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The Node: What's New Is Old

The Million Dollar Homepage, a phenomenon from 2005, is back. Is crypto as new as it thinks?

CoinDesk Insights
May 11, 2021 at 7:33 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:53 p.m. UTC

There are plenty of million-dollar ideas in crypto, a movement that is trying to rebuild and reimagine everything digital. This development process is ad hoc, with individuals, companies and loosely affiliated teams identifying and executing on areas where crypto assets may, one day, offer greater access to, and ownership in, the digital economy. But this ambitious, mostly leaderless, multi-year process, touching everything from basic financial services to the internet architecture itself, sometimes runs in circles.

In March, conceptual artist and graphic designer Ryder Ripps, 34, announced his latest crypto-based effort, Million Token Website, built with his 16-year-old brother, Ezra. The concept is simple: An open-access, million-pixel canvas that allows nearly anyone or anything with a MetaMask wallet, at least .001 ETH and an idea to draw a picture on a plot of digital land.

This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk's daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here

“Think of it as a new and improved version of the 2005 website, Million Dollar Homepage,” the brothers wrote on the project’s webpage. The “homepage” they reference was built by a British business student, Alex Tew, as a way to raise funds for college. The young entrepreneur had the idea to sell pixels – $1 per dot in 10-by-10 blocks. It became a phenomenon, spreading first by word of mouth and then by media coverage.

People crowded in. The grid filled out into a technicolor mosaic of advertisements, personal messages and digital graffiti. It was another signal that online real-estate was actually worth something. “To buy a block of pixels was, in theory, to leave one’s mark on a collective accomplishment reflective of the internet’s enormous power to connect people and generate value,” UC-Santa Barbara Professor John Bowers wrote of the project in the Harvard Business Review in 2017.

All said and done, Tew raised $1,037,100 (the last 1,000 pixels were auctioned on eBay for $38,100) and secured a position in the pantheon of early Web 2.0 experiments. The mosaic and webpage have remained online, more or less untouched, though a number of the images suffer from link rot.

Over the years, Million Dollar Homepage inspired a number of copycats. The Ripps brothers present just the latest in that lineage – though this time bringing the experiment into the world of crypto. It uses Ethereum-based NFTs and its own LAND token to extend actual ownership over these digital plots. Instead of a static webpage that will exist as long as Tew is willing to pay domain hosting fees, the Ripps brothers hope their effort will continue to evolve and remain relevant over time. 

While the Ripps brothers own the domain name, which isn’t mirrored on Web 3.0 tools like IPFS or ENS, the actual grid units are owned by participants. (They also maintain control the NFT minting process, and have the ability rewrite obscene or illegal material.) People can sell or trade their tokens and overwrite their images whenever they please. The Ripps call it a model for the future of the ownership web.

“We’re trying to do something that is much more community-driven and collaborative,” Ezra said in an interview. “NFTs are about ownership. We’re creating a visualization of [that process].” “The times are changing towards decentralized platforms and towards cryptocurrency,” Ryder added.

About 25% complete at time of writing, the brothers may raise a total of 1,000 ETH for their efforts. That would bring in over $4 million worth of crypto, if current ether prices hold. Not bad for a sequel.

Like the original homepage from which their project draws inspiration, the Ripps brothers view Million Token Website as a potentially historic statement. They admit the vision is limited (a canvas won’t change the world in itself) but it represents a shifting tide: a vision of the web that is even more commercialized, though with profits accruing to individuals rather than “FAANG” corporations.

Many of the early adopters see this, too.

“It's significance is evident through the involvement of such important artists and collectors in the NFT space in this space,” a representative for Art on Internet, an NFT collective, said over Telegram. Decentralized exchange SushiSwap, crypto-focused venture firm Future Fund and Adidas are among the early users.

Much of Ryder’s body of work has blurred the line between commerce and high art. He’s contemporaries with people like Beeple and Jeff Koons, whose greater statement is less about what a painting or sculpture says, than the price someone is willing to pay for it.

“Art is supposed to change your perception of what is possible in reality, whether that's someone who can paint in a way that is unbelievable, [or] in a way that you've never thought about it before,” the elder Ripps said.

One take here is that companies like Adidas or the artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear collection, Virgil Abloh, are willing to bet on “bleeding edge” tech. Another is that the Million Token Website shows the limits of digital culture. Hauntology is the idea that the present cannot escape the shadow of the past, that the reason there are more blockbuster movie sequels than original scripts; that fashion routinely digs up trends from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s; that computer images rely on skeuomorphic design is because we’ve lost the ability to imagine anything new.

“It's kind of naive to think that there is truly original design,” Ryder said.

“You can't ‘invent’ something anymore, it feels like it's all been done,” 9272, a pseudonymous investor, said. 

Crypto may present a way out. But it’s worth asking, is Million Token Website a homage or hustle?

UPDATE (12 May 15:50 UTC): The caption for the header image has been corrected to Million Token Website.

DISCLOSURE

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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