From the early days of screen names and /nick to usernames and avatars and anons and on and on we’ve continually struggled with (or perhaps played with, depending on who you ask) how best to represent ourselves online. Hell, how we represent ourselves offline is already difficult enough and forever falls back on who you know, who will vouch for you, and your reputation – all of which is easily manipulated. That’s 1000x more complicated online where in most cases you don’t actually have any idea who you are interacting with. The dismissive cliche leading up to the dot com boom was that anyone you spoke to online was really some overweight, socially inept dude still living in his parents basement, especially if they were representing themselves as an attractive woman. This stereotype was largely driven by people who weren’t online and saw no reason to get online and just wanted to poo-poo anyone else who did. But then “being online” got profitable and that made all these other people get interested and suddenly there was a rush and people who had been mocking anyone spending time on the internet needed a way to be on the internet but make it clear they weren’t like those other people on the internet. Proving who you are, while also allowing you to be who you want, has been a struggle ever since.
One of the things that I and others have been thinking and talking about is how Web3 has to some extent freed us from the constraints of the avatar and given us some further flexibility as to how we manage our online identities. Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a lot of words about avatars and identities, largely focusing on community membership and how the ability to own an NFT which becomes your access to and identity within a community, and being able to have wallets with multiple NFTs that you can switch between depending on context was both scary and exciting.
One thing I observed was that being able to prove you owned an NFT which you were using as your avatar allowed for some authenticity and reliability, and while of course anyone else could right-click-save that image and use it themselves (and we’ve seen a lot of scams emerge doing just that) the increasing ability to gate some interactions or prove ownership as verification was quite the revolution. I can use my CryptoPunk while interacting in the private CryptoPunk discord and my Bored Ape while interacting in the private Bored Ape discord and in both cases everyone knows it’s me, just kind of wearing a different outfit to fit the occasion. Of course, we’ve also seen that people gravitate to one of their avatars more than others and begin to use that across platforms and that avatar starts being associated with them. This is super interesting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is what happens when an NFT avatar is deeply associated with someone and then they very publicly get rid of it as we saw with Punk #4156, or it becomes so much of who they are they couldn’t part with it? Are these little images now subject to typecasting? So once again a solution presents new complications.
And this is where things get super fascinating, because what if the image that becomes so associated with you and your online identity, isn’t “the real” thing (whatever that means)? Consider for a moment the case of CryptoPunk #1060 vs CryptoPhunk #1060.
I’ve written about CryptoPhunks before and won’t repeat myself here as it’s a complex discussion, but will just note for anyone unfamiliar that the imagery of the CryptoPhunks collection (released in 2021) is a 1:1 mirror image derivative of the CryptoPunks collection (released in 2017). There’s a lot more to it than that, but in this context that’s the important detail. In the case of #1060, one of these is used regularly as an avatar and the other sits dormant in an unused wallet. As an experiment I recently posted CryptoPunk #1060 on Twitter and asked people who first came to mind:
Obviously this is not scientific and is biased by who follows me and what communities they spend time in but the point I was trying to make was pretty obvious. Chopper is a developer who is very active in web3 building open source software and helping to manage several overlapping communities. Chopper does not own CryptoPunk #1060. He does own CryptoPhunk #1060 and has used it as his avatar everywhere for more than a year to the point that this image, regardless of which way it’s facing, reminds people of him. For all intents and purposes, in the world of web3, it is him. This is aided by the fact that the “original” CryptoPunk is sitting unused in a wallet that hasn’t been active in over 3 years. Is it lost forever? Maybe. Could it suddenly be reactivated and sell tomorrow? Maybe. But what does that matter, because the association between the person and the imagery is already so strong. And this is far from the only example, I could easily do the same experiment with the photographer Ruff Draft. This leads to the question how much does authenticity matter, or does the entire notion of authenticity need to be revised in this context. What happens when the derivative becomes more recognizable than the original? What if someone with ill intent bought CryptoPunk #1060 and started using it as their avatar? What if somehow Chopper came into possession of CryptoPunk #1060, would he change his identity to face the other direction? I somehow doubt it. We know that the value of a CryptoPunk can be increased because of how it’s used, so could the value of one also be decreased because it’s not used, or because of how a derivative is being used?
I don’t think the answers to these questions are as cut and dry as many of us would like to believe, and that complicates the relationship between ownership and identity, as well as how much value (financial and social) words and concepts like “original” or “official” or “authentic” hold. If actions speak louder than words, does that apply to avatars as well? Is this a new example of “use it or lose it?” Earlier this week one of the most iconic and recognizable CrytpoPunks sold for $4.5 Million dollars to an anonymous buyer. The previous owner held it for almost 2 years but didn’t use it as his avatar – will the new owner embrace and put to use this newly acquired identity they just spent so much money on, or will they neglect it and let someone else usurp them?
I’ve been a fan of and have written about CryptoPunks for a long time now. Ever since V1s resurfaced in early 2022 there’s been a lot of confusion around the collection. If that first sentence lost you, perhaps read my earlier article explaining CryptoPunk versions before going any further. As I get questions regularly from people and I see the same errors pop up, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the most common misconceptions, with citations, to help everyone better understand both the history and current events. I recognize this is somewhat of a controversial topic but I think everyone is better served by understanding the actual facts, rather than having to make decisions based on rumor. Here are the 10 things I see mixed up most often:
1. “They were never intended to be released” or “They were just a beta release” This is probably the most widespread narrative and it’s incorrect. The V1 CryptoPunks contract was published on June 9th, 2017, and released to the public. Of course it wasn’t called “V1” at the time, it was just called “CryptoPunks” and for several weeks these were the only CryptoPunks that existed. This Mashable article, published on June 16, 2017, discusses the release and notes that they are still being claimed. It’s very clear from this article that this was a real release and not just a beta test or something accidentally published. The marketplace function on the CryptoPunks contract wasn’t enabled until they were all claimed which happened on June 17th, 2017 and it was at that point the marketplace bug was discovered. The V2 contract was published on June 23, 2017. Also telling, On March 4, 2018 Larva Labs filed a visual copyright registration for “CryptoPunks” citing a publication date of June 9th, 2017 – so in 2018 LarvaLabs is on legal record stating that CryptoPunks launched on June 9th, not June 23rd and that registration remains active today.
2. What exactly is “The Bug”? What “The Bug” is: In the marketplace, eth from a sale is withdrawable by the buyer, not the seller. What “The Bug” is not: A problem with the image, a broken token, a broken “picture frame”, an invalid NFT, a non-functional NFT, a backdoor to your wallet, etc etc etc… Two points which need clarification here are 1) if you are not using the marketplace function, there is no problem with the V1 contract and no risk in holding the token; and 2) the marketplace actually functions exactly as it was written. The problem is that they way LarvaLabs wrote it and how they intended to write it, are different. This seems like nit picking but it’s an important detail LarvaLabs have expressed themselves repeatedly – this was the first solidity contract they ever wrote and they simply misunderstood how the code worked. It’s not a “ooops, we put the comma in the wrong place and broke it” kind of bug, it’s the “Well that works, it just works differently than we hoped it would work” kind of bug. If you would like to see exactly what was changed between the V1 & V2 CryptoPunks contracts this difference checker link makes it very easy to understand and see just how much additional code was added in the V2 contract.
Important Note: The marketplace in the V2 contract fixed the bug of the V1 marketplace so Ether from a sale properly goes to the seller now, and it added bidding which is massive new feature that didn’t exist in V1. That said, it also has its own “bug” in that bids can be frontrun and this happens regularly. What this means is Anne has a CryptoPunk but it’s not listed for sale. Billy makes a bid for it. Anne accepts the bid that Billy placed, but Chip was watching and using a script, instantly places a bid on Anne’s CryptoPunk that is a fraction of an eth higher than the bid Billy placed, and so Chip buys the CryptoPunk even though Anne accepted the bid placed by Billy. The marketplace can “accept bid” but it doesn’t specify which bid. This is a real problem that has caused a lot of heartbreak over the years, so it’s not like the V2 marketplace contract is somehow perfect either. This, as well as the lack of ability to place wETH bids on multiple CryptoPunks simultaneously (as is the norm on modern marketplaces) is a frequently discussed pain point.
3. Without a wrapper, V1 CryptoPunks have no image. This one is slightly less straight forward only because most of our expectations are built on how modern NFTs (ERC-721 & ERC-1155 tokens) function. CryptoPunks predate these standards and are actually a modified ERC-20 token (more closely related to wETH, $APE, Matic, etc than to BAYC or CloneX) and unlike modern NFTs that each have their own image, both the V1 & V2 CryptoPunks contracts point to one single image that contains all 10k CryptoPunks. The token references a coordinate on that image and a web front end can then visualize which CryptoPunk in that one image the token is referencing. I must stress that this is the situation with V1 & V2 CryptoPunks. They are identical in this respect. Modern marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible can display CryptoPunks because they’ve written custom code to handle the requirements of that specific contract function – something they’ve done because of the popularity of CryptoPunks. But this is also why you can’t buy or sell CryptoPunks on OpenSea or Rarible unless you first wrap them into an ERC-721 token. So again to be clear, when it comes to the image both the V1 & the V2 CryptoPunks function exactly the same, and in fact point to the exact same image.
4. What the V1 wrapper actually is/does, or “Wrapping it makes it no longer real” As I mentioned in point 3, CryptoPunks are not ERC-721 tokens so they don’t work natively in environments designed for ERC-721 tokens. If you want them to, then you need to “wrap them” inside an ERC-721. Think of it like a box you might use for shipping something to a friend in another city. The wrapper holds the original CryptoPunk token and gives the holder an ERC-721 token which works natively in those environments. At any point the holder of the ERC-721 token can “unwrap” it and receive their original CryptoPunk token back. Since “the bug” is only in the marketplace function, wrapping it resolves this and allows the CryptoPunk to be traded safely on modern marketplaces. In fact this exact thing has been done for years with V2 CryptoPunks as well to allow them to be traded on other marketplaces. Both V1 & V2 CryptoPunks need to be wrapped in order to trade them on marketplaces like OpenSea, the only technical difference is that V2 CryptoPunks can also be traded on their own built in marketplace as well. A quick search on the CryptoPunks Discord shows that selling CryptoPunks on other marketplaces has been a recurring community ask going back many years.
5. “There was community consensus to migrate away from the V1 contract” At the R.A.R.E. Digital Arts Festival in 2018 Matt Hall from LarvaLabs explicitly states on video that it was a controversial decision to make a V2 contract. Matt states that many people in the community felt that the thing they owned was in the V1 contract and the creation of a new contract would cause problems and complicate things (which it did, as evidence by the fact that I’m even writing this now in 2022), but he says they chose to ignore those concerns and “just hope for the best.” When they published the V2 contract they changed the official Marketplace to interact with the new contract rather than the old one, so the community had no actual choice but to move on with the new contract, for better or worse. A tweet by John during this time suggested they understood this forcing mechanism. This was not the last time Larva Labs would butt heads with their community and in their own statement regarding the recent sale of the CryptoPunks IP to Yuga Labs, they state “as this category of “Profile Picture Projects” (PFP) grew into an industry in itself, we found ourselves less and less suited to the operation of these projects. Our personalities and skill sets aren’t well suited to community management, public relations, and the day-to-day management” suggesting that “community consensus” was never something they were too deeply invested in.
6. Larva Labs (the artist) has disavowed V1s, and the artists intention matters most. Matt & John at Larva Labs are brilliant artists who clearly have visionary foresight and have helped shape the world of digital collectables we know today, arguably more than any other artists. You can argue, as I have, that the entire current genre of 10k pfp collections are directly inspired by CryptoPunks. Another LarvaLabs project, Autoglyphs, is unquestionably the inspiration for a whole other genre of on-chain generative art now most commonly associated with Artblocks. What Matt & John are not is consistent with their statements. For example between 2017 and 2022 they made a number of conflicting and contradictory statements about what rights CryptoPunk owners had to their individual CryptoPunks, eventually resulting in some high profile community members walking away. In the 2018 video I mentioned previously, during the Q&A session at the end someone in the audience informs Matt that his claim that CryptoPunks were the first NFT on Ethereum is inaccurate as CurioCards launched several months earlier. Matt responds saying “Argh! We didn’t know so we just said it and figured if we were wrong someone would tell us, guess I have to change the slides now – so we were the second NFT.” Thanks to blockchain historians we now know that there were at least 8 NFT projects launched on Ethereum prior to CryptoPunks, but LarvaLabs never actually changed those slides, and continued making the claim that they were the first for several years. In fact the claim is still live on the welcome page of the CryptoPunks Discord server today.
My point here is that just because an artist says something about their work doesn’t necessarily make that true, nor does that always match what they said about their work before or what they might say about it later. I don’t think anyone would say “Well LarvaLabs intended CryptoPunks to be the first NFT on Ethereum, and they are the artist and intentions matter most, so they are the first even though others did it before them.” We are still bound by the laws of time and intentions don’t supersede that. It is unquestionably clear that statements by LarvaLabs about the V1 CryptoPunks in 2022 do not align with their own statements in 2017. To be perfectly honest, their statements in 2022 don’t even match their other statements in 2022. Early in the year they were found to be selling V1 CryptoPunks from their personal accounts while concurrently stating that they were “not official” from their brand account, and then filed a DMCA against the NFTs they’d just sold penalizing the people they sold them to. They apologized for this and recognized that selling something privately while also disavowing it publicly was problematic to say the least. There are two ways to read this, either they were intentionally committing fraud or they were just artists embarrassed about early work and misstepped while using “artistic license” to massage history a little bit. I tend to believe the later. And that’s fine, an artist can not decide they don’t like early work and that they don’t want to draw attention to it, but they can’t say early work that has already been sold to the public is no longer their work because they decide they don’t like it. Imagine if Damien Hirst said he no longer liked his Spots paintings and didn’t consider them to be official anymore? Would they suddenly no longer be Hirst paintings? No, they would simply be Hirst paintings that he doesn’t like.
7. “Hemba stole 1000 CryptoPunks” or “So many V1s were stolen that LarvaLabs had to start over to rescue them” At this point we are venturing into lore and what is firmly classifiable as “scene drama” but let me try to cut through some of that with facts rather than emotional reactions. LarvaLabs themselves have stated that they don’t consider anything that happened with “the bug” to be theft, the contract worked exactly as they wrote it to work. No one hacked it or found a backdoor, it was not exploited or anything like that, it’s just that what the contract was written to do and what they had hoped it would do were different things. Hemba was the largest single claimer of CryptoPunks, legitimately claiming over 1000 CryptoPunks the same way the every other claimer did between June 9th and June 17th. He was also one of several people who discovered “the bug” on June 17th and used the contract function to “buy” a number of CryptoPunks and then withdraw the ETH they’d just used to buy them. There were approximately 89 transactions where this happened and Hemba was responsible for 63 of them, so he has quite the reputation. However these transactions were reverted with the release of the V2 contract, and since then Hemba has made attempts to return the V1 CryptoPunks that he received without paying for them to the people who were selling them. To date he’s returned 40-something CryptoPunks and continues to actively try to contact people to return the rest.
8. “V1s are just a Hemba grift taking advantage of suckers” or “V1 Punks are just Phunks who…” You may be starting to see a theme here, I don’t think that’s accidental. Controversial characters attract attention, and that leads to gossip but again let’s try to separate that from the facts. Hemba did not make nor commission the wrapper currently being used to trade V1s, it was made in early 2022 by a developer called FrankNFT. Nor is it the first wrapper for V1 CryptoPunks, as there was an earlier wrapper in use in 2021 made by 0xfoobar. Importantly, Hemba has not been selling pieces from his V1 CryptoPunk collection, even when the floor briefly reached 20 eth in early 2022. The majority of V1 holders are either original CryptoPunk claimers, collectors of historical NFTs or fans of CryptoPunks. People who are passionate about a subject often talk about it (as I do here) and this has wrongly been painted as shilling by detractors and sadly that narrative persists. Another related narrative is that somehow the team behind CryptoPhunks or Not Larva Labs is also leading the V1 CryptoPunk community – this is easily debunked but for some reason persists. This assumption likely comes from the fact that V1 CryptoPunks are available to trade on the Phunks’ marketplace Not Larva Labs. This was not a collaboration rather it was a dig by NLL at LarvaLabs that simply took advantage of the blockchain functionality – anyone can make a marketplace and chose to sell any NFTs they want. Some of the people involved with NLL were also behind “ApeMarket” (now part of the Yuga trademark lawsuit) but the fact that BAYC NFTs were planned to be for sale on ApeMarket doesn’t mean BAYC/Yuga was a collaborator. Correlation does not imply causation, it’s just how decentralization works.
10. “V1s aren’t real!” This is easily the most subjective argument on the list, as it ultimately depends on what any individual defines as “real” for themselves. Even LarvaLabs in the height of their criticism and backpedaling stopped short of that claim, instead stating that they were not “official.” I think that the classification of V1 as the original and V2 as the official makes a lot of sense. I also think it’s important to recognize that “official” is a title bestowed by someone else, in theory Yuga Labs could make a wrapper for V2s so that they function natively in ERC-721 ecosystems and then declare that the wrapped version is now the official collection. Not that they would, but the point there is no decisions by companies or investors can change the “original” status, but “official” is a bit more flexible.
So what is “real”? For me, the V1 “CryptoPunks” contract was written by LarvaLabs, published to the Ethereum Blockchain, the tokens were distributed to the public, and they spoke to the press about it. That’s about as real as it possibly gets. One might even argue that’s more “real” than an NFT minted on a platform’s shared smart contract, or something like XCOPY’s Grifters which were minted through Async for example. As a collector who understands the importance of provenance, I always prefer that an artist mints their work from their own wallet (or one they control). In the art world there are two relevant examples that come to mind: The Warhol Foundation and Banksy’s Pest Control. Both organizations are tasked with validating works by the artists. Warhol and Banksy are both incredibly prolific and have a lot of fraudulent copies floating around so having an authoritative body which can say “yes this is real, no that is fake” is really helpful. With Warhol, there is work that was made in The Factory with Warhol’s screens by Warhol’s assistants and The Warhol Foundation needs to definitively say “yes that piece is technically identical to this other piece but it’s not ‘real’.” This gets tricky because in some cases Warhol had his assistants do the work for pieces that are considered “real.” Similarly Pest Control has made it clear that Banksy will not validate any of his street work that has been removed from the street. So Banksy could put a piece up, everyone knows it’s a Banksy, but then someone cuts that part of the wall out and tries to sell it and the official line from Pest Control is that it’s no longer a real Banksy. How will that policy hold up in 100 years? I think it’s hard to believe that will be honored in the long term. If we found a painting by van Gogh in an attic with a note from him saying “this sucks, I never should have painted it, I don’t consider it my work” would the art world collectively say “throw this crap in the trash!” or would they celebrate a “lost” van Gogh that had just been discovered, regardless of what the artist personally thought about it?
Those are extreme cases to illustrate some pretty fantastic grey area, however I think the beauty of the blockchain is that these issues are negated. If Warhol minted all his work there would be no question of something was his or not. If Banksy minted all his work similarly all questions of authenticity would disappear. Luckily with LarvaLabs they did mint their work, and the blockchain evidence is there to document it.
Conclusion and my prediction… At the risk of sounding dismissive I think the argument over what is “THE CRYPTOPUNKS” kind of loses the plot. This is history and culture and all of these things play into the big picture, regardless of what value any individual places on any single element. V1, V2, Larva, Yuga – these are all fascinating chapters in a much more interesting and larger story. I’ve stated publicly long before I ever owned V1 or V2 CryptoPunks that I think these are incredibly important cultural artifacts which have had immense impact on both how we think of digital identity and the concept of collectable art online. I now own both, and I imagine an increasing number of collectors will begin to seek out “pairs” as I have. Having the original and the official feels like a complete set. There’s something like 120-ish wallets right now with the V1 & V2 of the same CryptoPunk and I suspect that number is only going to keep growing. And what about Yuga? In a recent interview on the subject a Yuga representative stated that they have “no current plans” for V1s, but they also own over 1000 of them. They know there’s a vibrant and active V1 community, which has a quietly growing overlap to the V2 community. If nothing else I believe Yuga is interested in building community, not fighting against it the way Larva did and that interest will inform their future steps. My prediction is that this is something they will eventually capitalize on, possibly by creating their own wrapper for V1s and treating them like the Mutants to the BAYC, or maybe they will make their own wrapper for V2s to address the marketplace issues. I think most people still don’t understand what V1s even are, and as more people learn the history and context I can’t see how their popularity won’t continue to grow.
The only one thing I’m 100% sure of however is that no matter what I say about any of this, someone will criticize me for it. Oh well. I hope this you found this article to be helpful and I made this handy chart to help you navigate your own explorations of the NFT space:
After talking about it and thinking about it for months, weekend our family sat down and finished up a 3,333 piece generative NFT project, with my son doing the lion’s share of the art. He’s 12 now and has spent massive chunks of his life building amazing structures in Minecraft and we all really enjoy pixel art so it was natural for him to take the visual lead. Of course Tara and I contributed some art as well. While we love PFPs, we also wanted to do something a little different and based this project on bookshelves and the stories and inspiration they can hold. There’s a lot of fun stuff hidden in this collection as well as some 1/1s that we can’t wait to see who finds.
View the collection directly on OpenSea or check the verified contract on Etherscan or follow the project twitter account for news & updates. We used Bueno (a tool built by the Robotos team) to do the generative build and smart contract work and it was super smooth. We’re so excited to roll this out and see what stories this leads to next!
The TL;DR that you need to know before I get into this is that CryptoPunks is a “digital collectable experiment” from 2017 which predates but is also credited with kicking off the whole NFT craze, in fact helping define the standard. I wrote about the different versions of them earlier this year. One could argue, and I do, that most of the biggest and most popular NFTs are derivatives in one way or another of CryptoPunks. Randomly generated from a collection of traits, there are 10K individual CryptoPunks which people often use as avatars. Separately, CryptoPhunks is a 2021 derivative project which literally copied the entire CryptoPunks collection and flipped it horizontally (in either a cash grab or protest, depending on who you talk to and at what point in the story you are referring to – I plan to write more about this in the future), creating a mirror image and kicking off a huge debate about appropriation, fair use and IP rights in this wild west of digital art.
The CryptoPunks collection is incredibly influential, having spawned hundreds/thousands of derivative projects as well as millions of nasty replies from haters on Twitter with accusations of being a “crypto bro” for anyone who dares use one as their avatar. They get referenced all the time in clickbait articles proclaiming shock and awe about how much one of them sold for recently. Point being, people know about them. As a connoisseur of culture with impeccable taste I’ve really enjoyed seeing the creativity they inspire and I’ve collected some of my favorite derivative works in this little virtual gallery if you want to look around. I’ll be expanding that in the near future but it’s still pretty interesting at the moment if you want to follow the thread of inspiration a bit.
Recently I discovered an artist called PIV who has been doing studies of CryptoPunks in relation to fine art, namely Abstract Modernism and work in that orbit. I picked up a piece called “Pablo Picasso” which references the famous 1953 photo of Picasso by André Villers.
For the less visual and more musically inclined this is like Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” or Guns N Roses covering Wings “Live And Let Die” or Redman referencing Cypress Hill with “Sawed Off Shotgun, Hand On The Pump.” It’s one artist giving a nod to another artist. If you know the reference it’s an immediate reward, if you don’t and you are curious it’s an invitation to discover work you might have missed. I love this kind of thing so fucking hard. So in this “Punkism” series PIV is very intentional with their work, limiting their palette to colors and pieces of CryptoPunks.
Putting CryptoPunks in this context of Pop Art is kind of brilliant especially when you consider the influence that Pop Art has on contemporary culture it’s hard to argue that CryptoPunks don’t have that same influence on digital art and culture right now. So it’s a fitting comparison. Obvious as it may be, you can’t talk about Pop Art without acknowledging Andy Warhol and indeed PIV did that directly but also almost in passing with an earlier work entitled “Six Marilyns.” This piece inspired a larger collaboration with Tom Lehman (former CEO of Genius.com which itself was previously Rap Genius and focused on annotating song lyrics to help people understand the references artists were making – just to bring that around even further). The pair teamed up to create a collection of “Marilyn Diptychs” which, using code most often used to create generative art like the CryptoPunks themselves, they made endless variations on a single CryptoPunk which itself looks a lot like Warhol’s Marilyn drawing a direct reference to Warhol’s diptych.
Let’s talk about Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych for a second – did you know this was not initially intended to be a diptych? Art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine were visiting and saw the two pieces displayed next to each other and suggested that they should be paired, which immediately seemed like the obvious choice. But Warhol’s Marilyn image itself is worth spending some time with. I really like Tina Rivers Ryan’s description of the work, she writes:
“Warhol’s use of the silkscreen technique further “flattens” the star’s face. By screening broad planes of unmodulated color, the artist removes the gradual shading that creates a sense of three-dimensional volume, and suspends the actress in an abstract void. Through these choices, Warhol transforms the literal flatness of the paper-thin publicity photo into an emotional “flatness,” and the actress into a kind of automaton. In this way, the painting suggests that “Marilyn Monroe,” a manufactured star with a made-up name, is merely a one-dimensional (sex) symbol—perhaps not the most appropriate object of our almost religious devotion.”
Like most of Warhol’s portraits he didn’t ask permission which occasionally caused legal issues, but also directly relates to the issues of appropriation and fair use that surround the CryptoPunks and many of their derivative works, and in fact one might say much of the entire NFT market. Warhol’s intentional repetition of his images, which would degrade over time as screens were used slightly changing each one, were meant to both desensitize people to the image, but also reclassify the icons already present in his audience’s cultural awareness. In many ways, a 10k avatar collection does much of the same things, though I’d argue that wasn’t the initial intent.
Coming back to these new Marilyn Diptychs and to play with the tech even further, if you own one of the diptych NFTs you can extract any of the individual Marilyns from the piece into its own profile picture/avatar which is now not only a derivative of Warhol but of the CryptoPunks as well. Again, I love this.
But as I said before, this is conscious. It’s intentional. It’s humans seeing one thing and taking something else and bending it to look similar to the other thing. Which is the art of it all, but it also got me thinking about the generative aspect more.
As many of you know last year I collaborated with my longtime friend, artist Shepard Fairey, on a generative NFT project called DEGENERATE/REGENERATE where we used scans and elements and details from his previous work as well as some of his better known iconography and using this kind of generative tech came up with 7400 individual pieces that are randomly generated but true to his aesthetic. They looked great, which we expected, but what we didn’t expect was that they would combine some of his work in ways he hadn’t previously considered sparking new inspiration which he’s taking back to his physical work. So you have this cycle of inspiration – human inspiring the computer, the computer then inspiring the human. The ever evolving body of work now has DNA from both going forward. It’s pretty exciting and I expect you’ll hear more directly from him about that in the future. But I’m getting off the point, which is about the ghost in the machine, so to speak.
PIV’s work is intentional. They consciously decided to make art that references other art. But CryptoPunks are not intentionally referencing other art. They are just a collection of individual traits – hair color, style, eyes, mouth, glasses, etc thrown into a generator which was told to spit out a 100×100 grid with 10,000 individual combinations (This is a little known fun fact, unlike most avatar NFT collections today which generate 10,000 individual images, CryptoPunks is just one single image with a grid of the individual punks). It was an art experiment – no one knew how it would work out or where it would lead.
This got me curious, without the human hand and intention – could I find a similar but unintentional reference? I narrowed down the traits to sort through and began hunting, eventually landing on CryptoPunk #3725 which is, to my eye, damn close to Warhol’s Marilyn. The only real discrepancy being the green eye shadow. Blue would have been better and there is a blue eye shadow trait but it doesn’t appear with the rest of these traits – the mole, the blond hair, pale skin, etc anywhere in the original 10k CryptoPunks collection. But there was something about it that still wasn’t right. It was facing the wrong way. I immediately thought of CryptoPhunk #3725.
It’s perfect right?
I get so excited thinking about the randomness that led to its creation. A script blindly and emotionlessly assembles a hodgepodge of traits – essentially a realization of the infinite monkey theorem – and makes an almost perfect match. Years later a reactionary protest act puts on the finishing touch. Neither of these two actions intend on this result, but we end up here nonetheless.
I knew it was a crazy long shot but I reached out to the owner of Phunk 3725 and made an offer. To my surprise and delight, they accepted and I am now the owner of Phunk 3725. This piece draws a direct, yet accidental, connection between these two eras of art. It’s incredibly important, and I’m psyched to be its caretaker.
Since it’s been a topic I’ve been yapping about recently a few people asked me for a quick explainer on all the Cryptopunks V1/V2 stuff so the other night I did just that in a Twitter thread but I thought I’d turn it into a blog post as well for easier future reference.
If you’ve spent 4 seconds in the NFT space or 4 seconds near the NFT space or just know some people have some crypto art or something you’ve seen Cryptopunks so I’m going to assume you know what I’m talking about when I say “punk” in this context. There’s no questioning the influence and significance of cryptopunks, there are a bazillion derivatives and they have made headlines for selling for bazillions of dollars. Hours ago in fact Punk #5822 sold for 8000Ξ which today converts to just shy of $23 Million USD. So yeah, they are pretty famous, and it’s important to understand that fame happened almost exclusively in 2021. Cryptopunks were actually released in 2017 and for most of that time very few people cared about them. Towards the end of 2020 people really started going after them and in 2021 they went nuts. But the cryptopunks everyone thinks of are actually the second version (V2).
Going back to 2017, a company called Larva Labs put Cryptopunks online as free to claim and promised the ability to trade/buy/sell them after they were all claimed. It took a few days/weeks for that to happen and once they were all claimed people started trying to trade them. But there was a problem. A bug in the code meant that if you tried to sell a punk the buyer got the punk AND the eth from the sale, leaving the seller with nothing. This is obviously a problem and as soon as it was found Larva Labs said “wait! Don’t trade them yet” and started working on a fix. Because things on the blockchain are immutable they couldn’t really “fix” the punk that were already out in the world, so they made new ones. They airdropped the new (V2) punks to everyone who had claimed the original (V1) punks and figured that was that. Potentially important detail: Larva Labs didn’t send the new punks to the the current punk holders – they sent them to the claimers. So if you claimed a V1 punk and gave it to a friend, you got the V2 punk, they didn’t.
Because the V1 punks were not really sellable everyone kind of forgot about them, and all focus was put on the V2 ones that people could easily trade. It’s worth noting that punks predate the ERC-721 NFT standard we know and love today. Cryptopunks are in fact ERC-20 tokens. In order for Cryptopunks (or any other pre-ERC-721 NFT like Mooncat Rescue) tokens to be traded on NFT marketplaces like OpenSea they need to be wrapped inside of an ERC-721 token. Wrapping is confusing but also really straight forward. It’s just putting one token inside of another. You’ve probably seen WETH which is just Wrapped ETH. Here are a bunch of V2 Cryptopunks that have been wrapped for example, and here’s LarvaLabs recognizing them. That’s apparently an important detail as some have suggested that wrapping changes or somehow negates the NFT that is being wrapped, which obviously isn’t the case. The socks your mother bought you for your birthday don’t cease to be socks when she wraps them in wrapping paper – same idea here. Anyway, for years people were happily buying and selling V2 cryptopunks both wrapped and unwrapped. But they just called them “Cryptopunks” and not “V2 Cryptopunks” because they were the only ones being traded so it was obvious what you meant. But in 2021 some people started working on a wrapper for the V1 Cryptopunks so they could be traded as well. This is where things get interesting. If you look at the incredible timeline Leonidas has assembled you’ll note that Cryptopunks is the very first 10k Avatar project on the Ethereum blockchain.
Despite claims made by lots of people, notably Larva Labs themselves, Cryptopunks are not the first NFT, but they are the first 10k avatar project. But now suddenly you have 2 Cryptopunk collections in motion. Both made by the same company, both pointing to the same art. Released within weeks of each other. Fun fact, the V1 contract calls them “cryptopunks” but the “fixed” V2 contract calls them “cryptopunksmarket” – anyway, with V1s being safely wrapped inside an ERC-721 wrapper they can now be traded, and people started trading them. Anyone who has spent any time around collectors knows that an error or a misprint or a fuckup is always super desirable – and that’s how people started to think of the V1s. They are this mostly forgotten mistake, which is appealing to some people.
And especially if you have cryptopunks because they are historically important as a lot of people claim to, then this original version of the cryptopunks released a few weeks earlier is SUPER INTERESTING! (all caps for emphasis). This is where things which are seemingly clear get really messy quickly. LarvaLabs has an unclear relationship with the IP of the Cryptopunks. I wrote a bit about this last year in relation to their reactions to some derivative projects.
From their end, LarvaLabs didn’t have a license in place before they distributed them and have taken different and conflicting positions on the matter over the years, so there’s just nothing clear to fall back on which is why it’s such a grey area. 19/ Anyway, jumping back to now – V1 and V2 Cryptopunks are now on the market. Anyone with a V1 cryptopunk who couldn’t trade it before can now safely wrap it and then sell it. Guess who had a lot of V1 Cryptopunks? LarvaLabs. In what is now largely seen as a “bad move” LarvaLabs secretly wrapped a bunch of V1 cryptopunks and sold them for a couple hundred ETH. Then went on the attack saying that V1 punks were not legitimate.
As an aside, last year I wrote about how Blockchains have the potential to become social archives, and the documented provenance for each NFT might end up telling interesting stories about the history of specific NFTs and that’s exactly what just happened here. The 39 V1 Cryptopunks that were wrapped and sold by LarvaLabs are already being referred to as the “rainforrest punks” and have become especially desirable among some collectors in what is basically the Streisand Effect for Web3.
So LarvaLabs then sent a DMCA to OpenSea as they have been known to do, and OpenSea complied by taking down the listing for the V1 punks. Now if you’ve been following along this far you know that V1 punks were made by LarvaLabs. So they kind of just DMCA’d themselves. This is akin to Nike making shoes with a white swoosh, selling them and then deciding they want the swoosh to be red and then claiming infringement against someone who bought the white swoosh Nikes trying to resell them on ebay. In other words it makes no sense. V1 punks were made and sold by LarvaLabs. They can’t decide after they are already sold that they don’t like them and then claim they aren’t real, or that the secondary market is infringement. So of course the DMCA notice was appealed.
That happened yesterday, so now LarvaLabs has 10 days to respond (or not) until we get to the next chapter in however this plays out. At the moment V1 punks are not being sold on OpenSea but are being sold on their own marketplace and on LooksRare. I don’t know if those sites received DMCAs and just ignored them or if they didn’t receive anything, doesn’t really matter though. What happens next however is going to have very serious implications no matter which way it goes. If the DMCA is upheld the secondary market for almost all NFTs is suddenly in legal question. If the DMCA is dropped LarvaLabs will have to accept that their flagship IP isn’t as locked down as they thought, and that there are now 2x as many cryptopunks out there.
Interestingly enough, V2 punk owners have been complaining about how LarvaLabs has been handling IP for quite a while now leading a number of high profile punk owners to sell theirs in protest. So in some ways V1 & V2 owners have a common foe. Though maybe foe is too strong a word. LarvaLabs did make these cool avatars which everyone loves, even if their community relations/communication has been a bit lacking since then. And a lot of V2 owners actually own V1s as well, so it’s not really 2 different audiences.
March Update: In an unexpected surprise turn of events LarvaLabs announced that they sold the IP for CryptoPunks to Yuga Labs, producers of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, who immediately announced that they would not be pursuing any of the DMCAs filed by LarvaLabs and also that they would be granting commercial rights to CryptoPunk owners. As part of the deal LarvaLabs transferred their CryptoPunks to Yuga, including some 1000 V1 punks. Almost immediately the V1 collection was reinstated on OpenSea.
But what about V3? V3 Punks is a totally unrelated project created by unrelated fans. It’s just a fun nod to the whole project distinguishing itself as different but also promoting unity and joy, which is kind of nice. Personally I’ve really enjoyed the very rich derivative world that Cryptopunks has spawned and I think the project is incredibly significant. I’ve bought pieces from a lot of the so called “shitpunk” derivative projects over the last year. I also really nerd out about the IP stuff which is obvious from last years article. I bought some V3s because I think it’s fun and I recently traded an NFT I received for free for a V1 because I think it’s a cool piece of history. I have no idea where this will go, or how that will impact values of anything. None of what I’m talking about should be seen as endorsements or speculation, but I find it super fascinating and look at it kind of like collector memorabilia. Anyway, that’s my quick catch up. We’ll see what happens next!
Let’s talk about NFT projects and “the floor.” As you likely know “the floor” is the absolute lowest price at which you can buy a piece from an artist or from a collection right this very second. This comes from the “price floor” idea in the Law of Supply and Demand where there is a minimum viable price that something must be sold for in order to cover the costs of supplying it. With digital artwork you have different production concerns so “price floor” became “floor price” and is now just called “the floor.” Let’s unpack this a bit more.
First and foremost it’s important to understand that the value of anything is decided by two people. The buyer, and the seller. Other people might have an opinion about it but that doesn’t matter. If I want to sell you something and you agree to the price, it irrelevant if your neighbor thinks that’s a good price. With retail prices of various products a significant amount of work is done to decide what the public will accept as a reasonable price. With used, secondary, etc sales it is more hands on. Craigslists, eBay, your local farmers market, a yard sale, whatever – all of this commerce depends on just two people agreeing on a price and it’s understood that sale stands alone and it’s indicative of an entire market. This is why people walk away from a yard sale saying “I got such a good deal on this lamp!” rather than “I can’t believe the floor price on hammers is crashing.”
I should take a moment to give some context as to why I think I’m qualified to run my mouth about shit like this. Between 1999 and 2007 I co-owned and operated an art gallery called sixspace, originally in Chicago and then later in Los Angeles. We produced monthly exhibitions by many artists including some that we directly managed as well. In addition to our in-house exhibitions we also collaborated with other galleries on events and participated in global art fairs. After the gallery closed I maintained relationships with both artists and collectors which have turned into multi-decade friendships. An art collector myself, I began buying work from artists and galleries in the mid 90’s and nearing 30 years later almost every inch of my living space (and probably too much storage space) is filled with art. So while I agree that the NFT space is too new to have experts about any of it, I have a lifetime of experience buying and selling art.
Like all art, most NFTs are illiquid. This means just because someone wants to buy something doesn’t mean there is anything available at a price they are willing to pay. Similarly just because someone wants to sell something doesn’t mean there is anyone willing to pay the price they are asking. I own pieces by world famous artists and if I wanted to sell them It would take weeks/months of working with dealers and/or other collectors to find someone who wanted to buy them at a price I’d be comfortable taking. That’s illiquidity. If it was liquid I would just snap and they would be sold but that’s not how most art works.
With stocks or other investments it’s less of an issue as all shares are equal, with artwork there are more details to consider. Not the least of which is aesthetics, that is what does this piece of art actually look like? Not everyone buys or sells art for the same reason. Not every single piece created by an artist is the same. In the physical art world there are artists I love with pieces I’ve chosen not to buy because they just didn’t work for me personally. Maybe the color or the theme or something was just not to my taste, but another piece by the same artist was a direct hit. With NFTs, especially with larger collections how it looks plays into what someone is planning to do with it, as does various functions or rarities – so trying to project the demand for any one piece onto an entire body of work is a mistake.
Additionally, “the floor” lacks any context. It is ignorant of what other sales might be happening in an artists body of work (or in this case an NFT collection), it is ignorant of what personal, medical or business issues might be going on in the sellers life. The assertion that “the floor” says anything about anything other than what one person is willing to sell a piece for is absolute ignorance. And because these works are largely illiquid, if someone needs to get liquid fast – perhaps they have another opportunity they’d rather pursue or an emergency medical expense or any number of millions of reasons they might want to sell, this often means they are going to have to sell something below it’s potential value. Because again, lack of context. If a work is offered for sale for $1000 and someone buys it for $1000, all anyone knows is that it sold for $1000. Maybe the buyer would have paid $1500. Maybe the seller was willing to go down to $500. Who knows? Conversely, the very fact that a piece is available to be purchased at a “floor” price means currently, at this moment, no one is willing to pay that price being asked. If they were, it wouldn’t be for sale, it would be sold. So at any given moment “the floor” can be above or below the actual value of the work. Sometimes both at the same time.
Much more useful metrics for gauging current demand for a project are average sale price over some period of time (24h, 7d, 30d, etc which takes into account all the mid and higher end sales missed in “floor” discussions), what % of the collection is for sale and how that is changing over time (a decreasing % shows increasing demand), and how distributed the collection is. Do a few people own all of them (bad) or do lots of people own a few of them (good)? There are tools like Nansen, Icy and others which are helpful for a more comprehensive understanding.
Traders, flippers and speculators would have you believe otherwise. In any given project community would-be investors try to convince everyone listening that the “floor” is the end all be all metric for determining success or failure. The same people obsessing about “the floor” are the ones demanding roadmaps and asking about utility. Could you imagine anything more absurd than walking into an art gallery, walking up to an artist and demanding they tell you about their roadmap? Or saying “This is a lovely painting, I know exactly the place I want to hang it in my living room – but first can you tell me what the utility of this is?” Or, more egregious of all, contacting an artist and saying “I bought a piece from your gallery exhibition last year, what are you doing today to increase the value of it?”
If someone came into my gallery asking something like that I’d throw them out on the street.
An artist’s job is to make art. Making more art is the only roadmap they need. End of story. The work they made yesterday benefits and is complimented by the work they make tomorrow. Demand for work they made yesterday is increased by the work they make tomorrow. If you are worried about or trying increase the value of art work you own, hounding the artist is a waste of your time. You are distracting them from doing the one thing they are best suited to do, making art. What you can and should be doing is finding a way to increase demand for that artists work. Tell your friends, talk about why you love it, what attracted you to the work in the first place, why did you decide to buy it? As a collector, I love hearing these things from other collectors, and I’ve bought a lot of work because another collector tipped me off to something incredible. This is good for the artist, the collectors, the market and valuations.
You know what isn’t good for the artist, the collectors, the market or valuations? Crying about “the floor.” When I’m looking into a project if I see people throwing a fit about “the floor” I know that a lot of the owners bought in for the wrong reason and will be dumping soon so I would be stupid to buy in at whatever prices are offered today, rest assured they will be lower tomorrow. On the other hand when I discover something see collectors talking about how much they love the work, love the artist, love the project, I kick myself for not learning about it earlier. And because I know this, when I do see someone having a panic attack about “the floor” I know only one of two things can be true – either they are purposely trying to sabotage the valuations to drive prices down (potentially so they can buy in at a lower price) or they are an idiot. In either case, I know right away to ignore anything they say.
This all holds true in the regular art world where sales take days, weeks, sometimes months to complete. In the Digital/NFT space where sales happen in minutes, sometimes in seconds it’s even more true. Manipulation is real, and so are idiots. It’s best to avoid both. Buy art you love, by artists you respect. Do that, and you’ll never be disappointed.
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 Web – it 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 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.
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.
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.
In the past decade I've lived in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and now in Vancouver. I've run hackerspaces and blog networks, an art gallery, a design firm and a record label. I'm one of the co-founders of the environmental non-profit Safecast, a Shuttleworth Fellow and have been an Associate Professor at Keio University and a Researcher at the MIT Media Lab. I take photos and make noisy ambient music under the name Delay 5000 (D5K). For most of the last 2 years I've been working around NFTs and Web3. Read more about me here. I don't use Facebook.
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