NFT

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.

Blockchains As Social Archives

I’ve been thinking a lot about the transparency that comes along with transactions happening on-chain. Especially with art this takes some big steps to demystify a lot of what happens behind closed doors in the traditional art world, and the benefits to artists are obvious. While this doesn’t solve every problem, it’s the right steps forward for many. Shining a light onto this part of the business takes a lot of the power away from the dealers and puts it directly into the hands of the artists. It also makes the collectors who are more interested in flipping work a little easier to spot. Obviously this makes some dealers and collectors uncomfortable, but that’s how you know it’s progress. When the people who have traditionally held power start seeing the cracks in their structures, they start complaining.

Conversely, this is also really good for the collectors who are focusing less on the investment and more on the artists. The philanthropists and art lovers. Public ledgers make it much easier to know exactly what an artist wants and needs for their work without having to navigate through multiple layers of middlemen which has typically been the case. Even when dealers would put artists and collectors into direct communication, many were afraid to talk “business” out of fear of alienating a gallery or dealer who might feel threatened or cut out, and thus losing that resource for the future. Again, not every problem is addressed, but this is movement in the right direction.

But I think there’s an even more interesting aspect that hasn’t been widely discussed. We all know that the blockchain provides concrete provenance for the work, we’ll now be able to see everyone who owned the work going all the way back to the moment the artist minted it, or look ahead and find where something ended up. This is exciting because artists often lose track of where work goes once it enters the secondary market, unless the new owners are committed to being public about it, which many aren’t. We’ve all been talking about that for months, but another potentially fascinating detail is the ability to see everyone who ever tried to buy a work. The losing bids, the rejected offers – those are on chain too. At the moment we’re focusing on acquisitions and winning bids, but the story that gets us to that point is far more layered.

Imagine being able to look back in history and see everyone who ever tried to buy a Warhol, or a Basquiat, or a Haring – before they were popular. We know who ended up with the significant works, and work is being done by their foundations to fill in the blanks, but that focus is entirely aimed at knowing where those works are now. But consider how interesting it would be to be able to see the unsuccessful offers. To be able to cross reference those people and find someone who tried to buy work from all three of those artists, but didn’t. Then, being able able to see what work they did buy. Are there artists from that area that have been flying under the radar all these years? Did someone repeatedly get out bid by a specific rival? Were artists supporting each other?

I’m thinking about these on-chain transactions, documenting the bid history as a snapshot of community. Let’s talk about right now. A number of artists who are selling work in the NFT space are talking about how they are reinvesting their proceeds back into the community. They are putting some % of the crypto they make from sales back into the market by purchasing works by other artists. It’s been obvious to anyone paying attention that there is a huge (and important) overlap between people selling and buying work. Collectors are also selling their own art, artists are also collecting their friends work. That’s powerful today, but how about in the future? Think 20 years from now, being able to look back on a sale today with a bidding war between friends. This is evidence of a social network, and the power of a community. This of the forensics this will allow as well – being able to see the exact moment that an artist started gaining momentum. Or pinpoint a single collector who funded an entire group of artists with a buying spree, and how those artists in turn lifted others up with them. We’ll be able to see friend groups and shared interests – and divergences. Again, that’s pretty interesting today but it monumentally more so if a relatively unknown artist today blows up in the coming years.

Today we’re focusing on what all this changes and what is suddenly possible, but it’s all new in so many ways and I think we’ve only scratched the surface on how much this all will really change. I can’t wait.

The Crowd and Social Tokens

Longtime listeners likely know about my newsletter which is called The Crowd, or Just Another Crowd if you want to be super proper about it. I started it in 2013 when my friend John Bracken said something like “Hey Sean, is there some place you keep track of all the different and interesting things you talk about on Twitter?” There wasn’t, and until then I hadn’t considered that anyone would want such a thing because I talk about a lot of weirdly different things all the time. Until then I’d assumed that the technology people who followed me only cared about the technology stuff I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, and that the art people who followed me only cared about the art stuff that I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, and the music people who followed me only cared about the music stuff I was talking about and was annoyed by everything else, etc. You get the idea. It hadn’t occurred to me that technology people might be interested in art stuff, and music people might want to hear about tech stuff. Or that anyone simply thought “I never know what Sean is talking about, or is going to talk about, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be interesting.” Turns out a lot of people thought that. Anyway, this newsletter became a place where I could stream of consciousness ramble about things that happened to catch my attention. No set schedule or topic or length. Over the years I’ve wrestled with that myself wondering if I should make it more focused to better market it to a wider audience and I’ve always come back to “fuck that” and realizing the value of it is that it’s a group of people who are open to lots of topics, not always ones they agree with or care about but they trust me to point them in interesting directions, or provide a point of view they hadn’t considered. I myself like things like that, and I’m glad the newsletter has found people with similar thinking.

Anyway, over the last 8 years I’ve sent more than 250 emails to that list and I think subscribers would agree no topic has been off limits. Which makes it that much more amusing when someone rage quits because I said something they disagree with, or ventured into a topic they are uncomfortable with. I like that it’s kind of become its own filter in some ways.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about social tokens, and I say that knowing half the people reading this will be nodding and the other half will be WTFing. Social Tokens are kind of currency, but social rather than financial. More about reputation, membership or standing within a community, less about money as we normally think of it. While there’s lot of ways this can be used, what I’m most interested in is a token that, by holding it, grants you access to a community or represents your support of that community. Which you could buy (boring) or earn (interesting!) by engaging in actions connected to or endorsed by or in support of said community. Friends With Benefits is a good example of some of this and a perfect example is that in order to get access to the FWB Discord server you have to own a certain amount of $FWB tokens – which you can buy, earn, or be given. Inside the discord, everyone knows if you are there you are either financially supporting the community or you’ve done something that another community member found valuable. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s interesting and we’re all still learning as we go. I’m talking to other people about what they might do with their own social token and as I have a bad (or good) habit of using myself a guinea pig I started wondering about how I might use them as well. Which of course makes me wonder what my community is? And that of course leads me to my newsletter.

So with that in mind, I’ve gone ahead an issued $CROWD tokens. Or $CROWD coins if you prefer. $CROWD is a standard ERC20 token. You can read all about it and how to set your wallet up for it on this page.

I used a service called Coinvise to set this up. It was limited, but fast and easy and free. If you have an account there you can follow me. This is not the only way to do it of course. You could also write your own contract using this wizard provided by Open Zeppelin. That option is feature packed and super customizable and after many many many hours of fucking with it I couldn’t get it to validate. I’m sure someone much smarter than me would have no problem. That’s also free. There are other paid services that will do it for you that have different options at different price points, but obviously I considered all of these options and decided Coinvise was the way to go. For me. For my purposed. YMMV.

Look, I’ll be honest – I rarely have any idea why I’m doing things, but often figure that out along the way. I think this moment, right now, on the web is more exciting and has more potential than anything I’ve seen since the late 90’s. I feel like we have a chance to correct a lot of the mistakes that were made during Web 2.0 and I think social tokens will play a roll in that. What roll exactly remains to be seen. If you own some $CROWD right now that’s basically bragging rights and not much else, it means you know me and I gave you some. In the near future it might give you access to special channels on my Discord server. The NFT Marketplace OpenSea now supports Matic, so in theory I could sell some NFT’s there and only accept $CROWD as payment. There could be special websites that you can only get into if you are holding $CROWD. Before too long it could mean someone else gave you some for some other reason. The potential uses are limitless and I’m just starting to explore and experiment with it. If you’ve made it this far, that’s probably why you are here too. I think this is going to be fun, and thanks for being part of The Crowd.

For NFTs, Twitter Is The Marketplace

Last month NiftyTable published stats showing that more than half of the traffic going to the major NFT sites was coming from Twitter. At face value, that means more than half of the traffic across several sites for essentially an entire industry coming from one site… that’s insanity! But we need to consider a few things to put that into context. Traffic stats mean people are very regularly clicking links on one site and being taken to another. Not just once, but all the time. This would primarily be driven by discovery, new people finding new artists they are interested in learning more about. Now there are unquestionably lots of Discord servers filled with NFT discussions, but those are largely contained groups who follow each other on the NFT platforms as well, so there’s not a lot of discovery going on beyond the first introductions. (Some of you will note that discoverability is the number one thing I’ve been saying NFT platforms need to work on.) Facebook as well has some chatter, but again it’s not really a place people are discovering new work so much as seeing work from people they are already following or connected to.

Conversely, sites (or apps) like Clubhouse, Instagram and Twitter are more outwardly focused – that is, unless you have a private account, one of the features of these platforms is that they potentially act as a megaphone and can show you off to a much larger audience than you might have on your own. One might think that Instagram, being a primarily visual platform might be the most useful here when it comes to new artist discovery. Similarly the sheer number of Clubhouse rooms dedicated to giving new artists space to talk about or “shill” (I hate that term) their own work would suggest that a lot of discovery is happening there. That said, Instagram and Clubhouse are similar in that they don’t allow linking to other sites. You simply can’t post a clickable link. This means even if you do post (or talk about) a link someone needs to either retype it or copy and paste it into another browser tab, in which case traffic statistics would not know the origin of the that click. So I suspect it’s highly likely that traffic being driven by both Instagram and Clubhouse is being significantly underreported. To what extent it’s impossible to say, but the assumption that no real traffic is coming from those sites is probably incorrect.

But it’s not just technical luck either. No matter how that gets refactored there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of traffic is coming from Twitter, and there’s a reason for that. Clubhouse is fleeting – if you aren’t in the room you miss it. Instagram is more portfolio-ish, comment threads are silo’d and sharing work that you find and like is difficult. Instagram is also afraid of female nipples, among others things, which results in a lot of self censorship and a lot of posts being taken down for violating “community guidelines.” While not all art has nipples, some art does and if a platform is restricting what some artists can do other artists are going to be cautious about using it, even unintentionally. Twitter is non of those things. Sure it’s ephemeral to a degree, but you can easily search and find older posts and connecting different people and disparate conversations is a snap. And showing off artwork, your own or others, is really easy. And it’s also now, in that when there’s a hot topic of the moment, whatever that moment is, everyone knows they can go to Twitter and talk to people about it.

And it’s not insignificant that none of the NFT platforms really have a way to connect with people. Sure you can follow artists you like, sure they will shuffle you along to their Discord servers, and sure some are promising that they have a social component in the works, but right now onsite, there’s nothing social happening. So people go to Twitter, because that’s where all the social is happening.

I was one of the first 140 people to join Twitter in 2006 and a quick look at my archives shows that as much as I’ve loved it, I’ve been critical of the platform for a very long time now. I’ve come close to leaving several times. But I’m still there and I still use it because as annoying as it is for somethings, it’s incredibly valuable for others. Being able to engage with a community is one of those valuable things. As you can imagine after being on a site for 15 years, people ask me all the time if they should be on Twitter. These days, and for quite some time now, I most often tell them no. In general with social media I think it’s better to not do something than to do it poorly, and to do Twitter correctly you need to invest time in it. This is something most people are not willing to do. They want to create an account, post something once or twice a month and then suddenly have thousands of millions of followers. That’s simply not how it works. You have to be engaged, invested, and understand the social norms of the place. So I’ve told people that if they’ve already been on Twitter and have a community there then they should use that, but if they don’t not to bother trying to start at this point.

However.

I think my position on that has evolved in the recent weeks. It’s becoming more and more clear that the vast majority of the discovery, commentary, meta-commentary, community engagement and (barf)networking is happening on Twitter. Not just randomly, this is where people are asking for recommendations, where introductions are being made, where friendships are forming and where connections are being made. Which, oddly, is what Twitter used to be really good at before it got distracted by trying to be “where breaking news happens” or whatever crap marketing line they were using was. Now, my earlier position still holds true – if you aren’t willing or able to commit several hours a week at the very least to interacting with people on Twitter, that is not just posting, but actually engaging, then I still don’t think you should use the site. But if you have an account already which you just aren’t using, or you are willing to put in the work to build up a new one, there’s really no better place right now for interacting with other artists, collectors, and various people of similar interests. It’s not make or break, but it’s noteworthy enough and a shift in what I’ve been vocal about so I thought it should be mentioned. Hope that’s helpful.

And of course if you are on Twitter feel free to follow me, and if you are interested in NFTs of my photography you can check them out here.

NFT Catch All

As I continue to ramble on about NFTs in my usual stream of consciousness style I thought it would be helpful to collect things together in a little bit of a more easily parseable list.

My original NFT WTF article and the Part 2 follow up cover a lot of ground and I think are a really good 101 on what NFTs are and why they are interesting and important for artists.

I followed those up with a bit of a battle cry as to why artists hold all the power in this new medium.

After that I talked about what upgrades I’d like to see to the NFT Standard.

How artists should be pricing work is a very common topic and I talked about that arguing that we should be thinking crypto first.

I’ve talked about platforms a lot in this, and wrote quite a lot about the value of platforms and what questions artists should be asking before they choose one. And this is important because there are a lot of platforms, which is why I made this NFT Platform Comparison Chart – This is not meant to be comprehensive, rather regularly updated as more information becomes available about the most talked about platforms in the community. I’ve also talked a bit about why Twitter is important.

All the posts (and future ones) can be found under the NFT tag here on this site.

And finally, my own work can be found on the following platforms.

opensea.io/accounts/seanbonner
foundation.app/seanbonner
makersplace.com/seanbonner
zora.co/seanbonner
kalamint.io/user/seanbonner
ephimera.com/seanbonner
knownorigin.io/seanbonner (coming soon)

Some Thoughts on NFT Platforms & Marketplaces

Some may have gotten the idea from a previous post that I’m anti-platform. That couldn’t be further from the truth, I think platforms play an important role in this ecosystem in the same way that galleries play an important role in the traditional art world. But actively playing that role is important, and platforms that do nothing except take a portion of an artists sales are as worthless as galleries that do the same. So I wanted to spend a little time detailing a bit more what I want to see from platforms, and where they can add value as opposed to just taking it.

First and foremost let me direct you to a detailed comparison chart a few friends and I made between the top 30 or so platforms that are live right now, that can be found at NFTART.LOL. At the bottom of that page are links to several more comparisons that other people have put together some of which include platforms I didn’t. I also didn’t include at least 20 platforms that haven’t launched yet, or another 30 or so that I was promised are “in the works.” My point is that there are a lot, A LOT, of platforms and people making platform plays. In most cases each one is a little different, in one or two cases people couldn’t tell me why their idea was any different. And in most of these cases the platform plans to take a % of the sale (often between 2% and 30%), so understanding what the platforms are and aren’t doing is important before you decide to cut them in to your sales.

Now, if there was only one or two platforms and they were doing something no one else could do that would be enough, but that’s clearly not the case. And as you see from dumplingpets.com and fake.sale there’s no need to even have a platform – those aren’t white labeled solutions, they are writing the contracts themselves which I’ll talk more about later – but lets talk about where the value add with platforms is.

Discoverability. If you are an artist putting things out into the world, chances are you want people to see them and if you don’t have an audience already then posting things on a platform can help. This is the default benefit across all the platforms right now, though obviously it’s better with some than others. OpenSea for example has a massive user base, but also a fairly dysfunctional search and classification system so the chances of someone who wasn’t already looking for your art stumbling across it on OpenSea is fairly slim. Other sites like MakersPlace and Foundation don’t have a search per se, but instead have many different ways they sort and classify both artists and artworks so a collector looking for something similar to what you are doing has a better chance of finding you. Again, this varies from site to site, so be sure to spend time on the site you plan to list on. It’s helpful to go to a site without a plan, and just click around and see what you find and where it leads you – if you end up seeing work you like, that’s a good sign. If you end up scrolling through lots of work that isn’t really you thing, that’s probably the experience others are having too.

Promotion. While discoverability is largely passive, this more likely requires the conscious involvement of someone at the platform. This would be anything the platform is actively doing to promote the art or artist. Obviously it would be unrealistic for any platform to do everything for everyone, so this is largely a tiered situation where more is going to be done for one person and less for someone else. Those “more” situations are probably happening thanks to a prior agreement or arrangement. On the low end this could be retweeting announcement posts to the platform’s main twitter account. It could be something like pushing the art up to a “featured” position on the website for some period of time, or including it in a weekly emails or announcements. On the higher end, some platforms are taking an even bigger step and cultivating relationships with collectors who they are then introducing to artists via group video calls or even 1 on 1 chats. This gets into the kind of thing that artists would often hope galleries would do for them, and it demonstrates a desire to actually help out the artist (because even if the artist sells something elsewhere, if the collector they have a relationship with is interested they will likely follow), where as platforms who intentionally try to stay in between artists and collectors are probably more looking out for themselves. It should go without saying that in the long run looking out for artists is a much better plan, it should – but there are no shortage of short sighted plays being attempted in this ballpark.

Advice. This gets overlooked a lot, even by platforms themselves who often try to shuffle artists off to discord servers or clubhouse rooms hoping for “the community” to manage it which isn’t bad but also isn’t great. As people who are dealing with this market every single day, the platforms have an incredible amount of information that can be useful for artists planning next steps. And while best practices and things to avoid can be universal, thinking of artists in a one size fits all manor is also a mistake. The platforms that have people who can spend time with individual artists talking about their work, their goals, and their future plans are incredibly valuable and I personally think this is an area were most should spent a little more money on bringing in a few more people to really help develop those relationships. And relating to the previous point, developing a trusted relationship with an artist is a much better approach to retention than playing gatekeeper with collectors.

Community. I hope I didn’t give the impression in that last point that community isn’t worthwhile – far from it! Especially for early career artists, finding a supportive community can be life changing. This is one of the things I’ve been most excited about in lurking around the NFT space over the last few months, the community support, generosity and encouragement is unparalleled. And the platforms that are working to help foster that get big ups. Compare OpenSea to Foundation for example – Foundation has recurring “happy hour” clubhouse rooms where anyone can come and just hang out, the staff is super responsive to emails and messages on social media, while OpenSea just directs everyone to their Discord server which is nearing 45k members, many of who are begging for help or asking questions and there’s rarely a useful reply from anyone at OpenSea, and the team is unresponsive to emails and social media inquiries. (Granted this is just my observation and experience – I have accounts on both sites and I think there are pros and cons to what each is doing, but on this community issue it’s very clearly something Foundation has prioritized and seems to be something OpenSea has ignored.) Big picture – if you care about people who are using your site and work to find ways to help them work together with each other, that’s a good direction to aim for.

Support. Since I mentioned it, this is big. If you as an artist have a problem with something on the site, is there a way for you to get it addressed? A problem could be a technical issue, it could a conflict with another user or a case of infringement. It could be a mixup with a payment or a question about how something is being promoted or future plans. If there is a contact available to you that is responsive that is very good, if there’s just some help docs or a “community forum” that’s not so good. If I have a problem on a site and I can’t get anyone to help me, I have to seriously ask myself what value they are offering me to justify the money I’m giving them from my sales.

And that’s the crux of it really – when we are talking about justifying a % of sales these things are important. These are a very clear value add and if done correctly can provide a lot of benefit to artists using those platforms. Conversely, for the platforms that are not prioritizing these things I would suggest they should reconsider their model and perhaps move to a flat monthly subscription fee or something. I’d rather pay $5 or $10 a month and get no services than give a % of every sale I make in exchange for no services. But that’s just me.

To circle back to the issue I brought up earlier, there is no need for platforms. They are not required. But depending on what you are trying to do, they can be very useful and working together with the right platform can be mutually beneficial. But knowing what the “right” platform for you is requires thinking about what you are trying to do, and identifying which issues are important to you and then finding the platform that aligns with those needs. I write posts like this with the genuine hope that it inspires platforms to be better, to reflect on what they are doing (or not doing) and take steps to improve the weak spots. And if not, at least it gives artists better questions to ask. Platforms being better is good for everyone, so I hope this helps push things in that direction.

I’ve said this publicly a few times recently but there is an absolute flood of platforms right now and I don’t expect all the ones we are seeing today to still be standing in a year. Maybe not even in 6 months. Take a look at this post my friend Jonathan Mann wrote just 3 years ago where he compares the 4 major NFT platforms at the time, only one of those still exists. I think we’re going to see some platforms absorb/buy others, some pivot away to a more niche area they can focus on with less competition, and some simply collapse. Which ones remains be seen, but anyone who has seen these cycles play out time and time again can see the direction this is going. It’s going to be a fun ride, grab the popcorn and buckle up.