NFTs: The Internet’s New, Lucrative, and Controversial Art Form

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Sotheby's / Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow / License Not Applicable

A collage of Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT’s, AI-generated drawings that have become some of the most popular items on the NFT market.

Brigham Larson, Reporter

Exactly one year ago today, the vast majority of the American population had no idea what an NFT was. Even if they did, nobody would really pay them much attention. The citizens of America had bigger fish to fry, such as getting the virus to finally end and sorting out the incessant flurry of information about the January 6th Capitol riot.

And then a man nobody had ever heard of burst onto the scene and changed everything.

On March 11, 2021, Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, sold a piece of digital art created by him for $69 million at the prestigious Christie’s art auction. This work consists of a collage of 5,000 of his drawings. Ever since, NFTs have become a household name, with seemingly every company, celebrity, and internet artist jumping on the bandwagon to sell a drawing, video, or other digital file somehow related to them. In just the 30 days before February 15, 2022, roughly 35.5 thousand NFT sales were recorded. They had exploded out of a techie’s hobby into an exciting new frontier in art.

In order to understand much of the recent craze involving NFTs, we have to solve a question that millions of people have Googled over the last eleven months: what actually are NFTs?

NFT stands for non-fungible token, which is essentially a digital file that has all of its data stored on an Ethereum blockchain (which is something that could have an entire article devoted to it, so let’s just call it “the thing NFTs are stored on”). The important thing is that with all of its data stored on this, this file cannot be copied. If someone were to purchase it, all of this data is logged as belonging to the buyer (which is the reason screenshotting an NFT off of a marketplace such as OpenSea or Rarible is not the same thing as owning it, despite what all the memes say). To put it in perspective, some have described NFTs as simply expensive, digital Pokémon cards you can’t engage in battles with or trade with your third-grade friends on the playground.

As is customary with any emerging technology, the variety of uses for NFTs have been the subject of much controversy. Many have been critical of their sudden prevalence in the art world, seemingly becoming more popular than traditional methods of art, all in the space of less than a year. Some artists have complained that the openness of the NFT market has led to an increase in low-quality, quickly made “art” sold by its creators for nothing more than a quick buck.

Additionally, the fact that anything can be sold as an NFT has led to the sale of things that many think shouldn’t be sold at all. For example, the 2007 viral video Charlie Bit My Finger, an early example of an Internet meme that was to set the tone for the Internet for years to come, was sold as an NFT and promptly deleted from YouTube.

Other elements of the controversy are more serious in nature. Parties both affiliated and not affiliated with certain deceased celebrities have been accused of using NFTs to capitalize off of these peoples’ deaths. In particular, a group of people with access to the Twitter account of the late Marvel comics legend Stan Lee plugged a series of NFTs based on his characters. Many across the internet were enraged when an NFT collection was sold under the name of “EtikaPunk,” featuring poorly rendered pixel art drawings of the YouTuber Etika, whose 2019 suicide incited many conversations about the mental health impact of consistent content creation. The creators were accused of profiting off of a tragic suicide, particularly taking into account that some of the NFTs explicitly reference his death in terms that wouldn’t exacly be considered tasteful.

There are countless more issues that are widely covered that are simply too large to discuss in great detail, such as the fact that NFTs, along with cryptocurrency use in general, has an enormous impact on the environment. Many popular gaming YouTubers reported having images of them stolen and then sold as NFTs (NFTs featuring popular creators were taken down, but many smaller channels have had trouble getting marketplaces to address them). Art has been stolen and repackaged as supposedly “original” NFTs. There have been reports of scams and phishing (the act of being manipulated into sharing personal information) being carried out across OpenSea, and concerns about the prevalence of money laundering through NFTs have been growing.

NFTs have been proven to be quite lucrative for those who sell them and something of a status symbol for those who buy them. Some have claimed that NFTs are nothing less than the future of the art world. Some believe that they are just a fad that will fade away in due time. Either way, there is no getting past that even for just this period of time in art history, they have had a massive impact that will linger for years to come.