If you’ve been on the internet in the past month, you’ve probably heard about NFTs. Let’s face it – it’s been inescapable! Lovingly nicknamed ‘niftys’ by web denizens, for a lot of folks (myself included), the concept of NFTs is kind of overwhelming. This is especially true with all of the hype riding on the coattails of the GME market wars of early 2021.
That is, right up until stories of digital artwork selling in the six figures cropped up on my feeds. Then I knew I had to check it out.
So I’ve listened to several hours’ worth of podcasts, videos, and Clubhouse talks on NFTs to try and unravel the mystery and wrap my head around why I, as an artist, should care. And now that I’ve done that part, I wanna break it down for the rest of you fine folks so you can decide if it might be worth a look. (Spoiler – it probably is).
Ok, so what the heck are NFTs anyway?
We’ll start here. I’m going to give a simplified explanation so we can get to the juicy bits sooner!
NFT stands for “non-fungible token”, and we can think of that as a unique code that works like a serial number for a specific (and usually digital) item. NFTs use blockchains to function, and blockchains are decentralized collections of digital records that are encrypted and unmodifiable. This means that once a blockchain is recorded, it can never be changed. It is the decentralized part that makes them so special, and why cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that use blockchains have become so popular.
In the context of digital information, when something is centralized, it means that it lives and operates from a single place. When you run an app, stream from a website, or use online banking, all of those functions live on a centralized server for that service. Blockchains instead use the collective computing power of peer-to-peer networking. There are lots of benefits to this – there is no single failure point, it becomes harder to slap regulations on them, etc. One big disadvantage, however, is the power it takes to run. As the data collections grow in size, they require more and more juice to keep up and you’ve probably heard about some of the side effects of this, from environmental impact to the massive superconductor and graphic card shortages across the globe.
NFT’s are just one form of application that runs on blockchains, and they’re special because of the aforementioned unique identifier. They can’t be duplicated or copied or exchanged like-for-like. Each NFT is a special snowflake in an ever snowing planet Hoth winterscape, and that is where some savvy tech artists found a lot of potential.
How Do NFTs Work For Digital Art?
NFTs being used for art isn’t particularly new. However, it has gained a lot of buzz lately due to the blessing-and-curse we know as the meme economy. And how NFT’s apply to digital artwork has been a point of contention among a lot of tech talkers of late. How, exactly, can you own a file that can be duplicated indefinitely?
Let’s put it like this – you can go online and find an image of the Mona Lisa and make it your phone background. Or you could use a home printer to make a copy and frame it. Or you could use a high-end printing service and get it duplicated on actual canvas, and put that in your living room. But you know what? That’s never gonna be the Mona Lisa.
Translating that to digital files, you’re not actually owning the file itself, but rather the NFT which works as a deed or certificate of authenticity, effectively minting the work. Sure, you have to put the work online for people to see it and want to buy it, and if it can be seen on the internet, it can be duplicated. But the person who ends up owning the NFT for the file has the record that they paid for that certificate, and are the owners of that original copy. It essentially slaps on a “This Is the First, The Original, The Best” label and lets people pay for that.
What Can We Expect In The Future?
The potential of what this can mean for artists is absolutely thrilling. While we do have to wait for the hype and meme-ridden shenanigans to level out for a better picture, I believe the advent of NFTs is the first real promise of a great equalizer of worth for digital art.
If you’re a creative of any form, you’re likely very aware of how the explosion of the digital era has changed the value of art. AI is now writing articles and doing copy editing. Photoshop and smartphones have transformed the photography landscape. We can now create high-quality drawings on any touchscreen device. Apps like Canva are putting graphic design in the hands of everyone. Musicians have been through the wringer with piracy and low-return streaming. The list goes on and on! It’s been getting increasingly difficult for people in the creative fields to make a comfortable living while doing what makes them happy.
There have been baby steps towards balancing this, but a lot of that comes with the caveat of supplemental content. It’s still not enough to simply create and sell art. In addition, you’re likely going to need affiliate marketing, subscriptions, donations, ad revenue, and other similar ventures surrounding your work to live comfortably or get the word out. Even though this is a lot of effort, it’s still has given creatives a breath of hope.
NFT’s provide a real potential to connect with supporters and fans and give them another way to fund the creators they love. Since you can slap an NFT on literally anything (people are selling tweets or ‘moments’!), there’s room for creative solutions to offer value for work. Some musicians are thinking of selling future special edition albums as NFTs. Some artists are making exclusive versions of a new piece that exists only with an NFT. Video content creators can use NFTs to monetize content that might get heat from platforms like Youtube or Twitch, which can revoke monetization if they don’t agree with something you do or say.
So here’s what I want to leave you all with – don’t let the meme bubble be discouraging! Yes, it does feel a little absurd to sell a GIF for thousands of dollars, but for a lot of artists, we’re not looking for a wacky, unsustainable hype-driven market. If we can find a way to turn these songs, drawings, and words into something people value and would be proud to own (and that we can live off of), that’s a future worth being curious about!
NFTs are the first real glimmer of that reality.
If you wanna dive deeper into NFTs and blockchains, I highly recommend the Waveform podcast interview with Justin Maller, CCO of Deviant Art and early adopter of NFTs for art. In addition, this youtube interview with Claudia Ramirez covers a lot of common questions on NFTs, art, and how they stand to empower artists.