To learn — and truly understand — something, you need to have skin in the game.
I recently minted an NFT using my photographs, sold one, and have since been down the rabbit hole of this world.
Within seconds, that ETH was in my MetaMask wallet — a digital wallet used to interact with the Ethereum blockchain. I could send it to my Coinbase account, sell it, and transfer USD into my checking account. All within 30 seconds. Fascinating.
You might be hearing within your group chats or work conversations about NFTs and JPGs selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars — sometimes millions. The other day at the fish market, I saw the cashier flash his phone at another guy. The headline read, “$8000 in Shiba Inu coin is now worth $2.5 BILLION DOLLARS.”
I know people who lost a chunk of savings on Dogecoin; I know people who are retiring early because they bought a ton of Bitcoin early, held on, and sold when BTC was $60,000. I also know artists who got into the NFT game early, played the game wisely, and are no longer dependent on agency or advertising work.
The photographers I’ve followed for years are now calling themselves crypto artists. Profile pictures on Twitter aren’t headshots anymore; in fact, most of the popular accounts are anonymous, showing funky illustrations.
My friends’ thinking goes something like this: Our parents missed out on investing in stocks like Apple or Google early on. This is our generation’s window to build wealth, we claim. To get in early. I don’t know if this is a grandiose self-delusion or if it’s the same carousel, but different music.
I went from hating everything I was seeing on Twitter, to scratching my chin, to putting some skin in the game. This feels too big to ignore. I don’t ever want to live in a metaverse or interact digitally only or do Zoom meetings with fucking goggles on, but there are fragments of this world that I believe will be potentially fruitful and enriching for people whose lives are built upon creativity.
In 2010, my Twitter feeds were all about content marketing, growth hacking, personal branding, and the importance of growing your followers. As chaotic as Twitter is, it’s one of the only places where I can read both sides of the argument.
Whenever I log in, I see something like this:
At first, NFTs just felt like Beanie Babies on psilocybin, coded with software and distributed on the internet. I’m curious how the Kool-Aid is made, but I also avoid drinking too much of it.
Look … the internet will evolve, but human nature doesn’t. Greed, ego, tribalism, and desire for power will always win over altruism. People are incentivized by systems. If we design better systems, people behave better.
I always remember these words by Adam Smith: “We soon find that wisdom and virtue are no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous.”
Below is my reflection on why no one will ever buy my NFTs and how industries today follow the same patterns of high schools that you see in Hollywood movies. I'll also riff on why NFTs can be exciting and useful for real communities.
1: No one will buy your NFTs, unless...
Right now, NFTs are the hottest for illustrators and animators.
Good for the animators. Because what they do is insanely difficult. There wasn't a marketplace for animators to make money because there was no incentive to buy this kind of... file. As an NFT, it can be called art.
I don’t think photography has even scratched the surface of what NFTs can be used for. Right now, they're being sold on platforms like OpenSea and SuperRare. Tech Twitter says music NFTs are next.
Right now, NFTs are mostly bought by “art collectors.” People with lots of ETH. They’re treating it as another item in their portfolio, like investing in tech companies. If they buy into, say, 20 NFT projects, they’re hoping that at least one takes off 100x. If you own a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT or a CryptoPunk, you are holding onto some life-changing money and got lucky. And we’re in the alpha alpha stage of NFTs. The bet, the thinking, is that these will be worth insane amounts.
The blue-chip NFTs, the Audemars Piguets of NFTs, are illustrations. Profile pictures (PFPs). Status symbols. My friends in their 30s want Rolexes. My brother's generation (Gen Z) wants Bored Apes, because they aren't around people that care about a Rolex or treat you differently because you wear one. They're on Twitter. Tweeting and being known for their PFP. And every tweet that gets 10k to 100k impressions adds a nice layer of powdered sugar on the ego.
(https://twitter.com/cryptopunksbot/status/1457690743724814342) [This actually didn't sell and thus generated more hype.]
Because I’m a photographer — something I do for fun, so I don’t rely on it for my livelihood — it was a stepping stone to learning this world. I can put some money in, make mistakes, and still be able to play the game.
So, I minted a bunch of NFTs of my photographs, shot during the height of the pandemic last year in NYC 2020. I got a notification that someone purchased one of my NFTs for 0.1 ETh (about $400 USD). Whoa, I thought. Fuck! It was exhilarating, I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day.
Then a friend, who onboarded me into this world, told me he bought it as a welcome and a way to support me. That didn’t kill the excitement. It actually made me want more of it. My mind was swimming with all the possibilities of what life could become if I had sold all my photographs as NFTs. Imagine making, I don’t know, a six-figure salary just selling JPGs? Or as a side hustle?
Since that sale, I can’t even get views on my NFTs no matter how much I promote on Twitter. Because in order to get the attention of art collectors, you have to constantly shill and partake in the NFT Twitter and Discord communities. The blue check marks have to retweet you and promote you. It’s a full-time job.
You have to say “gm” to signal you’re in this world. Reply to threads. Promote other artists. Signal “good” vibes.
Above all, you have to be part of a clique. More on this soon.
2: Why do you buy “art”?
Recently, a kind photographer — Dave Krugman — answered my questions about NFTs and photography. He had been in the space for months, meeting other artists and putting his artwork on various platforms.
He sold an image on a platform called SuperRare.
It’s a beautiful image. But you might be saying in your mind, “I’d never pay $38k for that.” Most people wouldn’t buy a print of this for $1,000 or even $100. But as an NFT, as part of a collection or a 1/1, the meaning changes.
You might buy art for a few reasons:
1) You see it as an investment to flip and make money on
2) For personal reasons, for identity reasons, because it “speaks to you”
3) For status signaling
4) The story you tell yourself on how you are supporting an artist
5) Tax breaks
7) A gift for someone
It would take most photographers a lot of work to make $38k. My rates in the past were $1,500 to $2,000 for multiple portraits/headshots for website and LinkedIn. I would have to do about 20 gigs to make $38k. It would amount to hundreds of hours editing, scheduling, renting gear and a studio, emailing, shooting, coordinating, etc.
So when people see a JPG being sold for $38,000, you can’t help but tilt your head like a puppy. And if the art collector sells it for, say, $50,000, the artist gets a cut of the profit automatically, around 10%. That’s exciting and never achieved at scale before. This, to me, is where web3 gets exciting.
The thinking goes: If you can make that much from one image, why not work hard to figure out how to sell one? And then another. Two images at $76k is more than what the average American makes working 50 hours a week.
So that’s what led me down a rabbit hole. Beyond the money aspect, the underlying technology is more promising than the fireworks currently happening on Twitter.
And how I’m connecting the dots in the universe of web3, blockchain, NFTs, etc. starts with this: The NFT world is just another high school.
3. Welcome to your new high school
You are entering your senior year.
In the middle of the semester.
No one knows who you are.
No one wants to be friends with you. Good luck.
Because the cliques have already formed. To be noticed, you need to signal something — status, smarts, associations with other status monkeys, “vibes” — to even get a chance to be seen.
The photographers who are selling any NFTs are selling because they belong to a clique (Sony Alpha, etc.) or already have an established following on Instagram (minimum 100k followers).
Being in a popular group elevates your status and, in turn, your artwork. It is a halo effect.
So when people are confused about the value of NFTs, I get where they’re coming from.
Let me practice empathy and imagine an art collector’s worldview on why they would never buy my Photo NFTs.
This person finds me on Twitter. Looks at my images. They’re pretty okay. It’s a collection of 35mm film photography of empty NYC streets, outdoor dining, and random figures wandering the city. But is it worth this person spending, say, 2 ETH — the equivalent of $9,000 — on one JPG? What about 0.05 ETH, which is currently worth around $200? Nah. For what?
Then they’ll look at my Twitter and Instagram. Ah, not many followers. No blue checkmark. No impressive NFT profile picture of a monkey or bird or lion or cat. No other blue checkmarks commenting on my photos saying “vibes” or “lit” or "wow fam." This dude hasn’t been published on any major news outlet like NYT Magazine or The Guardian. Hasn’t done a gallery and has never been featured in a museum. And not very active on Instagram.
Look at any photographer selling NFTs for insane amounts, and it’s because they’re playing the game. They’re part of a clique. They espouse “community” and creative freedom and financial independence. They talk about their trauma and struggles. They spend 8 to 15 hours a day on Twitter and Discord. They have a following.
They 👏 are 👏 doing 👏 the 👏 work.
If you’re an art collector, those signals are safer bets the NFT will increase exponentially in price in five or ten years. Even if the motive isn’t financial, the collector is telling themselves a story that massages their identity and rationale. They’re part of the cool kids group in this high school. They feel like they belong. They get shouted out by the artist for being a “supporter of a decentralized creative world.”
When money isn’t an issue, when you have a home and your money makes money and you got retirement, what is left? Maintaining purpose. And NFTs is a new game that lends purpose and identity at scale. It's new. It's wild. It makes no fucking sense and somehow makes a ton of sense.
I played games like World of Warcraft during its most popular time (shoutout Pain Train guild on Magtheridon vanilla WoW days), and I understand how anyone can be drawn into digital worlds and feel like they’re part of a community. When real life sucks, digital worlds offer solace. And for a lot of people, reality is fucking digusting, so the escape of digital worlds is comfort and freedom from fear and pain. It’s no wonder everyone from the 21-year-old to the Park Slope Brooklynite with two kids is participating in these games.
It speaks to our most animalistic desires: to be seen, to belong.
These patterns are the same as Hypebeasts and Supreme fans. Kids will wait in line for hours, in the freezing cold or scorching heat, just to buy an item that says SUPREME on a hammer or a lighter or a sweater so they can re-sell it for 10x the price tag. Just so they can share it on their Instagram and have other kids jealous of them.
What's troubling is when tech and creative professionals start to feel the anxiety that a 15-year-old does because they don't have a cool pair of Jordans.
It's just another high school on the internet. Whether you want to play that game or not is entirely your choice.
Early tech startups and VCs were a new high school that had exclusive access based on your geography, alma mater, and network. The advertising industry is a high school. So is the "design community" in NYC.
There is probably a book written on this that I haven't read, but if you look at any inddustry — finance, design, advertising, tech, etc. — they all follow behaviors and principles of a high school.
There will always be groups: popular kids, jocks, nerds, gamers, goths, etc.
There will always be some modicum of exclusivity even in supposed “welcoming” communities.
There will always be hierarchies and concentrated groups holding power.
This is human nature. The internet will evolve, but human nature has stayed the same for millions of years.
As for the technology side of NFTs, I am optimistic that the use case will evolve and become democratized. The more you study what any future tech promises to fix, the more you look back and understand the cancer blobs when you put the x-ray over an industry.
Whether you want to participate in this or not, the choice is yours. For me? The sooner I can get me a compound in nature, cooking by the fire for my friends, spending all day reading, teaching, learning, and making photographs, the better. I don’t care what path you take to achieve your dreams anymore. As long as you’re not stepping on dead bodies to do it, fuck it, sell NFTs and get rich. Invite me to the cookout.
And pass it forward.
5: Where it gets interesting
Minting your own NFTs and selling them is one game.
Minting from a project to be part of the community is another. I tried both.
The first project I minted was Bushidos, made by employees at Stripe and Coinbase. The artwork was cool and the project seemed legit because of the team building it. It cost 0.08 ETH to mint one Bushido. I got so into it that I ended up minting five of them.
Where NFTs get interesting is the “tokenomics” as utility, value, and an artifact of belonging. Instead of wearing a pin on your lapel, you have an NFT in your Metamask.
Holders of a Bored Ape were allowed exclusive access to parties during NFT NYC week.
In NFT land, if you’re part of, say, the Bushido project or Crypto Coven, you’re also part of the Discord. You follow other people with the PFP. You devour all Twitter threads. You can make friends.
Zoom out for a second.
- In the case of Bushidos, one illustrator and two engineers built this project. Three people. They sold 8,888 bushidos at 0.08 ETH, with secondary sales happening on OpenSea.
- I believe they raised over 7 figures and were transparent with the community regarding paying themselves and then reinvesting the remaining ETH into the project. (I can’t seem to find it, but I generously guess it was invest 90%, keep 10%, which is beyond fair.)
- First it was Bushidos. Then it was minting Daitōs. Next comes Ronin (combination of Bushdio and Daitō) and, from the time of writing, they’re partnering with another team to build a magazine and a video game. They even let the community mint the Daitōs without paying heavy gas fees, because ETH blockchain is a wreck right now.
- Other PFP projects are building games in the metaverse so you can use your NFT as a character.
This, to me, is what most excites me about blockchain tech, web3, NFTs and tokens.
A well-intentioned, small crew of talented people can come together, build something, grow an audience, and be fully self-funded. I think that’s beautiful. They grew a community by speaking authentically and clearly. They play the games on Twitter. Did podcasts and interviews. Above all, you can feel when something is a labor of love — the attention to detail, clear communication, sharing of ideas or lessons learned — and the project is poised to do amazing things in the future.
From smashing the space button in the video game Doom on my Windows 98 computer, to spending ungodly hours on MMORPGs like Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft, to seeing these behaviors show up in tech, cryptocurrency, and all kinds of communities, it is all very exciting. The competition is growing every month and competition is good for improving ideas and designing better systems. And my generation is watching one of the greatest inventions (the internet) evolve right in front of them.