What are non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? It seems like a simple question that should have a simple answer. As we outlined in our guide, an NFT is a unique unit of data on a blockchain that can be linked to objects to provide proof of ownership.
But that’s just the literal definition of the technology. To really understand NFTs, we need to go beyond that. We need to understand their meaning, i.e., how they are valued and used.
The two most common answers when discussing the value and use of NFTs are as follows: 1) NFTs are digital assets that let creators (finally) retain control of their IP and earn a living from their work. 2) NFTs are investment vehicles.
However, neither of the aforementioned quite hit the mark. Again, it’s just not that simple.
The fact of the matter is that NFTs are used by more than just artists and collectors. The space includes artists, collectors, game developers, fashion designers, and more. These people have come together to form what can be considered a true subculture. To truly understand NFTs, we need to understand this subculture and how NFTs are valued and used by individuals who participate in it. Here, we cover how this subculture formed, the values its participants share, and the way they use NFTs. Hopefully, it will help you understand NFTs more deeply than any bland, technical definition.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Creating a culture: The early days
Although non-fungible tokens have existed (in one form or another) since the 2010s, it wasn’t until 2020 that NFTs became a prominent facet of the blockchain ecosystem.
Around this time, the possibilities presented by NFTs started to excite many. People realized that if NFTs were tied to a piece of digital art — a song, poem, image, etc. — these digital items could be transformed into collectibles that live on the blockchain, allowing individuals to truly own digital items for the first time in history.
Interest in crypto art swelled as a result. Many crypto-artists started gaining a following and making a sustainable living off of their art for the first time in their lives.
In this early stage, the NFT space didn’t yet feel like an investing group. No one was in it for day trading. This community, built around blockchain technology, was a niche internet subculture where people traded art, memes, humor, and created their own slang.
However, things were rapidly changing.
A distraction: The market boom
The COVID pandemic bolstered the crypto market over the course of 2020. This increase in decentralized financial markets helped many crypto investors accrue major profits. Interest in blockchain technologies ballooned in response, and the NFT space started to feel the effects as 2021 rolled around.
One of the most notable events of this time was Beeple’s $6 million CROSSROAD sale, which helped drive serious interest and traffic to the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway for the first time. This, in turn, proliferated outward to other NFT marketplaces and even social media platforms, as everyone started clamoring for a piece of the pie.
As NFTs gained mainstream attention, scams flourished, PFP projects centered on quick profits saturated the market, and unique 1/1 art pieces fell out of fashion. This disheartened many who had found community in the space in the years prior to the market boom.
However, don’t confuse the boom and mainstream society’s focus on profits with the values and focus of those who are actual participants in the NFT subculture.
A microcosm of the NFT space
The legacy of pioneering crypto artist Alotta Money, in particular, encapsulates the shared values of individuals who participate in this subculture.
Widely celebrated for his signature collage-styled works and popular four-eyed character, Alotta Money was considered a top-tier crypto artist. His pieces frequently traded on Nifty Gateway long before Beeple and Pak helped transform NFTs into a cultural phenomenon. When large-scale PFP projects began flooding the market, Alotta Money creations like “Saint Nakamoto” and “ETH Boy” served as a testament to the value of thoughtful, complex 1/1 crypto-art pieces.
When reports first came in that the influential French creator had passed away in March of 2022, only days before his 50th birthday, an outpouring of grief was expressed in even the farthest corners of the Web3 space. This isn’t too surprising, as members of the NFT space strongly value community and personal connections. In fact, this value is baked into NFT technology itself.
By collecting an NFT, individuals are able to support a creator, own a piece of their legacy, and realize returns as the creator’s fame increases and the NFT goes up in value. This creates a unique emotional connection between individuals in the NFT space, as one’s own success often leads to another’s success. As a result, individuals in the NFT space highly value the well-being of each other and the community as a whole.
In fact, while many undoubtedly came into this space for many reasons — to create an art project, to find investment opportunities, etc. — those who stay and are active in the community say they do so because of the people and the communal culture.
Alotta Money was an artistic trailblazer, a crucial member of the original crypto-art community, and beloved by many. He was someone who seemed to understand the true meaning of NFTs and the sense of camaraderie they engender. To commemorate him, the NFT space would do well to remember the friendship and sense of togetherness that first inspired many to start affectionately swapping acronymous niceties like “GM” and “WAGMI” in the first place.
The use of NFTs
The sense of shared oneness so valued by the NFT subculture can also be seen in the way the space unites and uses NFTs to enhance the common good.
Need some examples? After war broke out in Ukraine, members of the Web3 community banded together in record time. In a few short days, they raised millions to support victims of a war that (in many cases) was halfway around the world.
But even before the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis, many people in the NFT space were attempting to move the needle on the climate debate. Nifty Gateway even went so far as to address blockchain’s potential environmental impact by committing to offset NFT footprints in hopes of creating a net positive climate impact.
Other creators used NFTs as a way to fund tree planting and to raise awareness about other important social issues.
Yes, the NFT community is an incubator for innovation in art, technology, community-building, and philanthropy. Over time, NFTs have fostered a massive, vibrant community centered around more than money or art. The space has become a place where lives can and do change and where people — more often than not — seem to want to look out for each other.