You may have seen the term NFTs recently in an article, video or Tweet. If you have no idea what it is, I don’t blame you. Not only this term is involved with the already snobby, pretentious art collecting scene, but it also involves the complex cryptocurrency schemes. These two concepts alone are quite baffling to an average person. So when you have a combination of the two concepts, it is extremely alienating. However, an understanding of this newly expanding cryptocurrency is necessary in order to properly critique it.
NFT’s can be literally anything digital. It can be art, music, a tweet, or any sort of digital collectable. Like other cryptocurrencies, NFTs are sold on Block-chains; the most comprehensive analogy for Block-chains is expensive wine. In order to prevent fraud, a winemaker can print a unique serial number for every bottle label. They can then register each number onto an online database. Another way of explaining it is that each number would associate with a block within the blockchain. A more technical way of putting it is that they would be creating a type of “token” which in essence is a file. This file can be edited so anyone who checks will see who the token belongs to one specific bottle.
What makes NFT different from cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin or Ethereum, is that NFTS are Non-Fungible Tokens. In laymen’s term, it means that you can’t exchange one for another. Each token is unique and that’s why it’s called “non-fungible”. As each NFT artwork is 1 of 1, this creates scarcity for digital art.
This has created a new opportunity for digital creators and artists to ensure the provenance of their purchased work. Provenance was previously hard to prove for small artists on social media as it is very difficult to keep track of stolen work. Furthermore, new terms can be written into the NFT itself, one example being that every time a piece is sold to another owner, the artist can place royalties for the artwork. Now it’s easy to think that NFTs would be a great way for small creators to make large sums of money. We’ve seen creators like Grimes sell works that go for 6 Million USD. That being said, a large group of artists on platforms like Twitter have shunned the use of NFTs within their community.
One concern is that its premise is a kind of pyramid scheme-y which only benefits the individuals with money. In one anonymous user’s experience, they detailed that in order to submit the work, you must pay a fee, in order to cancel a bid someone has made, you must pay a fee, in order to accept a bid, you must pay a fee. This shows how much money is leaked throughout the process. It seems inherently scummy. Furthermore, the amount you pay to submit work affects how quickly the piece is processed. The less you pay, the lower you are placed on the priority list. All these factors working together mean that it isn’t very economical for small artists to invest in making NFTs.
Another concern is that even though NFTs prove the provenance of an artist, artworks can still be stolen and made into NFTs against the original artist’s will. There is little to no way for sites that sell NFTs to authenticate the creators, this is partially due to the fact that it is all done online. It is extremely easy to download other creator’s art and sell it for your own. Stealing artists’ works and profiting off them has become easier for thieves. It’s taken a step further through the use of bots on Twitter like @tokenizedtweets. All a user has to do is tag this bot and the tweet and contents become an NFT against the original posters will. Artists now have to block @tokenizedtweets and lock their accounts in order to avoid Bots and users trying to profit off their own work. This means that their profile is no longer open for growth within the platform. Moreover, as soon as an artist’s work is stolen and bought, there is no way of removing it from the Block-chain. It places the burden on the original artist, as they have to prove that the NFT is fraud with no legal backing. This incentivise many artists to tokenize their work before anyone steals it first. Thereby contributing to an exacerbation of the perverse system.
When looking at articles about NFTs from sources like The Verge, Bloomberg and The Rolling Stones, they barely discuss the implications of NFTs. At most, one article mentions the environmental implications of NFTs (as NFTs and Cryptocurrencies contribute to an obscene amount of emissions). All in all, if you want to support a small creator, just commission or contribute to their Patreon. Don’t contribute to the system which favours the rich, may add to the climate crisis and take away from small creators.
Image courtesy of wikicommons