NFTs are dumb, but creating a market for digital goods is not

Are NFTs stupid? Beyond a doubt. The bottom line with every Non-Fungible Token is the same: you’re paying money for something you don’t own. The artist in most cases keeps the full rights to the work including the right to sell reproductions. The works available for sale in most cases aren’t even limited editions; theoretically an infinite number of versions can be sold. You’re limited only by your own greed…and the amount of Ethereum that needs to be paid to “mine” an additional copy.

At best you have an autograph written in the form of a alphanumeric hash. Clearly, that’s awash in enough sentimental value that people will part with the equivalent of thousands of dollars (or rather, several Ethereum coins) to own it.

But that’s besides the point. People are buying it. They’re buying an entirely digital, wholly intangible “good” online. Not a subscription, mind you, a good. A subscription is something that’s something that implies a continuous delivery of a service, and a correspondingly continuous commercial relationship between the buyer and seller. That’s boring. We all subscribe to something, be it an online newspaper (or paid newsletter), some kind of music streaming service, or if you’re of a certain vintage, cable TV.

Selling one-off works is how artists can survive without turning their work into mass-produced, assembly line junk. And because many artists can’t actually survive on purely artistic endeavours, they go on Etsy and Redbubble to hawk ugly trinkets with pop culture references on them to make ends meet.

A Boon for Artists

Artists don’t serialize their work or have a weekly art column that they can get a stable stream of revenue (or more realistically, “exposure”) from. That’s a good thing, for the customer at least . The best art is usually something you discovered by chance, not something an app pinged you about. The serendipity factor of finding something cool and unexpected at a garage sale, or at some vacation destination has a big influence on the monetary value you attach to it. I personally find mine at the home goods section of my local Canadian Tire, but I realize not everyone shares this high-flying lifestyle.

So getting people to buy something intangible on a one-off basis is a genuinely exciting possibility for digital commerce. And if a pathway for this is validated in the digital art industry, it can open roads to other digital goods. A webcomic author eventually has to monetize by selling a printed collection of their works, because the web comic itself is usually free; they’re literally doing it for the much-maligned “exposure”. In marketing terms, it’s a massive loss leader, requiring expenditure of resources (time, creativity and energy) for largely brand awareness purposes on social media. Rather than be beholden to the tyranny of a regular posting schedule, what if consumers were already primed to buy things on a one-time basis?

The depressing reality of the actual digital goods market

Unfortunately, the market for digital goods that does exist is a depressing one. You can buy premium skins for your video game avatar, or perhaps crypto-kitties that are simple 8-bit art that’s easily reproducible. In fact, rather than pushing individual creativity to new heights, the NFT craze has done precisely the opposite. It’s resulted in a deluge of mass-produced and sometimes, outright stolen works. As with cryptocurrency, the focus is on getting rich (before somebody else does) and asking questions later.

This is completely at odds with I am looking for; super-niche stuff made by a domain expert, or lucky vintage finds. Things that I could, if I wanted to, show someone else, and they’d “get it”. Crypto-kitties just don’t have that. And frankly it’s hard to find online marketplaces that don’t look that they’ve been machine-generated to look like digital Potemkin Villages. I refuse to believe that any one has ever actually purchased something from one. For example, look at this: the image literally says “wikipedia” in the description. Who buys this??

NFT Marketplace
Worked real hard on that card design, I bet

What I’d like to buy digitally

Micro-apps focused on a very specific niche: a genre of music, a type of lifestyle (say, keto-friendly nutrition), or designing for a particular product category. While these could exist as physical or digital books, I’m looking for something that’s more visual, and with more interactivity. I don’t have a lot of workable examples for how this might look. One I immediately thought of was the Crypto UX Handbook, a nicely sequenced and visually pleasing digital knowledge base of good practices for designing crypto-related apps. In some ways, its intention feels reminiscent of Apple’s famed Human Interface Design guidelines documents.

3D Artworks that can’t be simply “Save Image As..”‘d or screenshotted and distributed by all and sundry. I’ve used the 3D design tool Spline to create some basic shapes and text for an upcoming music writeup. It’s not particularly impressive, but I imagine artists can use this to create something cool.

Digital Storytelling Experiences . Not boring web pages where we scroll up and down like we would on a microfiche machine, but projects that truly exploit the capabilities of the screen as an infinite canvas of sound, colour, motion and interactivity. Way back when the iPad was introduced in 2010, Apple signed deals with publishers to make ‘interactive’ versions of print magazines like Wired as native iPad apps. Of course this didn’t last more than 1-2 years because it was massively expensive to create one layout for print, and then an additional interactive layout with video embeds and expandable images, just for a small minority of people willing to pay for a digital edition.

100-plus page behemoths aren’t really what I’m talking about. A digital-only experience shouldn’t even have the concept of “pages”. So to kick things off, I will include a small teaser of my interactive guide to shoegaze rock.

Hopefully some of these products will one day come to fruition. For right now, I’ll list some of my favourite analogues to this:

  • Jon Duckett’s beautifully explained and illustrated HTML/CSS and JavaScript books
  • A set of 50 post-punk and new wave postcards I found on Amazon
  • A book on underground zine culture during the UK punk explosion of the ’70s.