Memes that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The New York Times auctioning a free-to-read column for over $558,000. Twitter founder and ex-CEO Jack Dorsey hawking his first-ever tweet for nearly $3 million as a collectible item.
In the past year, NFT has blossomed from an obscure acronym to a household term. Short for nonfungible token, they allow people to acquire unique digital collectibles, like clothes they want for their avatar in the metaverse or a piece of pixel art. The most popular platform to buy and sell NFTs is OpenSea, which functions like eBay for digital assets.
Talking to Anne Fauvre-Willis is like getting a crash course in NFTs — both the tech and the whimsical, geeky culture that it has created. She’s head of special projects at OpenSea, and she is emblematic of the community around NFTs — trading in some of the most popular collections while debating about the tech on Twitter, often with the help of memes.
But she says that NFTs are more than a story about digital goods. Colorful and passionate communities trade NFTs, kind of how Yu-Gi-Oh! or baseball card collecting communities have their own slang and social norms. NFTs have also become an accessible way for people to engage with blockchain technology, a decentralized ledger that allows NFT creators more control over how their artwork is owned, used and traded in the marketplace.
“I became really interested in NFTs,” Fauvre-Willis says, because it “wasn’t just about making money.”
“At first, I was skeptical. I actually remember first listening to a podcast, on the way to the Moscone Center to get my vaccine, about NFTs in March or April, and I thought: This seems kind of silly. I’m not sure about this, but I should at least look into it. Then I started messing around with OpenSea, and reading about what people were doing on Discord,” an app-based messaging platform. “I also just found myself spending a lot of time deeply thinking about it.”
That process — when someone learns about a piece of blockchain technology, starts talking about it with others in online spaces like Discord or Twitter, and then, ultimately, spends a lot of time thinking about the tech — is colloquially referred to in the blockchain community as ‘going down the rabbit hole.’ The technology as a whole is still fairly new, and much of the innovation arises out of intense discussions between enthusiasts online.
This process encourages the formation of communities, each of which is based around shared ideologies, aesthetic preferences and even senses of humor. Some people are interested in trading fine art, like beautiful portrait photography, as NFTs. Others geek out over sillier images, like pixelated avatars called CryptoPunks. The purchase of some NFTs earn the buyer entry to membership clubs, like a collection of cartoon apes people buy to gain entry to the Bored Ape Yacht Club. In fact, Bored Apes and CryptoPunks are some of the most popular NFTs on OpenSea.
As a technologist who spends a lot of time on online forums like Twitter, Fauvre-Willis’ first purchase was an NFT she could use as a Twitter avatar, called a Gutter Cat. These types of NFTs are referred to as PFPs, which stands for picture for proof or profile pic. Gutter cats, particularly popular among people who are embedded in the blockchain space, are cartoon human-like cats with tattoos and piercings. According to their creators, these cartoon characters come from a “crime-ridden, nondescript inner city.”
“Mine had an American flag bandana, and I bought it the weekend of the Fourth of July, so it felt particularly relevant,” says Fauvre-Willis. “I like PFPs because for me, as an active Twitter user, they were the first introduction I had into the space. It was something I could wrap my head around.”
Many people think NFTs are about collecting art, which isn’t always the case. Art, of course, has broad and contested definitions, but it’s not unusual for people in the community, like Fauvre-Willis, to invest in goofy NFTs which wouldn’t conventionally be considered art. NFTs are, at a base level, just strings of code which represent ownership of a unique digital asset. Fauvre-Willis is not only excited about cartoon profile pictures, but also other potential theoretical uses for NFTs in the future.
“I could have an NFT that is an NFT of me, for example — like I could own, in a private way, my passport information, my driver’s license, all of these things as a single key in my digital wallet,” she suggests. “At the core, (NFTs) are really just a unique key. If you think about the real world, how you carry around a key to your house, it’s kind of like that.”
NFTs have all these potential use cases because they’re built on decentralized blockchain tech. Decentralization refers to the way blockchain organizations are collectively owned and operated by people who use the technology. In blockchain, there’s supposed to be no central middleman functioning as a broker for transactions.
This is also why NFTs are exciting to so many creators: They enable artists to determine the price and royalties they receive when selling their creations. With NFTs, artists don’t have to pay or follow the rules of an auction house, gallery, streaming service, or other intermediary.
When Fauvre-Willis hypothesizes about potential use cases, she’s what people in blockchain often jokingly refer to as “in it for the tech.” And when she started talking about potential use cases, it made me wonder: Why does she even work at OpenSea? In some blockchain fanatics’ view, the platform defeats the whole point of NFTs, which is to allow things to be bought and sold without the interception of a centralized marketplace.
But OpenSea is a centralized company. It makes these decentralized goods available though a centralized, conventional online marketplace. They charge service fees for assets sold on the platform, and impose their own terms of service.
According to Fauvre-Willis, however, centralization shouldn’t be seen as a drawback for OpenSea. Instead, it’s what allows the company to address the needs of people using it. Because OpenSea is centralized, they’re able to have a conventional customer service team and remove offensive content. Serving users, she says, is more important than the debate over decentralization. In fact, she argues that being user-centric is necessary to build these new technologies in a less destructive way than the companies that have preceded them over the past three decades. OpenSea is widely considered the easiest platform on which to buy NFTs.
“When you’re building a decentralized protocol, the goals are often more technically driven, and I think that sometimes you forget about the user. For me, it was less about: should I work with OpenSea because it’s centralized or not. What really compelled me about OpenSea was to see they have this really strong focus on what they want to deliver to users,” she explains.
“I think a lot of what we’ve seen (in internet tech) is companies scaling at a rate where they didn’t always think about this, and we’ve ended up with systems that we don’t like so much. We have an opportunity now to think with a little bit more foresight.”