent collection that had been named almost identically with only one extra letter, but was coming up first in the search results. I immediately sent a tweet to Nate Chastain who is Head of Product at OpenSea and he pulled down the fraudulent account right away. Unfortunately it looked like 30 or 40 people had already fallen for the scam while it was active, and for those people there’s no way recourse or way to get their money back. Had the real account been verified it’s probably safe to say that none of those people would have been scammed, it was only because Tara happened to notice the difference that we didn’t fall for it ourselves. And how long would it have stayed up if someone who knew who to reach out to on Twitter didn’t spot it?

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened with OpenSea, in fact it happens regularly – and much of that can be blamed on how OpenSea handles verification. And because transactions happen instantly, even if a scam is found pretty quickly the money has already been transferred to the scammer with no way to get it back. Essentially they have created a situation with high reward and low risk for scammers to just keep setting up fake accounts and collecting Ξ every single day.

But let’s step back for moment and look at how we got into this mess. Verification as we think of it today both began with and is the fault of Twitter. In 2009 Twitter was sued by Tony La Russa relating to a fake account in his name, and while the suit was eventually dropped Twitter instituted Verified Accounts in the wake of that suit to give them a solution for the future. Years earlier Friendster had gone to war with the so called Fakesters by just banning accounts left and right, which is arguably what caused people to flee that site in favor of MySpace. Following that lead, Twitter had been applauded for taking a more permissive approach to free speech / parody and in theory this step allowed them to keep doing that. You might think this was a good move and had it been rolled out as promised it might have been, but rather than being used to, you know, actually verify an account was who it was claiming to be, Twitter decided to monetize the feature. I wrote about this back in 2015 as one of the big problems on the site at the time, but essentially they gave verifications away to famous people to make it desirable and they would use a few verifications as a lure to companies to get them to buy ads. They also began threatening to remove verification for accounts they deemed to be in violation of their TOS. This had a terrible impact on the public perception of “verified” and instead of seeing it as “this account is who is who it is claiming to be” people began to see it as a kind of endorsement. It took many years of very loud objection to this by many people before eventually Twitter came around and stopped using it as a prize and published a clear set of criteria which allowed non-celebrities or paying customers to get the prized blue checkmark. Anyone can now apply to be verified and Twitter’s official position is that it is not an endorsement but rather confirms they have seen evidence that proves the account is or represents who it claims to. This is a good thing.

Conversely Instagram is still very much doing the “We verify accounts on a case by case basis, but we won’t tell you what our criteria is” thing which leads to incredibly high profile people unable to get verified and regular scams taking place on the app. I’ll skip the breakdown about how every other site handles this and get right to the obvious point – Verified should mean exactly that. The account has been verified. It is who it claims to be. That the site has seen enough evidence to confirm identity. End of story. It should not be seen as an endorsement, or used in an editorial manor. It shouldn’t be weaponized. And to be very clear, when a site decides to have a vague policy that is enforced on a case by case basis, that’s what they are doing – and it directly harms the community. Ironically, almost every site doing this claims to be doing it to protect their users. I know because I’ve talked with most of them. They care, but they are misdirected.

Which brings us back to OpenSea. I’ve written about different issues on OpenSea many times this year but if you are new to this let me quickly summarize that they are the absolute largest NFT marketplace by user base and have raised more venture capitol than any of the other competing site. Unfortunately from an outside view, teams appear to have a fraction of the resources they need to get anything done. I will say that this has taken a significant step in the right direction with the addition of Nate Chastain who I mentioned above. Prior to his hiring the only way I could get any comment or issue addressed was to DM with one of several anonymous team members on Twitter who would promise me they would try to get the person “in charge” to do something and then cross my fingers and hope that it would work out. It did about 50% of the time. Now with Nate I can tweet publicly with a real person and get a comment or an issue addressed 100% of the time. That’s a wonderful step forward, but still incredibly problematic. OpenSea recently raised $100 Million on a $1.5 Billion valuation–that the Head of Product has to personally handle support requests sent to him on his personal Twitter is fucking ridiculous. I appreciate the personal touch of course, but come on–It’s not fair to him, and it’s not fair to the community. With that said, I truly believe Nate is trying to do the right thing, but I also think OpenSea’s policies are misdirected. And while misdirected policies on social media sites can lead to difficult social situations, misdirected policies on market places also end up costing people real money.

So what are those policies? Thats a good question and it seems to be somewhat fluid. To begin with, OpenSea has 2 different and separate kinds of verification. Account level – are you who you say you are, and Collection level – Is this a legitimate project or not? (To sell an NFT on OpenSea you have to make a Collection for it to live in). I’m verified on Twitter, and after connecting my OpenSea account to my Twitter account and tweeting out something OpenSea was able to confirm I was who I said I was and verified my account there as well. You might think that if OpenSea is confident enough in what they know about who I am that they can verify my account that they would use that information to automatically verify my collections. That would make sense, but that is not the case. Collections are verified separately and somewhat arbitrarily. Earlier this year only verified collections turned up in search results. Documents on OpenSea’s site recommended after you create your collection you tweet the link to them or post it in their discord and they would then verify it. That got overwhelming quickly and the backlog became insane, so they changed to allow all collections in the search results, but buying from an unverified collection gives you a popup saying that OpenSea hasn’t had a chance to verify it yet. But due to the sheer numbers of listings being added every day you are much more likely to see that popup than not, so it’s become easily ignorable noise – just enough for OpenSea to waive responsibility for people who get scammed.

These verifications before seemed to be based on someone looking at the collection and seeing if it looked on the up and up and then hitting OK. But that’s changed and OpenSea is now treating Collection verification as an endorsement. Officially, you can no longer request that your collection be verified. Instead, collections are supposedly verified after hitting a completely arbitrary bar of 100Ξ in sales volume, but there are “other ways” to get verified as well. Like being a celebrity (but not a famous artist). Or asking on Twitter. (And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem that tying authenticity to a sales number disadvantages lower priced work made in smaller numbers, in favor of higher priced work made in bulk – which suggests OpenSea is more concerned with how much money they are going to make and less about protecting people from scams.) In addition to having a verified account, other things that will not get you a verified collection include having other verified collections (every new collection has to start from 0), having impersonators actively scamming people by pretending to be you, or making what they consider to be an homage or derivative art. That last one is most troubling because all art is derivative, so this means someone has to make call about what they think is too derivative which means individual people are projecting their personal biases onto a system that is designed to protect people. This means if you like a project that individual employees at OpenSea don’t, they are less concerned with protecting you. I’m sure OpenSea doesn’t see it that way because they don’t want to think that their policies are hurting people, but thats exactly what is going on.

I’ve written before about the issues OpenSea has been dealing with in relation to struggles over IP, so their concern is fair, but all the more reason why they shouldn’t be getting involved with editorial decisions and stick to separating scams from legitimate projects. Let’s look at some cats as an example. Stoner Cats is a high profile celebrity backed project that received a mixed reception from the NFT community, including a competing parody project conceived and launched in 24 hours called Blazed Cats. Both projects are algorithmically generated collections of 10,000 images. On the Blazed Cats website they make many references to Stoner Cats, proudly declare their project as reactionary one-upsmanship and repeatedly refer to themselves as a parody. OpenSea did not rule this as an homage and verified it. Conversely, PunkCats is a collection of original hand made illustrations with the concept of being the matching pet to arguably the most famous NFT project ever, CryptoPunks. In fact several CryptoPunk owners reached out to the artist while they were being drawn and commissioned a cat to match their punk. OpenSea initially declined to verify the collection because it hadn’t hit the 100Ξ bar, but once it did (currently over 300Ξ in volume) they decided it was not transformative enough, too much of an homage and refused to verify it. In this case it’s clear that the decisions are both arbitrary and also reflective of individual biases. According to OpenSea, a pixel human head and neck and a full body of a cat are the same thing, but two full body cartoon cats standing on their hind legs and holding (or not holding) similar accessories in the same way are totally different.

Makes you wonder what other art OpenSea would deem too much of an homage and not worthy of verification?

The truth is I could nit-pick this for hours. I have hundreds of screenshots and links to support my argument that OpenSea is not uniformly applying their policy across all projects and instead making personal judgement calls on a case by case basis. Which is literally the only thing they can do to enforce editorial policies like that. This is unscalable and it’s not what they should be doing anyway. OpenSea should not be making judgement calls about IP, or deciding what is or isn’t a homage or is or isn’t derivative enough. That’s not their business and they shouldn’t be getting mixed up in it. They are a market place and their responsibility is to their customers who they should be trying to protect by verifying what is a legitimate project run by a known individual or company and sussing out the frauds and scammers. By creating these arbitrary rules and moving goal posts around, they are creating the absolute perfect environment for scammers to prey on their customers, and they are only able to react after the fact – after people have been scammed and money has been lost.

Make no mistake: The way OpenSea currently looks at verification makes it very easy for people to be scammed, and every single day they continue in that direction they are allowing those scams to persist, and people to be harmed because of it.

I’ve said this on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: OpenSea needs to immediately drop the 100Ξ barrier to verification and make collection verification a subset of account verification. Once someone meets the reasonable requirements for account verification, any collection they create should be automatically verified. This way new collections by known creators are verified the first second they make something available, and there’s no window for scammer to sneak in. Funds from the first 24 hours of sales on unverified accounts or collections should be held in escrow so that if a scam is detected people can get their money back. Anyone caught intentionally posting fraudulent work or scamming people should have their entire account banned. OpenSea should defer all IP claims to existing copyright law, they should let people files notices and appeals and respond accordingly, but they should not be responding to “requests” from people who may or may not have legal grounds to make those requests, nor be making judgement calls on their own. They should recognize that as an art market, all art is derivative and they should immediately stop acting like they are in a position to decide who’s ideas are original enough. They should also use some of those massive piles of cash they have to hire a proper staff to manage all this so that individual employees are not expected to deal with issues brought to them over Twitter.

Apes, Punks & Phunks: Adventures from the frontlines of the IP wars

Gather ’round kids, exciting and fascinating drama is afoot and you know you want to hear all about it. Assuming you are excited and fascinated by IP shenanigans, because really who isn’t right? While I want to just charge right into the theft and murder, oh yes dear reader there is theft and murder, I worry that I sometimes go to fast and leave people behind. So I’m just going to assume that you understand that copyright means the copyright holder (often the creator, but not always) retains all rights and no one else can do anything, and conversely public domain means no one retains any rights and anyone can do anything. Between those two extremes there’s a million miles of grey area which has been somewhat navigated by Creative Commons, who create copyright licenses that intentionally wave some rights while retaining others with the intention of fostering creativity and sharing. For example this blog post is published under a CC-BY license which means while I retain copyright or my words, I also allow anyone to use my words, expand on them or make derivative works and even sell that so long as they credit me as the original creator. Which is super totally cool. I’ve stumbled across my work in countless places, and people have ended up here because they saw something I wrote somewhere else and followed the breadcrumbs. Thanks Creative Commons!

OK, getting back to the juicy stuff. A very popular thing happening in the NFT space right now is for people selling large collectors of Avatars to grant commercial and derivative rights to anyone who buys those NFTs. I haven’t seen any using Creative Commons, because that would be easy and straight forward. Instead most often they have some hacky chopped together Terms of Service filled with rando copypasta from various other projects and it’s confusing AF. The gist being if you buy an NFT you can use it in other work and sell that work without issue. Essentially they are transferring the IP rights to the buyer, which has created a vibrant market for derivative works, and is helping fuel the overall growth of not just individual projects but also the entire NFT community and ecosystem. So this is a good thing.

But as we know, nothing is ever as straight forward as it seems. And this is where shit starts getting messy.

For a few months everyone was trucking along peacefully making derivative work of NFTs they bought that allowed such a thing, and everyone was happy and there were flowers and rolling fields of green grass and sunshine and then Taylor.wtf burned an ape. Taylor is an artist/musician/producer and also a shit disturbing agent of chaos. He’s a friend of mine and I say that as a high compliment and would encourage everyone reading this to aspire to such a description. In NFT parlance, “burning” something is to intentionally send it to a wallet that no one has access to—essentially removing it from circulation. When I say “an ape” I mean one of the Bored Ape NFTs made by the Bored Ape Yacht Club (arguably the hottest and fastest growing avatar collection at the moment). So he burned an ape and then put a video art project of that Bored Ape being set on fire up for auction on OpenSea (the largest NFT marketplace). At first people were just shocked that he’d burnt an ape (as they were trading for about $4k each at the time – though burning money is a long established form of conceptual art perhaps most famously employed by The KLF who literally burned a million GBP) but it got much more interesting when BAYC filed a DMCA notice and had the fire video taken down.

Still from Taylor.wtf’s Burning Ape

Their position was that as Taylor had burned the Ape before releasing the video, he was no longer the owner and thus no longer had rights to use the work. However! As they were not the owner anymore either it’s questionable about why they felt the need to intervene, which they clarified by saying they were doing so with respect to the current owner – and would do the same for any ape transferred from one party to another if the previous owner kept using it. However however! Since the ape was burned, by all understanding it has no owner, so whose rights were BYAC defending? No one came forward claiming to own that wallet and protesting, and no one could prove that the wallet wasn’t actually Taylors. Or, anyone else who might claim to own it. Point being, no one said “I own this thing and I object to how it’s being used by someone else.” Once this came to light it seems BYAC realized this was a huge steaming pile of shit they’d walked into, and cautiously backed out of it. The video was re-listed elsewhere without protest and remains online.

CryptoPunks

While Bored Apes are one of the hottest new Avatar projects, the grand daddy of them all is unquestionably Crypto Punks. It would just be bad form not to include them in this drama fest, luckily they are a magnet for it all. Let’s start with CryptoPunk #3100 – currently the highest selling Punk which sold earlier this year for 4,200 ETH or effectively just shy of $9 Million. There’s been much discussion about how an NFT is the token, and the image attached is just representative of the token – that is when you buy an NFT you aren’t buying that image so much as the digital token on the blockchain which is represented by that image. The conceptual artist Ryder Ripps decided to play with this idea by pointing out that the image representing the original CryptoPunks was a 24×24 pixel graphic entirely generated by a script. Ryder recreated #3100 by hand in 4000×4000 and minted it on several platforms. Same image on each, but each being a different token, different contract, and thus a different NFT. An interesting experiment that got much more interesting when Foundation was served with a DMCA notice by Larva Labs, the company who made CryptoPunks, and were forced to delist Ryder’s NFT. One might think “serves them right, that was obviously plagiarism” and many did in fact think that, but it seems many people don’t know about fair use and parody and this is where it got much more interesting- Ryder appealed the take down. You see, under the DMCA, a copyright holder can issue a take down notice to any service if they feel their IP is being infringed upon and the site has to immediately remove the infringing work, however if creator of the work that was taken down believes the action was erroneous, they can file an appeal and this puts the onus back on the company or person who filed the DMCA notice originally – and they now have 10 days to file a lawsuit supporting their claims – if they don’t they then are essentially conceding that they don’t have the legal position to support their initial action and the site in question is free to reinstate whatever was taken down. And again, because US Copyright law does specifically call out fair use and parody, Larva Labs backed down and Foundation has just reinstated Ryder’s Punks.

Rider Ripp’s CryptoPunk #3100

This is a pretty decisive victory and will likely be taken into account going forward, however there’s another very related situation at play that was going on before all this went down and came to a head before this was resolved. Enter the CryptoPhunks. Who make it very clear in their manifesto that this project is social commentary and a parody aimed at “flipping off the punks.” While Ryder essentially just scaled up the image of a punk in his work, the Phunks actually changed the art. Is it a significant change? That’s up for interpretation but when you are talking about a source image that is only 576 pixels to begin with, how much of a change is needed for it to be significant? Most notably, while all 10,000 CryptoPunks are facing right, the CryptoPhunks are facing left. While this was criticized as a “low effort rip off” by more than a handful of people – it’s an obvious enough difference to be immediately identifiable something that could not be said about Ryder’s Punks. But wait, there’s more! In addition to the flip, CryptoPhunks added a 1 pixel wide outline to the box the Phunk sits in, which is an unquestionable artistic change. Again, we’re talking about a 24×24 pixel image, so very subtle changes are actually pretty significant. You might think these changes made things easier for them, but you’d be wrong. The first take down of the Phunks happened almost as soon as they launched in what seemed to be an editorial decision on the part of OpenSea where they were listed. To their credit OpenSea has been working to take down fake accounts selling fraudulent NFTs and it’s unclear if they understood that CryptoPhunks was a stand alone project and not something misrepresenting itself as official, and this take down appears to be have preemptive and hasty.

CryptoPhunks

After much community uproar OpenSea reinstated the Phunks account and heated discussion started happening on Twitter which involved many CryptoPunk owners disparaging the Phunks and calling the project a “low effort rip off” or “blatant plagiarism.” Ironically, those are “low effort” criticisms that fall apart as soon as you read the project’s mission statement, because while it might not be something that is creatively appealing to everyone, it definitely has some thought and intention behind it. As noted earlier many people in this space don’t seem to understand how copyright or IP works or is applied, or the importance parody and fair use have in culture which can be seen in the reaction to the Phunks from the “NFT community” (if there is such a thing) at large. But things did not end there, OpenSea pushed back with several statements from employees on Twitter which imply they see derivative projects as somehow lesser than original works, and the longer term viability of the Phunks future remained in question. This didn’t slow sales at all, and it’s entirely possible that the vocal outrage from CryptoPunk owners actually served as marketing for the Phunks. Which, again, was kind of the whole point. The Phunks laid a trap and the Punks walked right into it. It kind of reminds me of a time when a music critic friend of mine got punched in the face by the guitarist of a band he’d recently accused of being brainless thugs. Anyway, having freshly filed their DMCA takedown against Rider Ripps, Larva Labs repeated the effort and sent a take down notice to OpenSea, who promptly removed the Phunks from their site. Again.

It’s unclear if the Phunks team submitted an appeal like Ryder did, though it seems pretty clear if they did Larva Labs would have to back down here as well. Guess we’ll see in a few days as that clock runs out. At the moment the collection is still not viewable on OpenSea, but they are live and for sale on Rarible and Cargo. And in case you’ve assumed that these are just cheap knock offs, let me assure you they are selling for very real numbers to very serious collectors who recognize the cultural significance of what’s playing out here. Longtime readers will know that the intersection of parody and copyright is of personal interest to me and I’ve have my own run ins with companies trying to shut down protected speech. In the 20 some years since that showdown with the Associated Press I’ve watched similar situations play out time and time again, and it’s amazing how poorly understood the law around this subject is – and not just from the companies involved. I saw a number of people in the CryptoPhunks community criticizing OpenSea for taking down the CryptyPhunks collection after they received the DMCA notice from Larva Labs. They were accused of “old thinking” and “clinging to stupid Web 2.0 ideas” which is honestly as ignorant as accusing the Phunks of being “low effort rep offs.” While it’s fairly well understood that the DMCA is a bad and broken law– it is still a law and companies operating within the US still have to abide by it regardless of how any individuals personally feel about it. But as Ryder illustrated, it can be fought and that’s what the Phunks should be doing. The idea of a company with no physical presence bound by no jurisdictional laws is certainly interesting, but it’s not reality and probably not a great idea if you dig deep enough into it. But these situations are most likely the beginning and not the end, as more NFT projects grant certain rights and others don’t, and companies and marketplaces try to figure out how to navigate through this mess I expect more showdowns in the future. In the end, this is all a result of creativity and challenging norms and expectations, pushing boundaries and seeing just what new things we can build on top of old structures before they crumble. I’m excited to watch it play out, as a spectator and participant.

On Selling Street Photography

(excerpted from a recent newsletter)
Selling photography is a weird thing. Well, selling street photography is a weird thing. Well, that’s a subset of being an artist and trying to sell art being a weird thing. For most of my life I’ve maintained an emotionally safe distance from anything I was doing for money. Even things I cared deeply and passionately about, it was still a project that many people were working on or someone else’s art or music that I was trying to help sell. So something selling or not, or getting funding or not, or seeing widespread adoption or not was a reflection of a collective effort and not of me personally. I’m sure at some base level thats why I spent so much of my life denying that I was an artist because then I would have to take ownership and responsibility for that art. Even when everyone around me was saying “why are you being such an idiot, of course you are an artist” and I would say “No I’m not, I’m just a guy who makes some stuff which sometimes hangs on walls in art galleries and is bought by art collectors” because that gave me distance.

As most of you know a while back I gave up on that facade and admitted that fine, ok, I am an artist. I think many people on this list have actually bought some of my photos and I’m eternally grateful for that, as it’s those kinds of “voting with your dollars” which is encouraging and helpful in realizing “ok, maybe this thing that means a lot to me also holds value to others.” Anyway, that’s a tangent. I was talking about street photography. Back when I used to have an art gallery the whispered secret was that photography wasn’t “real art.” I didn’t feel that way and I think the number of photographers I showed demonstrates that, but when talking to other gallerists and even some collectors it would often get to “well anyone could do that” which is such utter bullshit, but it’s interesting to pick apart why people feel that way. There’s a skill in painting that everyone understands – can you paint a photorealistic portrait? No? But someone else can? Ah, ok that’s a skill. But get into something more abstract or street feeling and you start getting that “anyone could do this” argument from detractors. Talk to someone who “doesn’t get art” about Pollock or Basquiat and inevitably they will go there. The difference between could do it and did do it is hard for some people to understand. It gets worse with photography because everyone has a camera, and while most can understand that just because they own a paintbrush doesn’t make them a painter that same courtesy isn’t often extended to photographers. Especially with mobile phones and filters, the skill of photography is easily written off as “right place, right time” luck and not attributed to skill as it should be.

But I’m rambling again. Selling photography. When I had an art gallery and would show photographers, often people would come in and be taken aback and ask “oh, is this a photogallery?” which they differentiated from an art gallery. Because they didn’t see photography as art, they saw it as fantasy. Which is really one of the major selling points for photography. The best selling photography is landscape work, followed by celebrity portraiture and maybe a bit of historical documentary work. This is all driven by daydreams and fantasy. Which are good things, I’m not knocking them at all. If you think of buying art because you are going to hang it on your wall and look at it all the time, then you think about how it’s going to make you feel. Landscape work just begs for daydreams. You can stare at a good landscape photo and marvel at the beauty of the place and think about what it smells like or feels like to be there, you can hope to see it one day with your own eyes. It’s a launchpad for a million dreams. Especially if your normal life is boring or stressful, having an incredible landscape photo to look at is endless mental escapes. Because it’s real. Someone stood there and took the photo, so conceivably you could go there too. You can’t get that with a painting, where just by the very nature of the thing you are getting the artist’s interpretation. But a photograph, that’s real! Celebrity work is similar in that it’s an instant reminder of someone you might look up to, or aspire to be like. A really good portrait conveys some intimacy and you can feel like you know that person by looking at it better than you would just seeing them playing some character in a movie or playing in the big game. You can look into their eyes and and imagine what they are thinking about, or imagine they are looking back at you. Historical work reminds you of a time and place that isn’t there anymore, maybe nostalgia or fantasy about “the good old days” or even just a chance to marvel at how far we’ve come since then. These are all elements that drive people to purchase photography.

Street photography doesn’t benefit from any of that. It’s often gritty. The feelings and emotions it evokes are not things most people want to be reminded of. The subjects are most likely strangers, and if you can look into their eyes and imagine what they are thinking it’s frequently not something you want to experience first hand. It’s voyeurism, letting the viewer experience a reality that is foriegn from them – usually for a reason. It lets them see and feel what another part of the world lives. This can be entertaining but also gripping. This is why street photography books do well, because you can look at it and then put it away where you don’t have to look at it. There’s a beautiful ugliness in it. Not all the time, but often. I was talking about this on twitter and I noted that even with my own work, the work without people sells far better than the work with people – though I get many more comments about the work with people. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

I think NFTs actually have the potential to change that up a bit because they sit somewhere between something on your wall and a book you can put away. You can make a virtual gallery to see things big and on the wall, but you can also just leave them tucked away in your wallet and support artists you like without thinking about where to put the art in your home. This is going to continue to evolve especially as photography is only just now starting to find a following in the NFT collector world, but we’ll see. I still have some 1 of 1 editions listed on FoundationKnown Origin and MakersPlace and I also just made a lower priced edition of 20 on Rarible, and still have a very few of the first edition I minted back at the beginning of the year.

Wallets + Exchanges

I set up my first cryptocurrency wallet about a decade ago. I’ve done it a dozen times or more since then and it’s still confusing. Since about half of those wallet setups have happened in the last 6 months and the number of people asking me how to do it is growing every day I thought it would be helpful to document and explain some of what I’ve learned along the way and hopefully help smooth out some of the learning curve speed bumps. I’ll be talking about Ethereum Wallets and Mac/iOS apps though much of what I’m saying should apply elsewhere too as a lot of it is browser based as well.

The first and most important thing to understand is that Wallets and Exchanges do different things. Though since some exchanges offer wallet services and some wallets now have built in exchange options it gets messy quick. So while there is overlap, I try to think of (and encourage others to think of) them as separate things. Hopefully the following will de-mess-ify things a bit.

Public/Private key: This is what everything is built on when we’re talking about cryptography and cryptocurrency. Very simply: Your public key is your address that you give people so they can send things to you, your private key is the secret thing you keep which allows you to receive what is sent to you. If you loose your private key, you loose access to your assets.

Wallet: As the name suggests a wallet holds your assets, however this gets immediately confusing as your assets are not actually inside your wallet, rather your wallet keeps your private keys so that you can access your assets which are on the blockchain. Remember that with public ledgers/blockchains the ongoing updates just document who holds/owns what but there’s no asset actually traveling to you (like an email) rather the assets are being allocated to different wallets all the time on the blockchain, and if you have the private key to a wallet with an asset then you can choose what to do with that asset – such as send it somewhere else. This is why if someone gets ahold of your private keys they can steal everything from you, and why a wallet that protects your private keys is so important.

Wallets are either custodial or non-custodial, which means either you hold your own private keys or a company holds them for you. This is where the the saying “Not your keys, not your coins” comes into play as technically any assets you have in a custodial wallet could be seized, frozen, stolen, lost, etc and there’s nothing you could do about it, and there’s also risk of policy change at any given moment so the operator of the custodial wallet could decide that you have a 10 day waiting period on any withdraws or impost a limit on how much you can move around per day and since you don’t have your own keys you are 100% at the mercy of the people running that software. As a benefit though if you don’t have your own keys you cant lose or forget them. With a non-custodial wallet you manage your own keys and make your own decisions. Of course if you are sloppy with your security and someone else gets ahold of your keys you can still lose everything, but for a lot of people the risk of losing things because they made a mistake themselves is much easier to accept than the risk of losing everything because of legal or business decisions happening outside of their control.

Metamask is the most popular non-custodial wallet largely because it’s just a browser plugin so it’s really simple to set up and use. If the idea of having a wallet in your browser doesn’t sit right with you, Rainbow is my favorite non-custodial iOS software wallet (which will require you to do some pairing / QR Code scanning to sync with websites). If you want a totally separate air gapped hardware wallet then the best bet is really to buy a Ledger. Though if you are just getting started that might be overkill depending on how much crypto you plan to buy and/or hold. All three of these options have partnerships with exchanges that allow you to buy crypto assets from inside the wallet. Here’s where it gets a little confusing, Coinbase Wallet is also a non-custodial iOS software wallet, which is a different thing than Coinbase which is an exchange that offers a custodial wallet service, similar to Binance or Blockfi or Crypto.com. Coinbase and Coinbase Wallet are owned by the same company and can be set up to work together, but can also be used separately or independently.

Exchange: The primary function of an exchange is, again as the name suggests, to exchange your crypto assets for other crypto assets. Centralized exchanges require you to move assets from your own wallet to theirs first (or buy them directly through their system) while de-centralized exchanges (also called a DEX) will just connect to your own existing wallet to authorize the transaction on the fly.

Coinbase, which I already mentioned, is an example of a centralized exchange. To use Coinbase you need an account, and you likely have to go through some KYC (Know Your Customer) verifications like uploading your ID and proving you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live. You’ll need to either buy crypto assets through Coinbase (and depending on your level of verification you may only be able to buy a small amount each day) or send assets you already have to Coinbase before you can do any kind of exchanges on Coinbase. Uniswap is an example of a DEX. To use Uniswap you just connect your wallet and make your transaction – Uniswap doesn’t need to know anything about you. Coinbase only lets you exchange some assets and offers some level of protection, while Uniswap lets you exchange anything and you are on your own. There are different reasons why either option might be better for you for any given situation but that’s a different article and for the moment let’s just recognize that most people will likely end up using both options at different times for different things.

That was a lot, I know. But you now understand this better than probably 99% of the population.

There’s a few more things. While Metamask is fast and easy, you really don’t want it to be your only wallet. You’ll want to keep enough in it for transactions and impulse buys, but for anything more significant it’s probably better to put it somewhere else. That’s why I like the Metamask + Rainbow combo (or + Ledger if you are getting serious). But here’s some things to note:

When starting any of these apps you will be given the choice to add a wallet or create a wallet. If you have a wallet already and want to use the same one then you will choose “add” and then you’ll need to put in your seed phrase. Wait, what’s a seed phrase? When you create a wallet you will be given a seed phrase (a list of 12-24 words). THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT. Write it down. Protect it. That seed phrase will allow you to rebuild your wallet should you lose access to it. It will also allow anyone else to rebuild your wallet if they are trying to hack you – so don’t put it anywhere someone else might get it. Don’t put it online, don’t put it in a shared note app, don’t put it on a post it note on your monitor. Lock it away somewhere safe. Treat it like a secret password to all of your money, because that’s what it is.

Rainbow will let you add or create several wallets which you can switch between easily for different purposes. Metamask will only give you one wallet, though it will allow you to create different “accounts” which are subsets of the one main wallet. That’s super confusing, I know. Let me draw you a picture:

Don’t ask me why it’s like this, companies just do weird shit ok?

It’s likely that you’ll want a wallet that is accessible from Metamask AND Rainbow, so create it first with Metamask and then using the seed phrase add that to Rainbow. If you do that in the other direction, Rainbow first and then add to Metamask it will replace anything you previously had in Metamask. Trust me here, it’ll save you a bunch of headaches later. Metamask first, then add it to Rainbow. I know more than one person who accidentally wiped their Metamask wallet because they tried to add another wallet later and couldn’t remember where they wrote down their Metamask seed phrase. Just to keep adding more layers of confusion there’s also a Metamask iOS app which you can use to import your Metamask wallet from you browser and that will allow you to authorize various websites from it’s built in mobile browser as well. That might be too much for right now, but just know it’s possible.

That was also a lot, I know. And there’s so much more, but that’s enough to get you going and allow you to start using Web3 websites which use a wallet instead of a login for your account management. Also, having a wallet does not automatically mean having crypto, so you’ll still have to get some, but that’s a whole other thing that I’m not going to walk you through, though Coinbase is probably the thing most people use at least at first. So if you are just starting, you can start there.