This episode is all about NFTs. It seems like nothing has caught on and spread into mainstream interest like NFTs, where one hears everything from “I’ve never seen anything like this before” to “is this like ICOs all over again” to “it’s just a jpg I don’t get it” to “but what about the energy use!”
So, in this special deep-dive episode from the a16z Podcast network, we break down everything you need or want to know about NFTs — while cutting through the noise for what’s hype/ what’s real, as well as where are on the long arc (and sometimes seemingly sudden tipping point!) of innovation (apparently, Google trends data showed that interest in NFTs recently surpassed interest in cryptocurrency). Editor in chief Sonal Chokshi interviews friends of a16z crypto Linda Xie, co-founder of Scalar Capital and former Product Manager at Coinbase; and Jesse Walden, founder at Variant Fund and former co-founder of Mediachain Labs (which was acquired by Spotify, where he was then an R&D lead).
Posted on both the a16z Podcast show and 16 Minutes — as one of our “2-3x explainer episodes” of topics that keep coming up over and over again in the news (past such episodes have covered everything from Section 230 and Tiktok to GPT-3 and the opioid crisis) — this episode covers:
…This episode is for everyone!
Sonal: So. Let’s just start with a quick set of definitions: What IS an NFT?
Linda: So, NFT stands for “non-fungible token”, which is just a term used to describe a unique digital asset, whose ownership is tracked on a blockchain.
This can be a really broad set of assets from: digital goods, like virtual lands and artwork; to a claim on physical assets, like real estate or clothing items.
Sonal: What I heard you say there is not just digital, because it *can* cover something physical as well, that you can essentially represent as NFTs.
Linda: Yah. It’s a really really broad space; it’s exciting to see NFT art really take off, but this covers a lot of different industries as well.
Jesse: So, I like to focus on the digital side of things a little more, and, a metaphor that I would offer as a definition is NFTs are a way to make digital files ownable — instead of a financial asset, you can now own a digital media asset on the internet.
And that’s why the file metaphor is apt: You can now own a JPEG, own an MP3. And, what you’re essentially doing when you create an NFT, it’s sort of like metaphorically ‘uploading’ that file to the blockchain — such that anyone can track its provenance and attribution.
Sonal: So, Dixon described this in a recent blog post, very simply put, as: “NFTs are blockchain-based records, that uniquely represent pieces of media” — or in your words, Jesse, a file.
One more word to focus on is the “fungible” in the non-fungible token, which is that you can represent these items uniquely — I just want to really emphasize ‘cause, again when you think of $1, that’s fungible (or even a single bitcoin arguably is fungible) — but something fungible is interchangeable, replaceable; it doesn’t matter what dollar I have, as long as I have a $1.
But in this case, something is “non-fungible” means it’s super unique; and we can go into like what that means in a moment — but before we do, let’s talk now about the underlying crypto aspect of NFTs… not the specific crypto protocols, but maybe more broadly, what are the properties of crypto — ‘cause we don’t wanna make this conversation about crypto per se, but about how crypto enables NFTs.
When you think about the physical world: sometimes it involves a notary; like a third-party bank; it involves someone to (in the art world), like provenance-tracking through certificates… — this ability to own and track a digital file, without a third-party player intermediary, is key.
Jesse: That’s right, you depend on the bank to maintain the ledger; or the title to a property that you buy, there’s some property registry that the state or the city maintains. So you’re always dependent on a third party to track the attribution of ownership: how the title changes hands, how bank statements get updated.
And bitcoin changed the game because it enabled this public, decentralized ledger — where no one party is in control — and yet each individual owner of a bitcoin is able to verify their ownership using cryptography. As a result, you don’t have to depend on a single third party to verify ownership.
Linda: Yeah, middlemen are tracking ownership for people of all these different assets — and they’re taking fees for the service; they’re preventing some people from using the platform — and, what’s really powerful with crypto is you have all these open protocols that you can kind of plug into each other.
And so, when you have NFTs, you can plug them into decentralized systems and be able to trade these NFTs with anyone in the world, and have that be instantaneous. You can also imagine plugging into using your NFT as collateral; so let’s say you have video game items that’re worth a lot of money, you can actually imagine taking a loan out from them.
And so NFTs on the blockchain allow anyone to permissionlessly own, issue, trade them.
Sonal: And the other property of being able to track provenance; which has essentially a built-in secondary market to it — which is this idea that not only do you track the provenance, but you can actually track the financial benefits that accrue as a result of that built-in secondary market. This is particularly true in cases of digital artworks, etc.
Jesse: Yah, the secondary *resale* of an asset can be programmatically constructed, such that anytime the NFT changes hands, a portion of the resale value goes back to the original creator.
Sonal: And by when you say “programmatically”, automatically, that is a distinct property of crypto — specifically, smart contracts that you can do that type of programmability of a contract.
Jesse: Yeah, it can be totally automated, totally transparent — Contrast that with royalties in the music industry, which is like a completely opaque system with many layers of middlemen that are each taking a cut, right.
It’s a wildly more efficient architecture; that’s uniquely made possible by blockchains and smart contracts. The blockchain’s really good at tracking the history of things — Sonal, if you send me one bitcoin, everyone can see that you have one less and I have one more <Sonal: right> — and the history of that transaction is forever sort of enshrined on the blockchain. The same is true of non-fungible tokens in that, when they’re incepted or “minted”, they’re signed by the creator using their cryptographic keys — which now enables anyone to see okay this file was signed by this creator or this person — that message is constructed in the same way any other cryptocurrency transaction is constructed.
Thereafter, that NFT lives on the blockchain alongside all other transactions, and everyone can see it. And so if that NFT changes hands, and say Linda buys my NFT, everyone can see I transferred ownership to Linda. And as a result, we start to build this very rich history of the interactions people have with media on the internet. Whereas today, think about an image you see on Instagram: You could screenshot that; you know, crop it; and then paste it on another platform, say like repaste it on Facebook. And as soon as you do that, you break its entire history, its entire provenance — you no longer know who made it, what it’s about, where it originated… And, with this new sort of architecture, we can now sort of have a z-access into the entire history of any piece of media on the internet.
And: through that channel that information flows, value can also flow.
Sonal: Concretely for artists, this means an artist today who may have created a work 20 years ago — and that work completely appreciates in value, but the last owner is the only one who benefits from that — if the programmatic arrangement is that that artist continues to get value, they can always get paid on this built-in secondary market. Like, if it later becomes millions of dollars versus $500 for a painting, then you’re getting money back each time it is sold. Which is not possible before.
Jesse: And I think, important to note, that’s just *one* of the possible arrangements that can exist, when the rules around monetizing creativity can be expressed as code by any developer and any creator on the internet.
Linda: The ownership history is really important — the ownership history is something that is really uniquely accessible on the blockchain, because everyone can see, and therefore some items might be more meaningful to certain people. Let’s say “Magic: The Gathering” has a tournament where this deck of cards actually won this tournament, you might want to buy these set of cards because they’re historical, and the winner of these games actually used this deck to play.
From the art perspective, just imagine your favorite musician or creator owning a piece of art. And, now that ownership is just tracked in the blockchain, that piece of art might become more valuable to you because of who’s owned it in the past.
We also have a lot of projects that are working on fractionalizing NFT art: So, splitting up these NFTs into multiple pieces; and these individual pieces are also tracked on the blockchain, and you can trade them through decentralized exchanges.
So, it’s really powerful when you can plug these NFTs into all these different crypto protocols, because in a traditional system, these middlemen aren’t plugging themselves into all these other companies and middlemen. You can kind of freely do whatever you want with these NFTs, which I think is a really big difference.
Jesse: Yah, I think it’s important to contrast the way NFTs work to the way the traditional web works; so, with social media today, when you share a file or share a piece of media, you upload the file to the platform. And what’s actually happening under the hood is you’re “copy-pasting ownership” of the file to the platform: What I mean is that somewhere along the way you signed the terms of service that allows for the platform to monetize that piece of content as they see fit, and maybe they give you a cut of the revenue, maybe not — but the platform gets to make that call. And, they also get to make the call on how that content is consumed, and there’s not a whole lot of innovation going on there because any developer who plugs in to try to innovate has been shut down in the past.
Now, contrast that to NFTs — and I’m going to run with this metaphor of uploading a file to the blockchain —
Sonal: Keep goin’, I love someone who owns a metaphor… <chuckles> <Jesse chuckles> do it! <laughs>
Jesse: Okay, so, with this metaphor if you’re uploading files to the blockchain, and then those files become NFTs and they behave in the way that other crypto assets behave, that means that they’re permissionlessly accessible to anyone, anywhere with an internet connection. The implications are that any third-party developer can then innovate on the way that media is consumed: Like how the audience sees it, how people can interact with it or program it.
So, one way to think about what’s happening with NFTs is we’re building this universal, open media library — on top of which any developer can build the next Spotify, or build the next Instagram, or build the next Facebook — and when there’s a lot more competition, there’s gonna be a lot of benefit to consumers… and likely to creators as well — because as Linda mentioned, all of this can happen without the traditional middlemen taking a cut of the value that’s flowing between the creators and consumers.
Sonal: That’s great.
Let’s get a little specific, though — let’s actually talk about the forms NFTs are taking, specifically. I think this is a great place to help tease apart what’s hype/ what’s real, as is the premise of the show. And so far, I’m actually having a hard time — and I’m someone who’s been covering this space: I mean bitcoin since very early on, Ethereum since very early on, NFTs since very early on — and I am honestly confused myself! So, maybe you guys can just help break it down.
Just to quickly recap, Jesse, you’re saying any media file; Linda’s saying any good, digital or physical — that leaves pretty much anything… So specific examples include things like:
…Can you guys just quickly help tease apart what *is* and *isn’t* an NFT? It seems like everything is!
Linda: I really think that anything <chuckles> in the world can be an NFT… as in, anyone creates something that is unique, that can be owned.
The problem with physical goods is that you do have to have someone custody it, so there is a process behind that of having to make sure that you can audit that in the real world: And maybe multiple people own it, and it can’t be moved just by one person; so, there are pieces to that — but otherwise I find it to be an extremely broad category.
We’ve seen really cool things come about, where we’ve had the token-gated newsletters, which you mentioned — basically needing to have a certain number of tokens in order to access this newsletter. And people are doing like token-commissioned permission chats where these tokens are required to enter the chatroom and start talking so, you know everyone has like a level of skin on the game. You have to own like a certain amount of tokens in order to enter these groups: it proves that you have some sort of ownership into this community that can be adjusted over time. (The idea is that even one day that there could be DAOs formed where token holders can vote on how many tokens are required to enter this newsletter or chat group or something.)
And that piece, it’s kind of tangential to NFTs — I don’t necessarily think that social tokens themselves are NFTs, because sometimes people are creating these tokens that they’ve minted like a million of them; but if the creator of this group is issuing individual badges or unique items within that, then that can be an NFT.
Sonal: Can you say more on what you mean by “social tokens”?
Linda: Yeah; social tokens are just a really broad category of tokens that are issued by individuals or communities. So sometimes it’s- other terms are used like personal token, community token, creator token — but social token’s kind of the term that encompasses all of it.
And there’s just a bunch of different experiments happening in the space: So we’ve seen people tokenize their time; so one of these tokens equals one hour of their time, and that becomes freely traded. We’ve also seen someone like R.A.C (he’s a Grammy Award-winning recording artist) tokenize his social token, and his token holders get access to this private Discord group, and then they receive like all these additional benefits… and he retroactively distributed to his supporters — so this is a way that creators can interact with, and reward, their early supporters.
So it’s a really broad category and it can really be anything associated with an individual or community.
Sonal: And how is social tokens similar and adjacent to NFTs — and then when is it *not* NFTs? Can you help distinguish there, just to help the understanding of what is / isn’t an NFT.
Linda: Yah, sometimes social tokens can be NFTs in that a creator is issuing some unique piece of artwork directly to their fans — but in a lot of cases, social tokens can also just be fungible tokens. So like R.A.C. token, they’re all fungible so you can basically hold like a certain level of them, and that can always be traded and bought back and it doesn’t really matter which R.A.C. token you’re purchasing. So those are kind of more adjacent.
And I think the reason why social tokens and NFTs get lumped together a lot of times is just because it enables the creator economy, it enables creators to engage with their fans directly… and so, these are often tied pretty closely together.
Sonal: Right, but basically the bottom-line is — if it is fungible, it’s not an NFT; and if of course if it’s non-fungible (hence non-fungible token), then it is an NFT.
Jesse: I think the line between fungible and non-fungible tokens is blurry for a reason, and that’s because the interplay between the two is enormous:
So there’s this token called B.20 which is a fungible token. And it represents a claim on some of Beeple’s NFTs, which an investor bought and essentially fractionalized ownership to. And now that that B.20 token exists, it can be programmed into all sorts of other value: So in addition to owning a piece of a Beeple, you can imagine some third party spinning up say, a Discord server and saying you need a B.20 token to come in here and hang out. That’s an example where it started with a non-fungible token; Beeple created it; then a collector bought Beeple’s non-fungible token; fractionalized it into a fungible ERC-20 token (that’s the B.20 token) — and third-party developers can remix and add new experiences.
Linda touched on all of this, but the interplay between the two is important to note that you can easily take a non-fungible token and fractionalize it into fungible tokens, that then can become these social or community tokens. And so that’s a fun sort of design space to explore.
Sonal: I mean we’re talking so far about kind of digital versions of what already happens in the real world, being able to do things in different ways. But if you think about what’s NOT possible right now in the real world, the idea of fractional ownership is super important and goes to the things that crypto can uniquely do. ‘Cause right now, if you want to fractionally own an artwork — I mean, I guess there are some very kluge-y websites where you could go and kind of combine resources with somebody — but guess what <chuckles> you can’t really split a physical artwork! So, it kind of reminds me of that story, I don’t know, it’s like a Bible story about like splitting the baby; like, who’s the real mother? But the point is, you can enable fractional ownership.
I still am stunned at this idea with Top Shot, that you can essentially buy and own a *moment*, a favorite hit moment in a physical sports game. And by the way Linda, I’ve been meaning to text you about this, but I’ve been addicted to watching CLOY (Crash Landing on You, the K-drama); honestly when I think of all these amazing moments in a show like that, I know this sounds nutty, but what if people could bid and own moments on their favorite TV shows — as if it’s theirs — even if millions of people can watch it! Like, the idea that you can own it, and it’s part of your identity, is so freaking awesome.
Linda: That’s what I love about crypto, you can have these concepts that you never really would have thought about otherwise — about being to own moments, and media, and people’s lives — imagine like YouTube creators streaming what’s happening to their life, and be able to own really exciting moments of it. I mean there’s so much possibilities there… it’s really exciting to see people become so creative with NFTs and what you can own.
Sonal: On that note, let’s actually switch to what’s overblown or not, and tackle some common myths and misconceptions — everything from energy to whether it’s a hype cycle. And of course we’ll keep talking about the applications, but let’s first dig more deeply into what it means to own something digital.
Start with this common phrase: “It’s just a JPEG”. How would you guys address that comment — “like ohmygod someone spent f’ing $69 million for just a JPEG?!” I mean, Jesse, you’re saying it’s a file. Guess what? On the internet, files are pretty worthless, and infinitely replicable.
Jesse: So I would say that the number of times a file has been reproduced on the internet, is directly correlated to the value of that file’s NFT — meaning the more times a piece of media gets shared online, the more social value it has.
To make this concrete, it’s helpful to think about a very well-known piece of traditional art, like the Mona Lisa. Where the Mona Lisa has been reproduced probably a zillion times — it’s on every t-shirt, postcard sold at the Louvre; you can see it anywhere on the internet — yet there’s ONE Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum, and ownership of that piece of artwork is incredibly coveted, incredibly valuable.
Sonal: I have to admit I’m getting a little tired of the Mona Lisa analogy, but it is a useful one <chuckles> — the key point and what I really heard you say, which is so counterintuitive, is that something is more valuable the more that it is replicated…
And in fact, it just makes me think of how in general, as the world of the web became more about abundance versus scarcity — you know, the long tail is that you can have infinite choice on the web — it is really fascinating how people have been, when they went past the limits of the Blockbuster shelves in the physical-goods world, it’s interesting that Netflix would do things like binge seasons and drops, that kind of created this digital scarcity — like a limited-edition effect; like this thing is going to be on for three months, and then it disappears.
So it’s another analogy of this interesting relationship between something not being necessarily rare or scarce — and in fact, even infinitely replicable in the case of files and JPEGs — but you can enforce this digital owning, or even a piece of it (if you want to go into the fractional ownership bit), and that is incredibly unique.
Jesse: That’s the idea — is you’re not owning to try to be the ONLY person who can access a given JPEG or piece of media — rather you want to own the piece of media that everyone else sees.
Memes, you know, travel the internet at a rapid clip; they get shared infinitely — you can now own a piece of internet history, or the most viral meme. And I think very soon we’ll see that these owners are credited, socially, on platforms where that work is distributed.
Linda: We’re seeing that play out with CryptoPunks, which is just one of the earliest NFT projects. And we saw two CryptoPunks sold for $7.5 million each — one of the sellers being Dylan Field, who’s the CEO and co-founder Figma — and what’s really interesting about this is, yes, anyone could just copy this image…
Sonal: …He, himself — sorry to interrupt you — he, himself, could copy his image, because he had it as his profile photo for a while, and he had to like (he didn’t have to, but he chose to) take it off his Twitter profile. Which I thought was so funny. But keep going.
Linda: Yeah, exactly. So anyone can copy this; but if you actually look at the CryptoPunk NFT itself, you’ll see who owned this.
And the fact that somebody had owned this so early on… it’s almost become this status symbol where people want to demonstrate that they can prove their ownership really early on in this space. And so that ownership history also really matters: Being able to discover an artist or creator really early on, and being like one of the first supporters, and having that tracked on the blockchain. Future times when that is sold, you can prove that you were this early adopter, and that is very valuable to people.
Sonal: There’s a great analogy I heard, to extend what you said even further — but basically, if you think of the placard next to an artwork like at MoMA or some famous museum — it tells a description of what the art is, the materials, the date; the artist, if it’s not someone anonymous — and then it says at the very bottom, you know, sometimes in very small letters, who owns it, or it’s lent by someone on this collection so-and-so. And not everyone pays attention to that, because most people just care about the art, and then some people actually care about who owns it.
But now, you’re doing that exact same thing but on the internet, where the whole world can see it — not just like going physically to MoMA and seeing it. Or even to use Jesse’s analogy, Mona Lisa and seeing it in the Louvre; it’s like not only can you have that kind of insider notion of the ownership, but you can make it more outsider facing by letting everyone see it. That is pretty powerful.
Jesse: Yah, and developers are gonna lean into that. Because all that data about who owns it, where it came from, what its history online is — that’s just an API call away. And, right now, again it’s very difficult for developers to find all that information on web-2 platforms because the history of media is not tracked architecturally in the way that blockchains track it.
So it’s like a 100 times easier for developers to surface that information — and that’s why I think you’ll see that little placard in the museum — you’ll see the digital equivalent of that on all social surfaces in the near future.
Sonal: Did you guys see Matt Levine on Twitter, he said this line that “NFTs are a new form of tradable ostentation rather than a new form of tradable ownership.” Did you guys have any reactions to that?
Jesse: I mean ostentation is one of the reasons people might collect NFTs… but it’s not just the speculative value, or being ostentatious about being the owner — increasingly over time, I think owners of NFTs will start to realize more and more sort of compounding utility as developers build new spaces for you to bring your digital property. For example today, you can buy a piece of digital art as an NFT, and you can bring it into a virtual world (like Cryptovoxels or Decentraland) and display it there. And that’s a very early example of a third-party developer who has nothing to do with the creator of that NFT, being able to build a new virtual experience — that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s, you know any third-party developer can then build on top of Cryptovoxels because it, too, is open-source and permissionless.
And so what you start to see is this sort of Lego-block approach to building new experiences, where developers can build more with less, and the innovation compounds much more quickly. And so, that statement undervalues the possible utilitarian nature of being an owner.
Linda: Yah, I don’t really agree with that statement, ‘cause I think it dismisses a lot of the use cases. And if we even talk about the more traditional stuff — like NFTs representing tickets or financial assets or real estate — these are just more efficient ways of transferring, and without having as many paperwork and middlemen involved.
And so this is a net benefit to society, versus people trying to display their wealth.
Sonal: I’m so glad I asked you guys because again the premise of this show IS to tease apart what hype/ what’s real, and it is interesting that someone whose work I deeply respect… has an interesting observation — and to hear you guys push back on that.
What do you make of the comparisons that people are making to the ICO boom, what would your response be to that? ICO boom being “initial coin offerings” — playing off the term for IPO, obviously initial public offering — but in that case, it was more risky people argued, because an ICO was before the thing even existed. Like at least in an IPO, the company exists. By the way: Our friend Nick Tomaino made a simple observation that an NFT is a concrete product, a digital good, not a promise about the future, which I thought was a good argument. <Jesse: Yeah. I like that.> Any thoughts on what the hype/ what’s real on, “oh no, we’re in another ICO boom; it’s like tokens all over again”?
Linda: It just reminds me a lot of 2017 when a lot of people came into this space — and the word ICO was thrown out a lot, and there was definitely a lot of hype around that.
But, through that process, a lot of really incredible projects came out of crypto. And, a lot of people who joined the space ended up staying because they saw that it was a lot more than just-get-rich quick; and there were communities, and really unique ways of creating value in this world.
So, yes, there are a lot of people that have come into this space, wanna just make some money off of it — but there are a LOT of really creative people that have joined the space and are going to stick around, and experiment with what’s happening, and really build some things that we have just never seen before.
And it is nice that this time, it’s artists who have just worked so hard and are getting rewarded for this type of work. Someone like Beeple, who has been working on this craft for so many years, this is something that people are valuing.
Sonal: I mean, on Beeple specifically his work was digital from the beginning anyway, but he’s essentially creating — and this goes back to the definition, this kind of one-of-a-kindness — because it is an NFT, it is unique and trackable that way.
I do love that… but there’s no question there is like a hype cycle going on, we’re at that moment in whatever the Gartner curve, or whatever the framework you wanna use; there’s always a trough of disillusionment phase… I guess I just need a little bit more to understand, okay yes, this is very exciting — but right now, in this moment in time, how do we assess that it’s working / or not working?
Jesse: I think the question you’re getting at is what is valuable, which NFTs are valuable?
And the answer to that question is kind of like answering the question, “what is art?”; and my answer to that question would be whatever the beholder thinks is art. And similarly, whatever you know, the market thinks is valuable… is a valuable NFT. And that’s why I think you’re seeing such wide-ranging experiments in what can be transacted as NFTs, from blog posts, you know to digital art.
And there are a lot of niche groups that want to own you know an item that’s culturally relevant to them, for various reasons — whether it’s for speculation, the idea that they might be able to resell it in the future; or, you know, because they just want you know their name on this sort of digital placard next to the item to say “I supported this creator”, right like I wanted to you know support their work.
So there are a lot of different reasons people might value NFTs, and there’s a lot of different subcultures and value systems that you know comprise this market, and that’s why it’s sort of expanding in all directions.
Sonal: So the buzz is not necessarily a bad thing.
One of the things that came up a lot in the early days of the history of NFTs, starting with CryptoKitties, was the scaling problem, and the fact that Ethereum was not ready for that level of excitement yet — and it pushed a lot of solutions into thinking about scaling. So some of the hype cycle in 2017 actually led to good infrastructure improvements, and the installation of things we needed…
I mean it definitely makes me think that Mediachain was just a bit too early, actually. I remember… even before you guys founded Mediachain, always having this problem in the creator world of having to track libraries of digital assets, it was very difficult to find out — ‘cause the information was not coupled with the JPEG itself — forget even who owns it and who to pay, like you don’t even know who made it. And this is true of memes, everything, on the internet — which you know IS about remix culture, and extensibility, and-and composing things and combining them.
Jesse: Yeah, a lot of the ideas that are being realized around NFTs are ideas we were exploring back then. And there were two critical things missing from the ecosystem at that time: One was the ability to easily create a token — that’s uniquely enabled by a smart contract, and smart contract platforms like Ethereum, and Flow, and others. The other thing that was missing was markets for these digital assets: So, we now live in a world where roughly 10% of Americans own cryptocurrency. And so the idea that digital assets have value is sort of a prerequisite for digital MEDIA assets, like NFTs, having value.
To Linda’s point earlier, the 2017 market was a prereq for the NFT market today. So, the markets had to come first; markets drive — you know, they’re volatile, and they drive these speculative frenzies — but they also drive infrastructure, and mental models that stick.
Sonal: That’s a perfect segue to the next thing I wanted to talk to you guys about, which is the broader taxonomy of the players and the ecosystem that’s already emerging around all this.
And before we do, let’s quickly talk about how they work, to help make it concrete — like step 1-2-3 to minting an NFT, trading it, doing whatever?
Linda: Okay; step one would just be deciding to put your work as a representation on the blockchain. And so “minting” involves really interacting with the smart contract, and submitting that — there are different marketplaces that try to make that really easy for you to do it. And so some of them will have a button that you’ll click to mint this process, you can select different attributes of like what’s the name of this piece of artwork, what’s kind of the royalties involved if there are secondary sales, like how much do you want involved?
So, a lot of these will make it super easy for you to go through that process. I think the hardest part actually, is getting set up with a wallet, and onboarding yourself into accepting cryptocurrency and that piece — but there are marketplaces now that make it accessible.
And some marketplaces will also maybe have you go through some onboarding process — and so they might have some due diligence on the artist; and making sure this is um real artwork and not copied by some other artist; and making sure it’s really high-quality pieces — and there are others that are just like hey, anyone can mint this.
So, it’s quite a spectrum right now.
Sonal: That’s great… but, I gotta set up my MetaMask, and like what does that even mean? Can you guys explain the wallet part too as well, ‘cause one theoretically does not necessarily have to actually interact with cryptocurrencies directly — so, if you guys could break down really quickly that bit too.
Jesse: Sure I can take a stab at that. So, the concept of a crypto wallet boils down to what’s called a public and private key pair — So, basically you have a public address on the blockchain, which is where your assets/ your stuff is associated: So, Sonal has a public address, and you can tweet that out and say, “Hey, I’m Sonal, here’s my public address, and here’s all my stuff.” And your Bitcoin can be at that address; on Ethereum you’d have a different address, and all your stuff on the Ethereum blockchain would be associated with your public key.
And then there’s the private key — the private key is what unlocks the transfer of assets in your wallet. So you need the private key to unlock stuff at your public address, and that’s the concept of a crypto wallet. MetaMask is the most popular wallet for Ethereum, and it’s a browser extension (you can install it on any popular browser); and, essentially what it’s doing is it’s setting you up with a public address for the Ethereum blockchain, and a private address.
And what’s critical to note: Is that cryptographic key pair, it doesn’t belong to MetaMask, it belongs to YOU; MetaMask never sees the key pair, they don’t have any of the information, it’s yours. And that comes with a lot of responsibility, because if you lose your private key, you lose all your stuff — it’s kind of like cash in your wallet. And that’s why it’s called a “wallet” (even though it’s a little bit of a misnomer, because you can only do so many things with your physical wallet) but I think the reason that name has stuck, is that your cryptographic wallet behaves like a physical wallet in that if you lose it… all your cash is gone.
Sonal: Okay, so now continuing the process, so we understand now how the wallets work, the browser extension for the wallet, some platforms can let you like literally create — sorry, mint an NFT — because you can create the artwork in any form you like, or whatever the object is, or digital asset or file.
Now what happens after you mint it, what’s the next thing that happens? So you can put a name on it, you can specify program terms, you know what kind of royalties, different systems may have different options: Some of them themselves take 10%; others you can program in like as this increases in this much value; I’ve seen people do creative stuff like the artwork reveals itself the further you go along the bonding curve — like they’re doing creative stuff with the art itself kind of interacting, so it’s not just like a static piece of art that just happens to be going through this chain… What happens after the minting?
Linda: You can do different things, depending on what you want to do with your NFT. So once you mint on these marketplaces, you can just have it listed, and try to share this link with other people, and have them bid on the piece of art. You can set a price; you can have people bid and then accept different bids.
Or, you could just have this created for yourself: And, let’s say you want to make some worlds in a virtual land, and display your artwork in a virtual art gallery, and just place your artwork there…
There’s all kinds of different things you can do with it if you think this piece is really valuable. I’ve actually seen people talk about swapping NFTs; so different artists are like swapping with each other. I’ve also seen people put up the art as collateral, and then get out a loan for it.
So, you can really do whatever you want with this. But the most common, basic thing I’ve seen is just people selling their artwork, and someone purchasing it, and then maybe storing that like on their virtual land, or having it displayed on their profile. And there’s like a social element to it: People talk about it a lot, like hey I just purchased this piece of art, and they’ll talk about it on Twitter. And there’s an app that aggregates purchases from all of these different marketplaces, and displays it almost like an Instagram feed — so you can have like a social element to who’s purchasing what, who owns what, and have people form communities around it.
Sonal: I’ve also often wondered if there will be like a Pinterest for NFTs, where even if you’re not the owner, you can kind of… “collect” it. Like one of the things that I use Pinterest for is it’s sometimes aspirational stuff I would never, ever buy — and just like having Pinterest boards is a way for me to “collect” it in a different way. Like I wonder if that would even happen, and if people would create, like, fees for doing that as well. I don’t know if you guys have seen that yet, but I wonder about that.
Linda: I could see something like that happening, and, also just the fractionalization aspect to it — you can cut it up to really really really tiny pieces, and maybe people can own just really tiny elements of this piece as you’re looking through your Pinterest board or something.
Sonal: So, what you guys just described as all these different steps, there’s a whole ecosystem of players that have now emerged and are continuing to emerge. We’ve already named a few — like sites for showcasing an online collection; displays; like online galleries, we have curated galleries coming up; we have marketplaces; we have other tools for managing details… How would you break down the taxonomy — give me a map, and the terrain.
Jesse: Yeah so there’s vertical marketplaces, right, where there’s marketplaces for like curated art or for certain types of collectibles. And then there’s horizontal marketplaces, like OpenSea, where that’s more of a search box for all NFTs. And the reason they can do that is all these NFTs live on the blockchain, it’s completely open. So they can query the blockchain and aggregate all of them. And you can find literally, pretty much every NFT on a horizontal marketplace like OpenSea.
Sonal: Which is great, because not everybody knows how to interface with crypto. This is like the way the web itself evolved.
Jesse: Right. And then, each of these kinds of marketplaces — both vertical and horizontal — more often than not, allow creators to mint, on the platform. Simple way to think about it: there’s both supply and demand: and you can either get it in the vertical form, which is specialized; or horizontal, which is sort of everything.
One ofth really interesting phenomenon that’s happening on the demand-side of the market is you’re starting to see these really interesting collector… organizations sprout up: So, crypto makes it really easy to send value — like as easy as sending an email — as a result, people are pooling value in interesting ways in order to participate in this market. One really cool experiment is this thing called Flamingo DAO (DAO stands for decentralized autonomous organization) — the core idea is you can pool resources with anyone with a crypto wallet; send money into this smart contract, that acts as sort of like a bank account, and then that bank account can go and buy NFTs. The group can buy NFTs.
And so what that kind of looks like is… maybe something like a fund, or you could call it a “gallery” that’s acquiring work. And by being in that collection, the creators’ gaining distribution to the audience of collectors/investors who pooled resources in the first place. So that’s another really interesting phenomenon that’s uniquely crypto enabled. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more of that.
Sonal: I do too, and I looove that because one of my favorite things in the creator economy in general is the way collectives can emerge, both ephemerally and permanently (I have like a whole tweetstorm about this) — but I think it’s super powerful to think about what happens when you unlock that kind of coordination… Keep going.
Jesse: Yah. I mentioned vertical and horizontal marketplaces; there’s also adjacent just media platforms — like we touched on Denis’s project Mirror — which is a blogging platform, where anyone can mint their blog posts as an NFT.
And the question, why would you want to mint sort of a blog post or an essay as an NFT?
Sonal: Yes, thank you for answering that!
Jesse: <chuckles> If you’re an investigative journalist for example, there’s not a whole lot of great tools for you to monetize as an independent right now; subscription can be less conducive to long-form journalism. And what’s kinda cool about Mirror is — similarly to the prior idea of people pooling money — it allows for a writer’s audience, to pool resources in the form of a crowdfund: “Hey, I want to see this investigative report written, and here’s the money to do it.”
And as a participant in that crowdfund, you don’t just become a patron of the creator, or the writer: You become an owner, a fractional owner, of the NFT that they produce when they publish that blog post. And, you can sort of analyze the psychology of one of these backers, but I think it boils down to two things: There’s the idea of *patronage*, right, you’re being a patron of this creator and helping them get the work done; but there’s also this vague notion that, in the future, if this piece becomes very valuable, I’ll be on the “cap table” of the post. Like Elon Musk published his famous blog post, the secret masterplan of Tesla. And just recently, you saw Jack, founder of Twitter, sell his first tweet (ever) as an NFT for millions of dollars.
So, you can see this idea going a lot further: Where new, big ideas enter the world as blog posts, and people crowdfund those big ideas that they want to see happen in the world, and become part-owners in the blog posts — that becomes the sort of canonical representation of that idea.
Sonal: I saw Dylan Field post a thread a couple of days ago that I thought was wonderful, talking about some of the extension of ideas around NFTs. He described like “proof of fandom” — and we have lingo in the crypto world of “proof of stake”, “proof of work”; and it was neat to have this idea of “proof of fandom” — it kind of ties back to this idea of monetizing moments as well.
And in this case you’re talking about ways for creators to have their fans — and one thing we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast; I did a podcast with Kevin Kelly about how you can actually invert the model of payments, where it’s not a creator selling, but buyers and fans monetizing *their* attention — And so the idea of that is super interesting… because you can imagine fans and collectives like buying and owning these things.
And Dylan even went so far to point out even “community as art” in that example, which I thought was super interesting.
Linda: So, that’s an area that I’m really excited to see… I haven’t really seen too many people working on this yet, but, the idea of having so many DAO members being able to vote how this artwork looks and kind of have it be collective artwork.
I was in this DAO called Saint Fame, and we would vote on different parameters of the design of clothing items, and then this DAO would manufacture them and ship them to people that purchased it. And so you had like this group of people deciding what the design looks like, and you can imagine that anyone can join these DAOs — it could even be anonymous people and from all over the world. And so you can collectively create or invest in things together, which is really exciting to me.
Sonal: Connie Chan (our partner) has often talked about influencer monetization, and she talks a lot about what happens in China with livestreaming and how a lot of fans will ask their audience like “Should I wear this today, and do that?” And some of it can kind of veer on dystopian in some models, but in many ways, it’s also incredibly empowering that you can choose to monetize the things you want to and have models for doing it.
But right now, it’s the platforms that take all the money. So what’s really interesting about what you just described is that you could essentially do the exact same thing — but in this sense, you’re creating not just artworks, but you’re actually creating collaborative decisions around… a person’s wardrobe, or a fashion line, or however they want to develop products (even physical products) based off of that. Which I think is super fun and interesting too.
Jesse: Just one last thing to add there, along the lines of proof of fandom, is this idea I’ve been calling “Patronage Plus”: So in Web 2, it’s very easy to become a patron of an artist or creator whose work you admire, by subscribing to them on Substack or paying a subscription on Patreon. And what that essentially does is gives you access to their work, but it also allows being a supporter financially of the work itself.
NFTs allow you to do the same thing: in some cases, the NFT can give you access to a Discord or a newsletter (and we touched on that) — but the *plus* part of patronage plus is what’s new and uniquely-enabled by digital ownership. And that is the possibility of being able to profit in the future from the resale of that ownership to someone else, maybe as the creator’s profile raises or the demand for their work grows.
And, I think that “plus” is really key because it’s a very strong incentive to become a patron in the first place. So, patronage plus may end up growing the market way bigger than patronage that we saw in Web 2.
Sonal: What’s so amazing about that is the golden age of art, many argue — like in the Renaissance era in Italy, Medici family, etc. — people argue that patronage in the first place is what unlocked that. And so what you’re describing is a more democratized form of patronage, and the “plus” is a way to really have this knock-on effect over time — which is really investing and democratizing — in a way that is accessible, to everybody. Because it’s not just the rich Renaissance families that can do the funding of the arts.
Jesse: Yeah, it mixes patronage with capitalism.
Linda: Yeah. So there’s a DAO called Yield Guild Games that I’ve been participating and active in, and there’ve been people in the Philippines who have been earning a living wage playing — like Jesse talked about you have these DAOs being able to own NFTs — and what they do, they’re a DAO of gamers: gamers from all over the world who are participating in these blockchain games.
And there’s one really popular game called Axie Infinity — you have these like Pokemon-like creatures that battle each other, and each of these are NFTs — and you can battle and earn currency in this game. And sometimes these Pokemon creatures, like they might be too expensive because they’re so valuable. And so what we’ve actually seen in this DAO is players within this DAO leasing out NFTs to other players. It’s a really cool collective of people being able to join this group of gamers. And one thing that they’re doing right now is this DAO is investing in virtual land in the games that they’re playing, because they’re experts in these games themselves. And they’re actually developing like the land in these games as if…just in like a physical world of developing real estate and making it better (the idea is that they’re going to be just owning tons and tons of virtual land).
Sonal: One quick thing — again, a DAO is a decentralized autonomous organization; people have often talked about cryptoeconomies over time enabling these sort of organizations because the history of the firm is very much entrenched in a physical world, not a digital world — but why do these things have to exist as a DAO; what’s the point of that? I’m asking because I’d want to know like, why a DAO specifically.
Linda: So I don’t think everything has to be a DAO; there are plenty of times where a company makes a lot more sense.
But, what’s really interesting about DAOs is there is a lot of more transparency — and so the funds that are managed by the DAO, it’s completely transparent where funds are being moved to and from, anyone can view the balance at any point in time. As you can imagine, a traditional company, you don’t have access to the balance sheet at all periods of times; and oftentimes, they’re just maybe released on a quarterly or annual basis.
So the DAOs even the playing field, create more transparency; there’s lower barriers to entry in a lot of cases: You don’t even have to reveal your identity; it’d be really hard to join a company where no one knows who you actually are. That just fits very closely with the ethos of crypto of: global, open, kind of nature. <Jesse: Yup>
Sonal: And by the way to be very clear, we don’t mean identity as in like anonymous, because you’re pseudonymous technically; like people can actually trace WHO you are without actually knowing who you are.
So, now I’m going to have you guys break down even more misconceptions for me — like we talked about “just a JPEG, what’s so unique about a JPEG” — but there’s actually a lot more misconceptions, especially given recent buzz, all this commentary about “the energy, the energy, like minting is all this energy”.
This is obviously an artifact of people thinking in terms of Bitcoin, which can be energy intensive; so, can you help clarify the energy question when it comes to NFTs?
Linda: Well I think that there are a lot of misconceptions around that. So yeah, proof of work does require energy, but not every blockchain is proof of work. Proof of work involves physical miners actually verifying that these transactions happened. And so it’s just really energy intensive because you have to prove that you’re expending some sort of work, to produce this output.
And so in Ethereum’s case, they’re migrating from proof of work to proof of stake — which is kind of equivalent of virtual mining – so, rather than spending let’s say $1000 on mining equipment, you’re taking that $1000 and locking it up into the system, and being randomly selected to verify based off the capital that you put in. So it’s just a virtual aspect of mining, and you don’t have to have the physical ones expanding energy.
And then increasingly, we’re also having more movement towards Layer 2, like protocols built on top of Ethereum. Because people do want the be less energy intensive when it comes to verifying ownership on a blockchain. So there’s going to be less of that narrative, I think, going forward.
Jesse: Even proof of work mining gets more of a bad rap than it deserves; it’s certainly true that it consumes a lot of energy. However, a lot of the miners who are doing the proof of work locate in areas where there is latent capacity — so renewable sources of energy that are untapped, for example like hydropower; there’s excess demand, well then it goes into mining. Like for example, there’s like natural gas emissions from oil fields; and that’s gas that is otherwise, it’s going into the atmosphere, but instead can be burned to produce proof of work proofs and earn Bitcoin.
I’m not, you know, defending this practice. But I’m just noting that a lot of these emissions are either sort of latent, OR, a large part of the energy mix of proof of work mining is from renewables. And that again, is part of the conversation that’s under-discussed.
Sonal: I am so glad you brought it up because the whole point of the show, again, is to give the nuance, that may or may not exist out there.
Jesse: I also think a lot of the noise out there about the energy consumption of NFTs, really fails to take in the sort of relative measure of energy consumption more broadly.
So, if you think about something like Art Basel, there’s a lot of very rich collectors who fly private to Art Basel every year in order to collect work. And I don’t know what the emissions of all those private jets is, but I would expect it’s a lot of CO2. And so to get into the game of quantifying the specific emissions of an artist’s work, I think is a very complex topic that’s sort of under-appreciated in 140 or 280 characters on Twitter when you say “Oh, this NFT caused X amount of CO2 emissions.” Well, what about all the freeports, what about all the private jets flying to Basel every year?
So it’s a very nuanced topic, and I don’t think it’s fair to creators who are just using these new tools — which are becoming more and more efficient — to shut it down on the basis of this very headline-grabbing, relative value measure.
Sonal: That’s fantastic. By the way I have been to Art Basel Miami, not the one in Switzerland, in 2006; I did not fly in a private jet, I was a grad student, I did not have that much money — but yes, I agree with you, that it would be very slippery slope.
Linda: I also saw a tweet by Andrew Steinwold saying that actually, these digital art[s] are actually really environmentally friendly in that you’re not buying all these like physical supplies of like cotton for canvases, and wood for easels, and oil… And then you have all these shipping costs of moving this artwork to other people.
There is always going to be aspects to anything that’s created, that you can always analyze and look at what is not environmentally friendly about it.
Sonal: You’re absolutely right, and in fact, one of my absolute favorite artists, I bought a painting from her. I went to her show in New Orleans; I flew. She shipped the art to me afterward, it was such a process trying to bring it here, and the shipping — just even the materials to pack it, like all of it, it was intense and very complicated — and in fact, I had to hire someone to help me open the crate because it’s like screwed in, in wood. It was like not even possib- there was energy used to like take the thing out of this box. <Jesse chuckles> So, I agree with you. It’s a very tricky game to start comparing on that front.
Okay! This idea of “permissionless”, you used that phrase a lot. If I were like a regulator and hearing that, I would freak out and be like, “Permissionless?! That means all kinds of bad behavior and actors and blah blah blah.” How would you address the concerns about things being permissionless — or even this idea that you know, you can’t even recover your key if it’s lost — there’s not like someone who’s holding that for you.
Jesse: We can define it in the same way like cash is permissionless, right. Again, the wallet analogy is useful because if you lose your wallet, chances are you lose your cash and it’s gone. And similarly in the cash economy, you can buy all kinds of goods; they can be illegal goods, or they can be perfectly normal goods, and cash is used for both things. And so the same is true of cryptocurrencies, and I think the same is true of NFTs.
There’s going to be bad actors right, there’s going to be people infringing on other people’s IP — and you know the legal system is going to have to step in and address those issues. However the benefits I think far outweigh any sort of negative or nefarious uses of the technology in that any developer can build new experiences around the way we consume media… again, when you contrast today where only the developers who work at Facebook or only the developers who work at Twitter can experiment, and innovate on the information that we see on those platforms… I think we’re in a much healthier state if EVERY developer in the world is free to innovate in a open way, without having to ask permission of these big platforms.
Sonal: Right, that’s what you mean by permissionless. And by the way, it’s worth noting all those examples you cited — copyright infringement, IP, etc. — that’s pretty prevalent in the physical world, and you don’t often always have recourse (unless you’re Getty in doing this ridiculous royalty and provenance tracking).
And, we’re talking about you actually have the solution baked into the very problem in the system here.
Jesse: Yeah, in one sense, you could argue that blockchains actually make the job of forensics a lot easier because all the information is publicly accessible and available to anyone.
Sonal: Our partner Katie Haun would obviously argue for that argument; I mean, at the DOJ that’s literally what she did!
Jesse: Right, it’s all about finding the right balance where the bad actors can be addressed, and meanwhile the good actors are free to innovate.
Sonal: Okay, so last thing. Can you guys give some just super quick practical considerations for startups or industry? I’d love to particularly hit mindsets, it doesn’t have to even be advice — for people who are consumers, people who are creators, and even institutional players.
Linda: I find that just having conversations, and kind of plugging yourself into communities, and building in public is always really great to do in the crypto space. This space is still really early on, and people are all trying to figure everything out. So no one is a complete expert on what’s happening in NFTs and everyone’s very open to talking, collaborating. So never be afraid of asking questions; joining different communities on Discord, or Twitter, or wherever they’re chatting.
Sonal: Big corporates and the big institutional banks and big DeFi players like banking and traditional players — they’re not the types to go into a Discord and try things out or have the mindsets you outlined. Any thoughts there, for that group?
Linda: Traditional institutions can consider how NFTs could make things more efficient for themselves — so having these financial assets that everyone has to keep track of, might be really inefficient or costly. NFTs will enable this to just be a lot smoother of a process for them.
So it may be worth looking into research — it doesn’t have to be digital art that they’re turning into NFTs; it could also just be unique financial assets that they have to manage themselves.
Jesse: Yeah, big corporates and others participate in the markets for creative work, through various channels, a lot of companies work with creators and influencers on marketing and distribution. And NFTs offer a new channel for both of those things, right?
I also think that, coming to be an owner of a creator/influencer’s work will be another way to gain their attention and potentially gain distribution through the lens of marketing. And that’s kind of an interesting idea.
Sonal: One of the ones that I find very compelling is a new definition of employees in a modern era, where employees can be creators while working for a company and kind of get more ownership of their ideas — ‘cause traditionally it’s like very binary model; there’s not like a middle ground — and I wonder if that’s going to evolve through NFTs within companies, and even extending outside the borders of companies like in a classic open-innovation model.
Jesse: So I think you’re touching on a really big idea — I would describe that as the ownership economy — where, in Silicon Valley, employees at startups get equity in a startup to align their incentives with the success of the company. And that model has worked really well for attracting the best talent to kind of work at startups. But it’s not been accessible to everyone, right, and as a result, the talent pool is not as big as it could be. And crypto kind of changes the game in that now it’s possible to send ownership value — whether an NFT or ownership of the bitcoin network — which you can now send that anywhere in the world instantly. And as a result, you can make ANYone an owner on the internet.
And so I think this is a really profound idea where, it’s going to change the way that people come to work, in that they won’t have to go and become a full-time employee to earn some ownership value for the value that they contribute to the platform or service that they’re building or consuming.
Sonal: Which reminds me of course of that famous Bill Joy quote that we all love which is that the smartest people in the world won’t ever all work for you. So, if you’re gonna embrace open innovation, open source, or extend your talent pool, that is a great way to give those employees quote-“ownership” — even if it’s fractional ownership, which is great.
Jesse: Yeah, and NFTs make it accessible to everyone, not just technologists but consumers and creators as well.
Sonal: Awesome you guys. So on this show — even though this a 3x explainer episode — I ask people to kind of give me a quick, short, you know “what’s your bottom-line” on this whole theme; give it to me.
Jesse: I have a media background, so I love to fixate on a future where literally, every piece of media is incepted as an NFT — I’ve used this term a few times in the discussion, but I think what we’re building here is this universal library of media that’s programmable and where value flow is baked into the technology itself. And that’s just going to lead to a renaissance in online creativity, where the creators of the work are remunerated more fairly than they have in the sort of Web2 era.
Linda: Yeah, there’s a lot of really exciting stuff happening in the NFT art space, and we have so many creative people coming in and it’s going to make crypto overall much better. But NFTs are also applicable to many industries where you track ownership, and currently have a middleman taking fees for that service. So, I expect there to be NFTs in all kinds of different industries like gaming and finance and healthcare and all kinds of other areas.
Sonal: It’s an inevitable story of technology that you give people tools and things will happen — so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when we unlock that human ingenuity. You guys, thank you so much for joining this week’s episode, this 3x explainer episode of “16 Minutes”. Thank you so much, Linda and Jesse.
Jesse: Thanks for having us.
Linda: Thank you.
Sonal Chokshi is Editor in Chief of Crypto at Andreessen Horowitz.
The a16z Podcast discusses the most important ideas within technology with the people building it. Each episode aims to put listeners ahead of the curve, covering topics like AI, energy, genomics, space, and more.