But there’s something else going on, and it’s surprisingly sweet. While some buyers are interested in these NFTs strictly as speculative assets, others have more virtuous intentions. Trevor McFedries, a Los Angeles-based startup founder, has been buying tweets since shortly after Valuables launched. He appreciated the way it showcased how anything anyone makes on the internet can be art, and that even a tweet can be seen as worthy creative work. Recently, he picked one of his friend group’s favorite tweets—a ranking of pasta shapes—and bought it for 3 ether, or $1,920. “People were like, Why the hell would you spend $1,900 for a tweet?” McFedries says. “But it has value to me. I want to own it.”
For Katie Geminder, one of Cent’s cofounders, that type of purchase is exactly what the Valuables platform was designed to help along. A veteran of several major social platforms—she was an early Facebook employee—Geminder is now a passionate advocate for helping creators profit from the social web. “We launched as an experiment, really,” she says. “Our mission is about helping creators have a creative income.” Geminder and her colleagues believed that people who liked particular tweets or Twitter accounts enough would be willing to pay for the thrill of seeing their favorite poster accept their offer for digital memorabilia. They bet on the idea that enough people would find value in previously free content. As their user base has swelled over the past few weeks, they’re seeing that hypothesis proven correct.
While the Valuables platform is currently limited to minting tweets as NFTs, it’s one of the clearest examples of how the NFT market is expanding into the social web. While some people are buying tweets as speculative assets, other early adopters on Valuables are using the platform as a new way to channel their fandom and enthusiasms. Purchasing an NFT can be an alternative way to support creators, a blockchain-fueled twist on Patreon or Tipeee. This is an enticing development for anyone who makes content for the social web, as it presents an opportunity to get paid for what might otherwise be given away for free. (An important note: The environmental impact of NFTs is already a pressing concern for many creators, as blockchain energy usage can reach truly horrific levels.)
And there will be plenty of opportunities to question the ethics of what to make into an NFT, since any individual piece of content can potentially exist as one, from 60-second videos to 10,000-word blog posts. People are already testing the waters with tokenizing different forms of writing and posting. One of the first Vine videos was already sold on an NFT marketplace called Foundation for 8.77 ETH (more than $16,000). The software engineer and writer John Palmer crowdfunded an essay he hadn’t even written yet by minting it as an NFT on a protocol called Zora. He was extremely successful, raising 9.9 ETH (more than $18,000) from 63 backers. Just like Geminder, Palmer sees great value in experimenting with NFTs as a new funding model for creative work. “It offers a path to being paid for a one-off work that’s not part of a subscription or newsletter. It offers a way to monetize work that remains a public good, without a paywall,” he wrote in an explanation of the project. He published the essay on Mirror, a platform specifically designed for writers to sell their projects as NFTs. (Wong Joon Ian, a former journalist who now works in crypto, described Mirror to me as “a mashup between tokenized Medium, Patreon, and Kickstarter”—the best explanation I’ve heard.) Instead of starting a traditional newsletter or blog, crypto-savvy writers like Palmer (especially those with audiences familiar with the blockchain) can chart a novel course for making money off their writing.
After I sold my tweet NFT, a flurry of writer pals messaged me eagerly, asking how to do it. Shortly after that, several WIRED editors messaged me—considerably less eagerly—because we hadn’t had a conversation about what the actual implications of accepting an offer like this might be. As long as I’m on staff at WIRED, I have to ask permission before I take any paid freelancing assignments from other outlets. Did I have to ask permission to sell an NFT? Did it matter that what I was selling was essentially a bit of digital performance art, the act of signing my name to a token, rather than the writing itself? It was more like selling an autograph than my actual words, after all—did we have a company policy on digital autographs? These were new questions, because this was a novel way for a writer to earn money. I called Addison Cameron-Huff, a lawyer who specializes in blockchain, to hear his take. “If it’s not your job at WIRED to make art, and you’re a writer, and your job is to write—if you want to sell art on the side, I wouldn’t think they’d stop you,” he says. “You’re selling the process of selling.” Still, considering I didn’t know why my bidder bought my tweet—they didn’t respond when I asked them—it wasn’t clear whether they were buying it because they liked me or simply because I am a WIRED journalist. The whole situation felt knotty. And if selling bits of digital content as NFTs catches on, I suspect there will be lots of conversations between writers, artists, and outlets about where the boundaries of independent digital identity and work identity should be drawn. (I promised my editors not to accept any more NFT bids until we figured out the rules, just to be safe.)
Other outlets are feeling their way through this strange new world, too. The Associated Press has already gone ahead and created its own first NFT, although it’s a piece of digital artwork rather than a copy of an article. Still, it likely won’t be long until you’ll see articles themselves available as NFTs—maybe even this one.
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