A year has gone by since NFTs started entering mainstream culture. Earlier this week, we brought you an article on the NFT highlights of 2021. For those who haven’t quite figured it out over the past 12 months, we’ve put together a refresher course in the basics.
What is an NFT?
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An NFT, which stands for non-fungible token, is a technology that allows digital content–from videos, to songs, to images–to become logged and authenticated on cryptocurrency blockchains, primarily Ethereum. Once content is logged onto the blockchain each transaction, from transfers to sales, are recorded on-chain, creating an easily accessible ledger of provenance and price history. The main impact of NFTs is making it easy to own and sell digital content. Previously, for example, digital artists could build up large followings on social media, attract freelance commercial work, and maybe sell prints and other merch with their designs but had trouble monetizing digital art directly. “Why should I buy what I can screenshot for free?”
While the technology behind NFTs made it easy to trade and sell images online, it is really the NFT community that has to be credited with creating a market for these digital assets because technically, as many detractors point out, digital images that have been turned into NFTs can still be saved or screenshot without cost.
How does it work?
Typically, a creator (or, if you prefer, an artist) will mint their work on an NFT marketplace, which includes platforms like OpenSea, SuperRare, Nifty Gateway, Foundation, and many more. Minting is the act of creating an NFT, which means creating a smart contract that will be stored on the blockchain. The smart contract contains a lot of important information; it lists the creator of the work and ensures that the creator, or other parties, receive royalties each time the NFT is sold.
The ability for artists to automatically collect returns on resale value is part of NFTs’ draw for artists (all platforms make their money by receiving a small percentage of royalties through the smart contract). There are hitches: technological glitches can make it so that parties don’t always receive royalties. And a smart contract does not have the legal significance of copyright — it will take a relevant court case to see how smart contracts are regarded by the law.
Smart contracts are stored on blockchain, but most of the time the artwork itself is not stored on-chain because storing that much data there is too laborious and expensive, so those smart contracts contain a link to the work they represent. This means that many NFTs are composed of two parts, the smart contract and the asset itself. This can cause some confusion about where the value is actually stored. However, there are works that are not only just stored on-chain but are created using blockchain tech (more on this below).
While artists are constantly encouraged by their peers to make big bucks making NFTs of their work, there are obstacles. Perhaps the most prohibitive if that minting an NFT is not free. It costs money, and the more congested the Ethereum network is, the more computational effort is needed to mint something, the more that minting will cost. “Gas fees” refer to the amount of money needed to pay for the amount of computational effort extended, which is constantly fluctuating. Currently it would cost round $70 to mint an NFT on Ethereum. Minting isn’t always done by the creator of an NFT; certain platforms will offload that process and subsequent cost onto the consumer.
What are some of the issues with NFTs?
While NFTs have had a positive impact on many artists, there isn’t enough data available yet to see if NFTs are benefitting the many or just a select few. Detractors call NFTs a ponzi scheme. The only comprehensive study of NFTs to have been published collected prices from 2017 to April of 2021 and reported that $15 was the average sale price of 75 percent of NFTs, with only 1 percent of NFTs reaching prices higher than $1,500. This data, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. It is heavily skewed because the majority of its data points hailing from a time before NFTs were adopted at the current scale.
Theft is an issue. Artists who have held back on creating NFTs have often seen their work minted by unknown parties. Preventing theft is an ongoing challenge and only a few NFT marketplaces verify that a creator is the authentic artist before allowing the work to sell on their platform. Artists who have complained about this issue online have been told to create NFTs of their work just to stop theft, an imperfect solution that has artists feeling like they’re being forced to create NFTs. Additionally, many artists have refused to create NFTs on moral grounds, so where does that leave them?
One of the number one reasons some artists have held back from making NFTs because they don’t want to profit off of the polluting infrastructures of Ethereum. An explanation of this is complicated but basically an immense amount of computational power is needed to mine cryptocurrencies like Ethereum as well as perform basic transactions. Currently, one transaction on Ethereum consumes as much electricity as a house does during a workweek, according to Forbes. While there are alternative cryptocurrencies with a much lower environmental footprint, like Tezos, they have not yet been adopted widely (and the NFT platform built on Tezos recently dissolved). Some NFT platforms buy carbon offsets to mitigate their impact but actual efficacy of carbon offsets is debatable. The majority of the NFT community has looked past the environmental impacts because Ethereum 2.0 is coming, which will utilize a significantly less polluting infrastructure. It is said to be arriving early 2022, though its deployment has been “imminent” for years.
Do NFTs constitute an artistic movement? A medium? A genre?
Yes and no. Digital art, new media art, software and blockchain art all represent genres that take advantage of varying specific digital mediums. Work created through any digital medium, or even traditional mediums, can become an NFT. However, there are cases when an artist will use blockchain and smart contracts to create the artwork itself, and it is in these cases only that NFTs represent a medium. It is in these cases that the rift between smart contract and artwork are healed, because they are one and the same.
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Regardless of questions of tech versus medium, it’s also clear that the NFT market has uplifted certain kinds of aesthetics and processes. Artistic values in the NFT community have shifted, expanded, and contracted and evolved again over the past year as collectors, mainly outside of the art world, develop their tastes in tandem with the challenging market. Collectors are not just building up private collections for their own enjoyment. The majority of collectors are more analogous to stock traders, betting on particular collections to rise in value, thus making them perfect for flipping, or as stable stores of value of their cryptocurrency.
Though we have been discussing NFTs through the lens of art, the majority of content being minted is categorized as gaming and collectibles, though there are large swaths of NFTs where the line between collectibles and artworks are blurred–as we see in the contemporary, traditional art world. There is a higher profit margin to be found in works sold as art rather than as collectibles, and so long as auction houses, collectors, and other institutions know that, it may be difficult to clarify the boundary between those two categories. But 2021 left little space for wider debate as the baffling and novel market evolved at lightning speed. Perhaps 2022 will leave space for the art world and the public to come to their own conclusions.