How Misinformation on ‘Book Twitter’ Killed a Literary NFT Project

“Realms of Ruin” used the Solana blockchain for a reason. That didn’t stop people from accusing it of ruining the environment.

Nov 22, 2021
CoinDesk Insights

Once upon a time, there was a wasteland teeming with deadly monsters and dark magic. The only thing stopping the wasteland’s evil forces from escaping was a magical wall maintained by five kingdoms. But as war brewed, the wall began to crumble.

What happens next? That’s for you to decide.

At least, that was the initial plan for “Realms of Ruin,” a collaborative storytelling project helmed by former Facebook executive Julie Zhuo and a team of best-selling young adult (YA) fantasy and science-fiction authors. Marie Lu, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, Adam Silvera, David Yoon and Nicola Yoon were all signed on.

The established authors involved in the project planned to kick-start the story with origin lore and 12 character backstories, and then hand over the reins to the “Realms of Ruin” community for dreaming up new characters and story lines within the universe.

Built on the Solana blockchain, fans could mint their stories as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), buy and trade character art NFTs and talk with one another on Discord about the universe they were building. The authors would, according to an archived version of the project’s now-defunct website, “be reading closely to decide which stories and characters are compelling enough to become canon.”

Essentially author-approved fan fiction for the Web 3 age, “Realms of Ruin” seemed exciting and ambitious – some even described it as inevitable – until a teaser for the project launched on Twitter and Instagram on Oct. 20.

Instead of eager fans, the authors were met with suspicion that quickly turned to collective anger.

The online writing community banded together to discuss the apparent dangers of the project. Twitter users decried the environmental impact of NFTs, accused the authors of running a Ponzi scheme and a grift to steal contributors’ intellectual property and debated the morality of marketing the project to minors.

In less than five hours, “Realms of Ruin” was scrapped. The authors involved deleted their earlier announcements and replaced them with apologies. Before long, the apologies were deleted, too, along with other mentions of the project online. Book Twitter celebrated its victory.

No matter that Solana, a proof-of-stake blockchain, didn’t intersect at all with the environmental costs for which “Realms of Ruin” was being pilloried. Proof-of-work, the energy-intensive technology behind the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains that requires specialized computers to “mine” new coins, has long drawn the ire of crypto skeptics. Proof-of-stake has no such mechanism.

The controversy revealed a rich vein of mainstream distrust of crypto projects, especially when environmental impact is involved. It also showed there’s no room for technical nuance in the heat of online battle.

‘Climate’ catastrophe

The negative reaction to “Realms of Ruin” was nearly instantaneous. Book Twitter expressed a range of issues with the project, the most common of which was the environmental impact of NFTs.

Legitimate concerns gave way to hyperbole and misunderstandings as fans condemned the “absolute climate carnage of NFTs.”

When Marie Lu, one of the authors involved with the project, tweeted that the Solana blockchain was “eco-friendly” and asked people to “Please do your homework before spreading misinformation,” fans mocked her.

“Marie Lu really said no babe, my NFTs only burn down a *quarter* of the Amazon rainforest, check your facts,” one account tweeted.

When confused Twitter users asked for explanations of why NFTs were so bad, other members of the online writing community stepped in to explain, offering tweets and explainer threads that often cited articles about proof-of-work mining – if they cited anything at all.

Crypto insiders were quickly outmatched.

“It started with an assumption that Solana was incredibly destructive to the environment, which is not true,” Austin Federa, head of communications at Solana Labs, told CoinDesk. “Full stop, it takes about 10 times as much energy to boil water from room temperature than it takes to mint an NFT on Solana.”

A source close to the project who asked not to be named told CoinDesk that Solana was chosen for its comparative sustainability.

Despite this, the source said the team still anticipated pushback about NFTs, which prompted them to add a section to the “Realms of Ruin” website about Solana’s energy usage.

The site read: “While many popular NFT platforms use the Ethereum blockchain which consumes large amounts of energy and is extremely expensive, the Solana blockchain has transaction costs below $0.01 and is very energy efficient. In fact, in the time you spent reading this, your body has burnt more calories in energy than it takes to mint a story on the Solana blockchain!”

But fans remained suspicious of Solana’s environmental impact. Rumors of the project being a scheme to pump Solana’s native SOL token exploded when one Twitter user pointed out a small rise in the coin’s price that correlated with the “Realms of Ruin” teaser announcement.

“There’s never been an NFT project on Solana whose volume was significant enough to impact trading,” Federa said.

Minting doesn’t cost a mint

Misunderstandings about the cost to mint an NFT on Solana also swirled through Book Twitter.

The now-deleted “Realms of Ruin” announcement teased a “robust collection of original character NFTs” (though the price of these NFTs was never listed or otherwise made clear to potential participants), and touted the “low transaction costs of Solana.”

With little information to go on, fans on Twitter began to speculate as to the cost of minting NFTs. On the project’s Discord, which has also been deleted, potential participants asked moderators to explain the process of minting NFTs.

“From what I’ve understood from the post in #announcements, you pay to have the story turned into an NFT,” one user wrote.

“So, you’re basically paying to upload your story?” another asked.

On Twitter, some users speculated that it could cost up to $300 to mint an NFT on Solana. To be fair, such fees are not unheard of on Ethereum, where transaction fees are much higher.

“The average cost to mint and use an NFT on Solana is approximately 35 cents,” Federa told CoinDesk. “From a transaction fee perspective, the cost of actually issuing and setting up an NFT or transferring it to someone is pennies.”

Discord users pushed back against moderators, and pointed out that the majority of crypto exchanges require customers to be over the age of 18. On Twitter, they denounced the immorality of marketing the project to teenagers (despite over half of young adult literature readers being, well, adults).

A Discord moderator called “redshirt” tried to quell fans’ rising panic about the mining costs by telling them that there were tentative plans to establish a treasury that would be filled by a percentage of proceeds from each NFT sold – both the character NFTs and the NFTs of the stories themselves.

“We’re hoping to have a way for people who can’t purchase SOL to request a small amount from our shared treasury for minting stories,” redshirt wrote. “That way anyone with a story to tell can create it. More info to come soon.”

But the promise of “more info to come’' didn’t sit well with fans. Before long the authors involved with the project were getting what Federa described as “serious threats” from upset fans.

“My understanding is they got like, not death threats, but like, ‘You’re a horrible person, you’re ruining people’s lives, you’re selling out…’ Like real vicious betrayal stuff,” Federa said.

Who retains the IP?

Potential participants also expressed concerns about the lack of clarity as to who would own the copyright and intellectual property on any stories published within the “Realms of Ruin” universe.

Conflicting information on the “Realms of Ruin” website seems to have been the source for the majority of users’ fears. One disclaimer gave copyright to the six authors involved, but in the website’s FAQ section, the project’s leaders assert that fans “truly own the stories you write, we will help you mint (publish) your stories as NFTs. Once you have minted an NFT, we can never take it away from you.”

“This does feel like a witch hunt, done in a way that was really, really unhelpful.”

According to Moish Peltz, a New York-based attorney who specializes in the intersection of NFTs and intellectual property, original works of authorship are covered by copyright protection laws the moment they are created and fixed in a tangible form – like NFTs – but the nature of fan fiction makes “Realms of Ruin” a more complicated case.

“However, once [the participants] are given permission to create the derivative works, they would presumably maintain ownership of their derivative works, unless there was some agreement to the contrary,” said Peltz.

CoinDesk’s source seconded this, and explained that the team intended to create a profit tree structure that would give varying percentages of any money generated from NFT sales to authors involved in a given story line – both the professional authors who kick-started the project, and the participants who created NFT stories in the “chain.”

However, this profit tree was never fully fleshed out or detailed on the “Realms of Ruin” website, which added to fans’ confusion.

Participants also expressed concerns about hypothetical future copyright issues, like how participants would be rewarded if “Realms of Ruin” was ever made into a movie or television series.

According to Peltz, there was some validity in participants’ fears.

“Nothing in [the ‘Realms of Ruin’ FAQ] speaks to what rights the project might have to use the submitted fan fiction and what rights might be reserved to authors, nor whether participants could expect to receive any financial considerations for the contributions of their fan fiction to the project,” Peltz told CoinDesk.

Questions in the Discord piled up faster than redshirt could answer, and users began speculating and answering each other’s questions. It quickly became clear that redshirt and the other moderators simply didn’t have answers to a lot of the participants’ questions.

“NFTs and copyright are still the wild west,” redshirt wrote in response to a user comment about copyright issues. “But we want to act in good faith and take feedback from you all to make this fair and a success.”

But promises of good faith did nothing to staunch the flow of questions or the eddying fears in the Discord.

Tech or culture?

Aside from the six established authors associated with the effort, the names of the people involved with the project were never posted on the “Realms of Ruin” website. Zhuo – the former Facebook VP – seems to have spearheaded the project.

In a now-deleted Medium post, Zhuo wrote that she’d been inspired by Loot, the text-based fantasy NFT game.

“NFTs are in a renaissance,” Zhuo wrote. “But something seemed missing. Stories.”

Despite the involvement of the established authors, “Realms of Ruin” appears to have operated as a tech venture rather than a publishing one. And unlike the dynamic and ever-changing tech industry, the publishing industry is known for its adherence to tradition and distrust of new technologies.

In retrospect, it seems as though Zhuo and her team had an abundance of enthusiasm and a partially fleshed-out idea when the announcement dropped (although to be fair, the announcement came over two weeks ahead of the project’s planned release date, and the team could have figured out the sticking points before then).

CoinDesk’s source said that no one on the team was expecting the hostility that the announcement was met with. But, in hindsight, the lack of clarity mixed with the tech-averse nature of the book community made “Realms of Ruin” a recipe for disaster.

Could Web 3 fix publishing?

Lia Holland, the campaigns and communications director at Fight for the Future – a non-profit that advocates for digital rights like privacy and net neutrality – was one of the first to step into the fray and defend Zhuo and the “Realms of Ruin” team.

Holland, who is unaffiliated with the project, found out about “Realms of Ruin” not through her work with Fight for the Future, but through her speculative fiction writers’ group.

As an author herself, Holland was appalled by Book Twitter’s knee-jerk reaction to what she saw as an innovative and potentially transformative approach to publishing.

Holland’s tweets also called attention to the rampant misinformation spreading on Twitter:

“All these threads I’m reading are like ‘I don’t know anything about NFTs, please don’t make me learn. But I KNOW they are awful and going to melt the planet. No, I’m not reading the website to learn about how little energy their set up would use,’” she wrote.

In a Fight for the Future podcast released the day after the project’s cancellation, Holland broke down the drama with her coworker, Ayele B. Hunt.

According to Hunt, Book Twitter’s “nuclearly reactive” response to “Realms of Ruin” wasn’t totally unexpected.

“Authors have been betrayed at every turn by the existing actors,” Hunt said, referring to Amazon and the traditional publishing industry. “Their suspicion of new things has a foundation in fact. These gatekeepers have toxified and toxified the space … and put investors over artists to the point that anything new can look like a scam.”

In an interview with CoinDesk, Holland reiterated Hunt’s point.

“Authors and people in the publishing space have been deeply betrayed, over and over again, by the existing structures they work in,” Holland said. “There’s been so much consolidation and concentration and lessening of resources for authors. The space, especially for people who are not published, is often full of traps and scams.”

The deep well of skepticism is merited, she said.

However, Holland remained emphatic that Book Twitter’s immediate negative reaction to the “Realms of Ruin” announcement was uncalled for.

“This does feel like a witch hunt, done in a way that was really, really unhelpful and didn’t create enough space to have a conversation about this platform and what it was trying to do,” she said.

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.

Cheyenne Ligon is a CoinDesk news reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy.

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