One of the things cryptocurrencies do extremely well – for better or worse – is ascribe monetary value to things we didn’t previously understand as being “worth money.”
NFTs (non-fungible tokens), it’s often said, are a way of assigning property rights to media files. Before NFTs, if you downloaded an album as a set of MP3s and sent them to a friend, your friend would have the exact same copy of the album. Not so in the NFT era, where there’s only one real copy of the album: the token, verified on a blockchain. The music would still be available to share (at least in theory), but only a lucky few will actually hold the token.
It’s a new paradigm for ownership on the internet – one that’s already generated a huge amount of money for crypto companies and early adopters. But it also only works if people start to accept that provenance on the blockchain (i.e., the transparent chain of ownership you can scroll through on “block explorer” websites) actually amounts to property rights. That’s not exactly clear-cut because tokens aren’t legal contracts. They offer no intellectual property (IP) ownership or rights.
This article is part of Future of Money Week, a series exploring the varied (and sometimes weird) ways value will move in the future.
In the crypto community, it’s a no-brainer that this digital paper trail amounts to a new form of “real” ownership. But if we accept that idea, we accept that the logic of digital markets will come to infiltrate the way we already live our lives online. Using the so-called “platform internet” isn’t always an investment, in an explicit monetary sense. Crypto can turn some of those passive efforts – scrolling, exploring, socializing – into financial transactions. What would it mean to live in a world where every single image, song, health record, Twitter “like” and blog post has a discrete token attached?
“Everyone’s already a creator,” said Li Jin, a general partner at Variant Fund and an ex-partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “We’re all creating content on the internet. I think this binary divide between who’s a creator versus who’s a consumer – it doesn’t really exist. Everyone is creating something of value on the internet.”
For Jin, that includes the users who write comments and share posts, along with the people who actually make content. Everyone interacting with this online social mesh is already playing a role in creating value, whether they realize it or not; crypto just affixes a dollar sign to existing behaviors. Things don’t “go viral” without a massive network of individual interactions. In a tokenized future, an early “like” on a post that eventually becomes popular could be a kind of historical artifact; trading it on the secondary market might prove lucrative. Same goes for a highly rated comment, in a comment section.
“I think crypto has this ability to blur the lines between who’s a creator versus who’s not a creator because it enables all that value to be rewarded and measured,” Jin explained.
Right now, the expectation is that consumers will put time and energy into social media platforms for free, simply because it’s fun. Influencers can leverage followers for corporate sponsorships, and celebrities can use social media as ad space (people are definitely making money on platforms like Instagram) but the fundamental experience of scrolling and interacting isn’t always “rewarded” in the same way. Ironically, there’s an almost Marxist twist to Jin’s thinking: consumers create value for platforms, but don’t always get something in return.
The other side of that idea – that everyone’s a creator – is that everyone’s also an investor. Time and energy are investments, even if they’re not always monetized. With an explicit financial layer in the form of tokens, users get a material stake in the platforms they use the most.
The recent ENS airdrop is a good example of how this could work, if more companies come to adopt these ideas. ENS is the Ethereum Name Service, a company that offers customizable replacements for unwieldy crypto addresses. Rather than typing out all 64 characters every time you want to interact with someone’s wallet, you can just use something like “vitalik.eth.” They cost about $150, including gas fees. But anyone who bought one before Oct. 31 of this year was also entitled to claim a certain number of $ENS tokens, which have proven valuable on the secondary market. Even buying a single domain could have netted you tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of $ENS tokens when the airdrop hit in early November.
To some users, it felt like getting free money. But it could also be thought of as a form of compensation for believing in a project early on – an investment of time and energy that was eventually sublimated into tokens. Everything you do “on chain” can be framed as an investment with the possibility of direct monetary rewards down the line. In a fully tokenized future, everyone is a venture capitalist.
“We’re all people who exist in a capitalist society,” said Jin. “On the internet, all the actions that we’re taking on all these platforms are already financialized – our likes have value, our retweets have value, the content that we put out there has value. But today, that value does not accrue to the individual user. Tokenizing our work and our actions allows that value to accrue back to the individual creators.”
Axie Infinity, a program that bills itself as a kind of crypto-backed video game, has pushed this idea to an extreme. To start playing, you first need to buy three Axie NFTs on the secondary market; right now, the cheapest ones are going for about $100, not including fees. Players can then farm and sell in-game items to make real-world money. In its current form, it more closely resembles a gamified investment platform or slot machine than a traditional online game.
“Traditionally, gamers are used to dealing with systems where people are chasing power, respect and a sense of belonging,” said Jeff Zirlin, a co-founder of Axie Infinity. “These are forms of currencies and value, too. All we’ve done is we’ve added real value into the mix.”
The problem is that when everything becomes money, it can be hard to think about anything else. Across the world, but especially in the Philippines, people have turned Axie Infinity into a full-time job. Getting paid to play video games isn’t exactly a novelty; streamers and Gen Z media collectives have already found ways to monetize gaming through Twitch, YouTube and other platforms. But what happens to the experience of playing the game, when there’s a real ante up front? At what point does fun become work?
“Just where people could not have imagined, like, driving Uber or being an Airbnb host, this is the creation of a new type of work,” said Zirlin.
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With investment from Andreessen Horowitz and Mark Cuban, Axie Infinity is the most successful example of a “play-to-earn” model that’s become increasingly popular over the past few years. And while blue-chip VC backing is far from a surefire path to world domination, the success of play-to-earn portends a future where fun and finance are increasingly intermingled.
“All we’ve done is we’ve added a system of property rights into games,” Zirlin explained. “So, in some ways, we’ve freed people. We’ve given them something that they should have had all along.”
Of course, Zirlin and his team didn’t just build Axie for fun; the house can still win when players lose. Axie Infinity doesn’t guarantee anyone money. And it’s not as if Uber drivers – to borrow Zirlin’s analog – are any more economically liberated than other gig workers.
In Venezuela, players who can’t afford the buy-in turn to community-driven Axie “scholarships,” which are really more like unbacked NFT loans. There’s a nascent cottage industry of Axie loan operations looking for “scholars” on Discord and Telegram. Axie Revolution, a “scholarship” program with around 40,000 Twitter followers, says it fronts the buy-in in exchange for 35% of future earnings, but most popular programs take much more. According to the data aggregator CoinGecko, some ask for as much as 50%.
“It’ll be interesting to consider what happens to all of these activities that we used to do for free, that we thought we were doing just for fun but now we realize we can make money from them,” said Jin, whose firm Atelier Ventures has invested in other play-to-earn platforms.
Gray-market systems like Axie “scholarships” are inevitable in the realm of financialized gaming. And some creators and artists remain vehemently opposed to participating in crypto at all, for exactly this reason – the idea that crypto only replicates existing systems.
“I think that the financialization around the NFT space needs some heavy auditing before it’s an actually fair market for the artists themselves, and that the art is being purchased for the merit of what it expresses rather than what profit it could yield in the future,” the musician Zola Jesus told Pitchfork. “I don’t want people to bet on me like a racehorse.”
To that, crypto believers would probably say that capitalism’s relentless churn is already betting on us all.
“Individual creators have the option of either tokenizing their work or not – if people feel uncomfortable with that, they can continue carrying on with their current behaviors,” Jin said. “But even though it’s not explicit today, there is already this implicit financialization of your work.”
Also part of Future of Money Week
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