Last week, a notification popped onto my laptop screen as I got ready for bed: A stranger was offering $500 in exchange for an autographed digital certificate of one of my tweets. What? Why did they want to buy this? I didn’t understand. Frankly, it wasn’t one of my better tweets, just a tossed-off joke. Standing in the kitchen in my pajamas, I clicked Accept.
I’d been playing around with a new service, Valuables by Cent, which allows Twitter users to buy and bid on tweets in the form of nonfungible tokens (NFTs). If you’re unfamiliar with NFTs, the simplest explanation is that they’re digital collectibles, the online equivalent of baseball cards or commemorative stamps, minted on a blockchain. NFTs are making a loud splash in the art world (an artist named Beeple recently sold a single NFT for $6.6 million) and the sports world (the NBA’s authorized digital highlight reels have already generated $230 million in gross sales). But just about anything on the internet can be an NFT. “Your grandma may have collected plates—people collect all kinds of weird stuff,” NFT collector Aftab Hossain says. “We’re just doing that in a digital space.” All that matters is that someone believes an NFT is worth buying, even if what they’re buying is simply an authorized copy of a tweet they could already view for free online.
And the market is hot. Since Valuables launched last December, it has demonstrated that people do, in fact, want to pay money for certificates of ownership for social media posts. To buy or sell a tweet through Valuables, people must sign up for the service and download a browser extension that doubles as a cryptocurrency wallet. Like most of the major marketplaces for crypto art, Valuables uses the Ethereum blockchain, which keeps a secure ledger of the NFT transactions.
While transactions are labeled in USD, the money that changes hands is the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (So my $500 tweet was actually worth 0.3 ether.) Once you buy a tweet NFT on Valuables, you can resell it on the platform, and a portion of the sale goes back to the original owner. Buying a tweet NFT doesn’t change the copyright or intellectual property, which remains with the tweeter, nor does it give you license to commercially use the tweet’s contents. (So you can’t buy, for example, an Elon Musk tweet NFT and then print it on a T-shirt, just like you couldn’t take an image of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry from a Royal Wedding commemorative mug and sell it.) What’s more, the original tweet can still be deleted on Twitter. Selling a tweet doesn’t mean promising to keep it up forever. And Valuables’ set-up is quite limited; as some users have noticed, its NFTs only live on its platform, so you can’t currently buy a tweet NFT from them and then sell it yourself on another market (other NFT sales aren’t quite so encumbered). Any NFT is simply a piece of digital memorabilia, nothing more, nothing less. And in this case, the NFT is a piece of digital memorabilia stuck on the Valuables platform. (Cent is planning to improve the Valuables interface.)
Despite those limitations, artists, crypto speculators, and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban have all sold certificates of ownership for their tweets. Last Friday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey put his first tweet up for sale on Valuables. (Twitter declined to comment for this story.) Bidding appears to have topped out, for now, around $2.5 million (or around 1,630 ether). The offer is from a blockchain startup CEO. Dorsey hasn’t accepted the bid yet, but he recently tweeted clarifying that he plans to accept on March 21 and then donate his proceeds to a nonprofit called GiveDirectly. His tweet has attracted the highest bids on any Valuables NFT—and it serves as evidence that the service is finding a foothold.
The day before Dorsey put his tweet on the market, I sold mine. My NFT-skeptical friends teased me for participating in a trendy speculation game. Beanie Babies were mentioned. And they had a point. Everything about the hyped-up NFT marketplace right now reeks of 21st-century tulip fever. Watching some of the breathless coverage of million-dollar NFT deals can feel like watching the irrationality of the economy distilled into tiny, expensive puffs of vapor. The speculative fervor that had recently pushed meme stocks like GameStop and meme cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin into abrupt value bubbles certainly animates some pockets of the NFT world.
But there’s something else going on, and it’s surprisingly sweet. While some buyers are interested in these NFTs strictly as speculative assets, others have more virtuous intentions. Trevor McFedries, a Los Angeles-based startup founder, has been buying tweets since shortly after Valuables launched. He appreciated the way it showcased how anything anyone makes on the internet can be art, and that even a tweet can be seen as worthy creative work. Recently, he picked one of his friend group’s favorite tweets—a ranking of pasta shapes—and bought it for 3 ether, or $1,920. “People were like, Why the hell would you spend $1,900 for a tweet?” McFedries says. “But it has value to me. I want to own it.”
For Katie Geminder, one of Cent’s cofounders, that type of purchase is exactly what the Valuables platform was designed to help along. A veteran of several major social platforms—she was an early Facebook employee—Geminder is now a passionate advocate for helping creators profit from the social web. “We launched as an experiment, really,” she says. “Our mission is about helping creators have a creative income.” Geminder and her colleagues believed that people who liked particular tweets or Twitter accounts enough would be willing to pay for the thrill of seeing their favorite poster accept their offer for digital memorabilia. They bet on the idea that enough people would find value in previously free content. As their user base has swelled over the past few weeks, they’re seeing that hypothesis proven correct.
While the Valuables platform is currently limited to minting tweets as NFTs, it’s one of the clearest examples of how the NFT market is expanding into the social web. While some people are buying tweets as speculative assets, other early adopters on Valuables are using the platform as a new way to channel their fandom and enthusiasms. Purchasing an NFT can be an alternative way to support creators, a blockchain-fueled twist on Patreon or Tipeee. This is an enticing development for anyone who makes content for the social web, as it presents an opportunity to get paid for what might otherwise be given away for free. (An important note: The environmental impact of NFTs is already a pressing concern for many creators, as blockchain energy usage can reach truly horrific levels.)
And there will be plenty of opportunities to question the ethics of what to make into an NFT, since any individual piece of content can potentially exist as one, from 60-second videos to 10,000-word blog posts. People are already testing the waters with tokenizing different forms of writing and posting. One of the first Vine videos was already sold on an NFT marketplace called Foundation for 8.77 ETH (more than $16,000). The software engineer and writer John Palmer crowdfunded an essay he hadn’t even written yet by minting it as an NFT on a protocol called Zora. He was extremely successful, raising 9.9 ETH (more than $18,000) from 63 backers. Just like Geminder, Palmer sees great value in experimenting with NFTs as a new funding model for creative work. “It offers a path to being paid for a one-off work that’s not part of a subscription or newsletter. It offers a way to monetize work that remains a public good, without a paywall,” he wrote in an explanation of the project. He published the essay on Mirror, a platform specifically designed for writers to sell their projects as NFTs. (Wong Joon Ian, a former journalist who now works in crypto, described Mirror to me as “a mashup between tokenized Medium, Patreon, and Kickstarter”—the best explanation I’ve heard.) Instead of starting a traditional newsletter or blog, crypto-savvy writers like Palmer (especially those with audiences familiar with the blockchain) can chart a novel course for making money off their writing.
After I sold my tweet NFT, a flurry of writer pals messaged me eagerly, asking how to do it. Shortly after that, several WIRED editors messaged me—considerably less eagerly—because we hadn’t had a conversation about what the actual implications of accepting an offer like this might be. As long as I’m on staff at WIRED, I have to ask permission before I take any paid freelancing assignments from other outlets. Did I have to ask permission to sell an NFT? Did it matter that what I was selling was essentially a bit of digital performance art, the act of signing my name to a token, rather than the writing itself? It was more like selling an autograph than my actual words, after all—did we have a company policy on digital autographs? These were new questions, because this was a novel way for a writer to earn money. I called Addison Cameron-Huff, a lawyer who specializes in blockchain, to hear his take. “If it’s not your job at WIRED to make art, and you’re a writer, and your job is to write—if you want to sell art on the side, I wouldn’t think they’d stop you,” he says. “You’re selling the process of selling.” Still, considering I didn’t know why my bidder bought my tweet—they didn’t respond when I asked them—it wasn’t clear whether they were buying it because they liked me or simply because I am a WIRED journalist. The whole situation felt knotty. And if selling bits of digital content as NFTs catches on, I suspect there will be lots of conversations between writers, artists, and outlets about where the boundaries of independent digital identity and work identity should be drawn. (I promised my editors not to accept any more NFT bids until we figured out the rules, just to be safe.)
Other outlets are feeling their way through this strange new world, too. The Associated Press has already gone ahead and created its own first NFT, although it’s a piece of digital artwork rather than a copy of an article. Still, it likely won’t be long until you’ll see articles themselves available as NFTs—maybe even this one.
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