NFTs explained: These expensive tokens are as weird as you think they are
Jul 27, 2021
Owning a digital token tied to an artwork or song doesn't mean you actually own the art or song -- but those tokens are still going for a small fortune.
Nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, are a new kind of collectible to spend your money on -- or potentially earn big bucks -- that's outstripped cryptocurrency in hype and popularity. But unlike a , a comic book or a traditional piece of art such as a painting, they're entirely digital, tied to things like a
, well you're not alone.
NFTs offer a blockchain-created certificate of authenticity for a digital asset such as an artwork, a piece of music or a video. The interest has created a digital market that boasted $250 million in sales in 2020, with NFTs reaching new levels of hype after a at a Christie's auction last week. The craze has also driven scores of people to put up their own digital art and tweets for sale as NFTs, and even are trying to ride the wave.
What's an NFT?
This is the part that takes a bit of open-mindedness. An NFT is a unique digital token, with most using the blockchain to digitally record transactions. It's not a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, because those are fungible and exchangeable for another Bitcoin or cash. NFTs are recorded in a digital ledger in the same way as cryptocurrency, so there's a listing of who owns each one.
What makes an NFT unique is the digital asset tied to the token. This can be an image, video, tweet or piece of music that's uploaded to a marketplace, which creates the NFT to be sold. The technology started in 2015 when unique tokens were created for the Ethereum blockchain, but they became a big deal in February.
So buying an NFT means I own the asset, right?
That's the real kicker to understanding the whole concept. The person who buys the NFT doesn't own the actual asset.
"NFTs challenge the idea of ownership: digital files can be reproduced infinitely and you do not (usually) buy the copyright or a license when purchasing an NFT," said Jeffrey Thompson, associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.
For example, the creator of the $590,000. The person who bought the token owns the token but doesn't actually own the meme. That still belongs to the creator, who held onto intellectual and creative rights.sold an NFT of it for
What the owner of the token has is a record and a hash code showing ownership of the unique token associated with the particular digital asset. People might download Nyan Cat and use it on social media if they want, but they won't own the token. This also means they can't sell the token as the owner can.
Why are NFTs going for such high prices?
As with physical collectibles such as Beanie Babies, baseball cards and toys, there's a market for NFTs. The buyers tend to be tech-savvy individuals who understand the idea of wanting to purchase a digital good and likely made a killing this past year with cryptocurrencies. Ethereum, for example, went from just over $100 last March to a current price of about $1,800. In some cases, buyers are just flexing their digital wallets to show off how much crypto they have, but for others, there's a deeper interest.
NFTs for digital art are a big business. Last week, the artist Beeple saw his piece Everyday: The First 5000 Days sell at a Christie's auction for $69.3 million.
"Specifically for art-related NFTs, there is a huge surge in demand due to their novelty and creativity of early artists," Jason Lau, chief operating officer of crypto exchange OKCoin, said in an email. "Whether it's a physical work with an attached NFT (think of it as a digital autograph and proof of veracity), or an entirely digital work (where the NFT is the art), this new medium is opening new ways for collectors and artists to explore their relationship with the artwork itself."
It's also great for the artists, says Lau. By selling digital art directly to those interested, an artist can begin monetizing work without having to try to sell it in a gallery.
What kind of NFTs are there?
NFTs can be tied to any digital asset. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sold the . Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski created his own limited-edition trading cards that sold as NFTs for a total of $1.8 million. Kings of Leon sold NFTs of their newest album and made over $2 million. New York Times reporter Kevin Roose sold an image of his column about NFTs for $560,000. There's even one guy who sold NFTs for his farts.
If you don't want to jump right in bidding six figures, there are multiple NFT marketplaces out there, with Opensea being the biggest. Buyers can search for art, domain names and random collectibles to bid on without having to break the bank.
Basketball fans might want to check out NBA Top Shot, where they can buy video highlights via packs, similar to how collectible trading cards are sold. A rare highlight like a two-handed reverse windmill slam by Lebron James sold for $179,000.
What are the downsides?
A drawback is the hundreds of dollars in fees required to create an NFT. If you're making your own token on the Ethereum blockchain, you need to use some Ethereum, which as mentioned earlier is kind of pricey. Then after you make an NFT, there's a "gas" fee that pays for the work that goes into handling the transaction and that's also based on the price of Ethereum. Marketplaces simplify the process by handling everything for a fee when an NFT is sold.
There's also an environmental cost. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum requires computers to handle the computations, known as "mining," and those computers require a lot of energy. An analysis from Cambridge University found mining for Bitcoin consumed more energy than the entire country of Argentina. Ethereum is second to Bitcoin in popularity, and its power consumption is on the rise and comparable to the amount of energy used by Libya.
You mean, like, people buying my good tweets?
I don’t think anyone can stop you, but that’s not really what I meant. A lot of the conversation is about NFTs as an evolution of fine art collecting, only with digital art.
(Side note, when coming up with the line “buying my good tweets,” we were trying to think of something so silly that it wouldn’t be a real thing. So of course the founder of Twitter sold one for just under $3 million shortly after we posted the article.)
Do people really think this will become like art collecting?
I’m sure some people really hope so — like whoever paid almost $390,000 for a 50-second video by Grimes or the person who paid $6.6 million for a video by Beeple. Actually, one of Beeple’s pieces was auctioned at Christie’s, the famou—
Sorry, I was busy right-clicking on that Beeple video and downloading the same file the person paid millions of dollars for.
Wow, rude. But yeah, that’s where it gets a bit awkward. You can copy a digital file as many times as you want, including the art that’s included with an NFT.
But NFTs are designed to give you something that can’t be copied: ownership of the work (though the artist can still retain the copyright and reproduction rights, just like with physical artwork). To put it in terms of physical art collecting: anyone can buy a Monet print. But only one person can own the original.
No shade to Beeple, but the video isn’t really a Monet.
What do you think of the $3,600 Gucci Ghost? Also, you didn’t let me finish earlier. That image that Beeple was auctioning off at Christie’s ended up selling for $69 million, which, by the way, is $15 million more than Monet’s painting Nymphéas sold for in 2014.
Whoever got that Monet can actually appreciate it as a physical object. With digital art, a copy is literally as good as the original.
But the flex of owning an original Beeple...
What’s the point?
That really depends on whether you’re an artist or a buyer.
I’m an artist.
First off: I’m proud of you. Way to go. You might be interested in NFTs because it gives you a way to sell work that there otherwise might not be much of a market for. If you come up with a really cool digital sticker idea, what are you going to do? Sell it on the iMessage App Store? No way.
Also, NFTs have a feature that you can enable that will pay you a percentage every time the NFT is sold or changes hands, making sure that if your work gets super popular and balloons in value, you’ll see some of that benefit.
I’m a buyer.
One of the obvious benefits of buying art is it lets you financially support artists you like, and that’s true with NFTs (which are way trendier than, like, Telegram stickers). Buying an NFT also usually gets you some basic usage rights, like being able to post the image online or set it as your profile picture. Plus, of course, there are bragging rights that you own the art, with a blockchain entry to back it up.
No, I meant I’m a collector.
Ah, okay, yes. NFTs can work like any other speculative asset, where you buy it and hope that the value of it goes up one day, so you can sell it for a profit. I feel kind of dirty for talking about that, though.
So every NFT is unique?
In the boring, technical sense that every NFT is a unique token on the blockchain. But while it could be like a van Gogh, where there’s only one definitive actual version, it could also be like a trading card, where there’s 50 or hundreds of numbered copies of the same artwork.
Who would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for what basically amounts to a trading card?
Well, that’s part of what makes NFTs so messy. Some people treat them like they’re the future of fine art collecting (read: as a playground for the mega-rich), and some people treat them like Pokémon cards (where they’re accessible to normal people but also a playground for the mega-rich). Speaking of Pokémon cards, Logan Paul just sold some NFTs relating to a million-dollar box of the—
Please stop. I hate where this is going.
Yeah, he sold NFT video clips, which are just clips from a video you can watch on YouTube anytime you want, for up to $20,000. He also sold NFTs of a Logan Paul Pokémon card.
Who paid $20,000 for a video clip of Logan Paul?!
A fool and their money are soon parted, I guess?
It would be hilarious if Logan Paul decided to sell 50 more NFTs of the exact same video.
Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda (who also sold some NFTs that included a song) actually talked about that. It’s totally a thing someone could do if they were, in his words, “an opportunist crooked jerk.” I’m not saying that Logan Paul is that, just that you should be careful who you buy from.
Can I buy this article as an NFT?
No, but technically anything digital could be sold as an NFT (including articles from Quartz and the New York Times, provided you have anywhere from $1,800 to $560,000). deadmau5 has sold digital animated stickers. William Shatner has sold Shatner-themed trading cards (one of which was apparently an X-ray of his teeth).
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