NFTs

Why Web3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Collectors + Investors

I woke up this morning to messages from several friends directing me to this tweet, asking my thoughts. Unsurprising, as anyone who knows me probably knows I’d have more than a few thoughts on something like this. I started thinking of snarky replies or gotchas that I could cleverly post and trust me dear reader, there were many that came to mind. But the more I thought about it, and read the replies from artists who seem to be bending over backwards to agree in hopes that the tweets author might check out and buy their work, I thought it would be better served with a more thoughtful response to illustrate why this is so problematic. Also, I would like credit for my display of maturity and restraint in not just posting a snarky reply. Sean from 20 years ago is wondering who the hell has hijacked his blog right now.

As an art dealer, I would refuse to sell art to someone who came in to my gallery and made a statement like this. I don’t say that hyperbolically – when I had a gallery this was a topic that came up from time to time and we were unapologetic about refusing to sell work to anyone who asked questions like “how soon will I be able to sell this and double my money?” or “do you have anything that will match my couch?” Additionally I’d actively and vocally advise artists to avoid selling work to someone with this approach because while a sale might be nice today, in the long run buyers like this will most likely make decisions later that will negatively impact the artist. And if you think of art as a long term thing, as I do, selling to a buyer like this is basically failing the marshmallow test. This is investing in the art and not in the artist. To me, the artist is always more important than the art. As an art dealer, I wanted to develop long term relationships with artists and watch them grow, and help out where I could. I wanted to look back on my life and the careers of artists I worked with and be proud of what we did together. This artist-first approach wasn’t always the best decision for the profit margin of the business but it allowed me to sleep well at night, and that 15 years after the gallery closed I still count many of the artists I worked with as close friends tells me I made the right decisions. As a dealer, I worked for the artists not the collectors. I wanted the value of the art to go up just as much as anyone else (and it has) but I deeply believe that this happens much more reliably by making decisions that are in the best interest of the artist, and selling to someone who only sees art as an investment simply isn’t.

As an artist, I would be disappointed to know that someone bought my work and didn’t want to be thanked for it. I would be sad to learn that they didn’t have any interest in supporting me or my efforts. This statement is both hurtful and dehumanizing. It says that this person sees artists as nothing but a factory to crank out things which will make them money. Amusingly this is one of the reasons I eventually got out of the technology start up world, which I wrote more about in The Interest Driven Life, but I couldn’t stomach having meetings with venture capitalists who didn’t give a shit about me or my dreams or my goals and only wanted to know how much money I was going to make them, and how fast. Now, I’m not knocking this kind of investing approach – I just think there are ways to do it which don’t hurt people. Invest in shitcoins or flip some Bored Apes. That doesn’t hurt anyones feelings, or make anyone second guess their life choices. I guarantee you no one at LavaLabs is going to be suicidal because someone is rage tweeting that their Meebit hasn’t doubled in value yet. Pure investors don’t understand (or care about) the difference between artwork and a collectable, between individual artist and for profit company.

For most artists I know, just admitting you are an artist is unspeakably hard. It’s a position filled with self doubt, insecurity and questioning choices, but deep down we do believe in our work and our vision and have to trust that somewhere out in the world someone recognizes and connects with that. I make art to tell stories, and find connections, and find communities, and build relationships. Not to make some investor money. I do recognize that I’m in a position of privilege to be able to turn down sales that I don’t think are a good fit, to people who I don’t like. Not everyone can do that, but that’s also why I try to forge the path so that it’s easier for the next group of artists. And I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that standing here at 46 years old, everyone who has bought my work in the last 20 years has done so because they either wanted to support me personally or because my work meant something to them personally – and I’m deeply thankful for that. I would sell my work to someone who loved it and planned to keep it forever over someone who was hoping to sell it at a profit any day.

As an art collector, I despised buyers with this kind of an attitude. Selfishly, because they usually had more money than me and would buy things I loved and it pained me knowing they didn’t actually care about them. I much prefer the Vincent Price / Dennis Hopper approach which comes from recognizing the value that the artists bring to the world, to culture, to society and trying to support that. I forget where but I saw Hopper speaking once and he said something like “If you do it right, being an art collector means you are just a care taker” going on to say that he saw his job as protecting the art he bought until the “real art” world recognized it and made space in museums for it. He says something similar at the end of this short video. He viewed collecting art as documenting a culture and a community. I visited his house in Venice Beach once and and stepped over carefully rolled up Basquiats in order to get a better look at framed photographs by artists I’d never heard of hanging on the walls. His love for the art and for his friends was unquestionable, and it made me feel so much better about my own collection which is almost entirely work by friends. Some of whom I knew before I bought the work, some of whom I became friends with after buying the work. To me, those relationships are so much more valuable than any individual piece of art, but often the art is a physical representation of that relationship. The context is different but I’m reminded of the lyrics to Softcore by Jawbreaker which accuses “They just want the wrapping, They throw away the prize.” As a collector who values and appreciates the culture and the community, it pains me to know that work is sold to people who don’t care about any of that. I understand why it happens, but I don’t have to like it.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a zero sum topic. You don’t have to care about the artist, or your investment. Someone can care about both the value of their investment and in the artist that created the art, and I’d wager to say most people buying art fit into that category. But a comment like the one above represents a hard far end of a spectrum which I can only sum up as “bad.”

When we’re talking about NFTs, which we often are these days, there is a tendency for investors to lump everything together. They see no difference between something created by hand or something created by an algorithm. This illustrates their deep misunderstanding of both art and NFTs. I think this is actually a dangerous mindset which can actually harm artists and communities, and would recommend steering clear of buyers with this approach. This is a brand new world and the collectors who love the art and want to build the community are still showing up every day. Let’s embrace the people who want to build something together with us. We don’t need to make sacrifices to make people who don’t care about us rich.

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.

CryptoArt and Crypto Pricing

When I started visiting Japan I made it a habit of keeping track of the yen to dollar and was always doing the math in my head every time I bought anything so that I knew how many dollars I was spending. That made sense because while I was “visiting” in yen, I “lived” in dollars. After I moved to Japan I quickly realized that stressing out that the ramen I paid $5 for last week costing $5.25 this week was pointless and I should instead just enjoy my 500 yen ramen and stop worrying how much it was costing me in dollars. I was getting paid in yen, and paying for things in yen. I needed to get comfortable with yen and stop pining for dollars.

6 months ago 1 Ethereum (Ξ) converted to about $400, today it’s over $2100. In that time I’ve seen artists price their works in Eth matched against the dollar conversion they think is reasonable, only to lower the Eth price weeks later when Eth went up in value. I kind of cringed when I saw it happen several times but I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. I mean, I get it – if you think your work is worth $500 one week it stands to reason you would think it’s worth $500 the next week and the value of some cryptocurrency shouldn’t impact that. Right? Earlier today I was looking at the value of Eth and thought about some work that I minted last week and thought I should probably lower the asking price since Eth has going up significantly since I listed them. So I did. And then I felt sick. And I knew exactly why.

Back when I used to have an art gallery how artists should price their work was a constant topic of discussion. The rule of thumb is simple, you can always increase a price but you can never decrease it. The logic being, if collectors see you lower a price they will never think your work is worth the listed price, and will always think they can get a discount or if they just wait a little longer the price will come down further. Conversely, if you only raise prices an interested party will quickly realize that if they are leaning towards something they should jump now because if they wait it will cost them more.

I keep saying that NFTs are a new medium and artists and creators should think of them that way, and embrace it. And the native currency of this medium is Eth. Sure some marketplaces take credit cards or other cryptocurrency but the dominant payment is Eth. And adjusting the Eth price to keep it matched to the dollar price still looks and feels like lowering the price. Because it is. We might have been “visiting” Eth before while “living” in dollars, but it doesn’t take more than a few weeks to start feeling like a local, and if you now “live” in Eth, then you should stop pining for dollars. An artwork valued at Ξ1 should remain valued at Ξ1 no matter what value Eth has to dollars. That’s a bold position and I get that, but in a way this is walking the walk. NFTs are crypto native, and if we’ve moved from tourist to resident, then we should embrace all that comes with that. That’s going to be a hard sell for many people, and realistically I know we’re not there yet. But we should see it on the horizon, and know what direction we’re heading.

On a personal level I’ve always been terrible at taking my own advice and can be firm with others but often second guess myself. In part because I can be sure of other people’s talents but I struggle recognizing my own. Call it imposter syndrome or insecurity or whatever but I know I’m not alone in that and many artists wrestle with what value to put on their own work. That said, I feel like I fucked up adjusting my pricing to compensate for Eth appreciating. I feel like I devalued my work. It’s not something I’m going to do again.

NFTs: All Power To The Artists

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts about art & NFTs.)

Right now, in the world of NFTs, artists have all the power. All of it. This is a battlecry. And when I say “artist” I’m generally referring to any kind of creator. I’ve already seen painters, writers, dancers, musicians, photographers, etc. all do fantastic and delightful things with NFTs. This is wonderful because in most industries where these artists usually live they are forced to compromise, be subordinate or end up beholden to any number of entrenched middle men. That’s a hard truth, but one we all know to be real.

By and large the current NFT marketplaces desperately want to assume that role. They are embracing the archetype of the established curator king in hopes that artist will assume the role of subject. And many artists are happy to do that as it’s all they’ve ever known. But at this moment we have the opportunity to flip that table and build a new castle with better kitchen appliances installed from day one. Artists rightly get excited about the prospect of attention from the Gagosians and Saatchis of the world not because they arrived on the scene yesterday and put up a cool sign outside, but because they have decades and decades of history, and story, that an artist might hope to become part of. The blockchain is a decade old, NFTs have been around for a few years, the really old NFT marketplaces are only 2 years old, most have not been live for even a full year. Almost every artist minting NFTs has an art career which predates these sites launching.

To be clear, I’m not trying to universally knock the platforms or the people working with them. However here are certainly people who see all of this as just a short term play with a hugh upside which they are hoping to cash in on, like they did with the last thing, before they move onto the next thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, more power to them, but as artists we all should be aware of what is happening and take care not to fall victim. Right now, in almost all cases, artists minting work on Platform X does more to benefit Platform X than it does the artists, which is important to consider when Platform X is asking for 20% of the sale price as their fee. (Currently the platforms I’ve assessed are taking between 0% and 30% so it’s quite a range) Artists can and should be asking what Platform X is doing to earn that cut. If the answer is “we let you in” that really is not good enough. By minting on Platform X we are giving our attention, marketing potential and money to that platform, so it’s worthwhile to ask questions ahead of time.

Conversely there are certainly people at platforms that are thinking about the artists first, and thinking of long term mutually beneficial partnerships. I’ve talked to several of them myself, but I’d be lying if I said those people weren’t in the minority. This is why I say that artists have all the power. We can vote with our dollars, vote with our time, vote with our attention. We can demand that things be different. There is absolutely a value in curation, but there is also a very well known problem with arbitrary middlemen. The promise of all this decentralized technology is that it puts power and agency back into the hands of the people rather than keeping it locked away in the vaults of the companies. It would be a shame to embrace this new world only to hand that power back over to a handful of randos who showed up yesterday. All Power To The Artists.

(As an aside, if you read this and take offense you should ask yourself why? You chose to see your reflection in the picture I’ve painted. If you don’t want to be accused of doing shitty things, don’t do shitty things. Don’t be one of the randos, think about what value you have to offer and realize you are lucky to have artists paying attention to you. Keep trying to do the right thing, and in a few weeks/months/years when all the dust settles maybe you’ll still be standing. Artists were here before this and will be here long after, we have support systems that we’ve built for ourselves. You are welcome to join us. I am an unapologetic artist advocate and equally happy to work with people who want to see artists prosper, or crush those who see artists as just another stepping stone.)