Issue #20.1: why do NFTs look like that?
Thinking about the semiotics of web3
Heyyyy you guys ✨
Long time no speak. It’s just me, your friendly neighbourhood femmebot, entering the new year with some fresh aspirations to spend more time thinking, writing, and showing up unannounced in your inbox. This is the first in a three-part series I’ll be delivering over the next couple of weeks, in which I’ll be exploring why NFTs look the way they do.
When people think of TikTok, they think of teens doing dance challenges, despite its growing appeal among older adults. When they hear the word ‘influencer’, they think of slender white women carrying smartphones and pumpkin spice lattes, despite the industry’s diversity. A few years from now, who knows where NFTs will be. But what’ll come to mind? And why?
All thoughts and analyses are of course my own, skewed by my experiences of life on Earth.
The NFT gold rush has been as expectedly polarising as anything that suddenly erupts from the crevasses of digital culture into the mainstream. Mostly seeded out to the masses via snarky tweets and headlines making outlandish promises about a future few of us have yet to grasp an understanding of, they seem to be inescapable. But according to research I commissioned for We Are Social, 85% of social media users globally don’t understand what NFTs are.
The narratives in my own sphere of reference overlap with broader critiques of web3 technologies and the communities that drive them: a discourse overwhelmingly dominated by environmental anxiety, call-outs of crypto bros, and a whole lot of scams. Recently, a Tumblr blog named urfaveisunfuckable very publicly shut down after one of its mods was outed as a former NFT-minter, seeing them immediately rejected from their creative collaborators and even receive death threats from anonymous followers. Loads of people really don’t love NFTs or the individuals behind them.
There are certainly creators and communities pushing for a more positive public profile for web3 – from communities like web3baddies ‘for girlies, gays, non-binaries, & baddies’ to art collectives like Folia who are opening up access to the blockchain for artists. But the reality is that the mainstream uptake of this tech has been dictated by a privileged and predominantly male subset of the internet. A full 77% of the cash generated by NFT art sales over 2020 and 2021 went to male creators, with just 5% going to female artists. Not to mention the fact that the uptake in conversation is directly tied to the obscene wealth at stake: in 2021 alone, collectors and traders spent $22 billion on these previously unknown assets.
ANYWAY what’s most interesting about the sudden explosion of NFTs into the mainstream lexicon (imo) is the long-term impact the past year will have. The artists and aesthetics that generated the most hype during 2021 have embedded clear 'codes' that signify NFT status – forming the groundwork for the signs and symbols that people will continue to associate with the space, even as it evolves and diversifies. In a post titled ‘in the future everything looks awful’, cultural theorist and strategist Livvi Yallop describes the aesthetic of NFTs as “slick, 3D, weightless, consciously digital, elaborately textured, futuristic, retrofuturistic, manufactured, fractured, glitching, abstract, illuminated, lucid, looping.”
But what do these aesthetics tell us about the cultural context from which they’ve sprung? Here, I’m going to try to deconstruct some of the dominant codes in this discourse to find out.
(Where you might find what NFTs look like to the everyperson)
The 15 NFTs that sold for the most money in 2021, and other work from the artists responsible for them. These include work from Pak, Beeple, Mad Dog Jones, CryptoPunks, ‘Stay Free’ by Edward Snowden, ‘This Changed Everything’ by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, ‘Save Thousands of Lives’ by Noora Health, various imagery of Doge
Top images from a Google image search for NFTs at the time of writing (aware this will differ slightly between users but just go with it, k?). These include all the above, plus Bored Ape Yacht Club, CryptoKitties, Nyan Cat
Work from the artists mentioned or depicted on the Wikipedia page for ‘Non-Fungible Tokens’. These include VeKings, Curio Cards, EtherRocks
I came to this project with the hopes of getting an understanding of the flippant assumptions that people make about NFTs, and frankly, to throw out some snarky hot takes. ANNOYINGLY loads of interesting themes emerged that actually say a lot about the current state of play in contemporary culture.
Either way, a lot of people’s first impression of this space may well proliferate from, or overlap with, two major tensions:
1. Playful vs. Provocative
While some of the aesthetics of NFTs are playful verging on infantile (apes dressed as pirates or Doge reframed as a Pokémon card), appearing to create safe space away from the culture wars of the wider internet, others are more explicitly provocative and in explicit opposition with the status quo.
This tension tracks with the ‘manchild’ persona that has become the poster child for NFTs. What defines this stereotype is a desire to have fun, enjoy life and amass capital, offset by a Kendall Roy-esque lack of identification with the stuffiness of corporate/financial culture, and a desire to provoke change or otherwise take it down. “I’m not a normal financial bro/art bro, I’m a cool bro, a crypto bro.”
2. Sincere vs. Satirical
Some of the most popular NFTs have been created and designed with sincere tech utopianism in mind (from marking the beginning of the internet as a key moment in history to raising funds to save lives), while others appear to have a double-meaning, using satire/ subversion to highlight the sociopolitical grievances of late capitalism and big tech.
This tension reflects the ongoing conversation around the pros and cons of web 3.0 tech, and whether it’ll level up the human race or catalyse our journey into the hellfire.
Conveniently, the more meaningful observations I had about what may drive the communities behind NFTs can be mapped onto these tensions quite neatly. The mapping looks like this:
SO what do these spaces look like, and what do they say about our relationship with technology, the internet, the future, the past, identity, culture, etc.?
Here’s a topline on the four themes that emerged:
1. Reclaiming History
NFTs (and the abundance of capital they represent) retroactively attribute value and importance to web 1.0 memes, milestones and moments.
2. The Digital Village
NFTs (and the notions of decentralisation they represent) demonstrate the positive impact that digital culture and communities can drive.
3. Capitalist Cosplay
NFTs (and their predominantly Millennial advocates) facilitate safe spaces for financial experimentation amid a wider set of broken systems.
4. Subversion as Status
NFTs (and the web 3.0 rebellion they represent) signal anti-establishment ideals, using them to gain social capital.
In Part II, I’ll unpack the aesthetics of the first two themes: Reclaiming History and The Digital Village.
If you made it this far and you’ve got an opinion, please send me your praise, your arguments and your thoughts. OR send me some requests for future analyses.