When the Stagnation Goes Virtual

Linus Nylund/Platja de Muro, Spain

It was day three of NFT.NYC, and I had a headache. I had spent the night before in a series of Ubers from Brooklyn to Times Square and back again, fielding texts about which VC-sponsored rave was happening when. As I queued for this morning’s event, a “Digital Fashion Breakfast” on 6th Avenue, I was still trying to convince myself that all those parties counted as networking.

NFT.NYC was a 5,000 person extravaganza described by The New York Times as a coming-out party for the emerging NFT subculture. The event itself consisted of a $600-per-ticket conference held in Times Square, as well as over a hundred satellite events spread across New York. Early adopters and speculators came to New York to revel in their newfound cachet and meet their internet friends in real life.

NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are a notation in a blockchain that indicates a certain account owns the material hosted at a particular URL. The term “NFT” has become synonymous with digital art, but the object of an NFT can technically point to anything: an animation, a sound file, or even virtual real estate. Most of the time, NFTs are used to indicate ownership of easily copyable digital assets like JPEG images.

The fashion breakfast was hosted by a startup called DressX, an LA-based project that makes virtual clothing you can project on your body like a Snapchat filter. Attendance required spotting the invitation in an invite-only Telegram group for NFT.NYC attendees, then emailing one of the hosts to plead your case.

Despite the attempts at secrecy, the DressX venue was overflowing. DressX had booked the entire café, a moderately chic spot called L’Adresse, and people poured in from the street long after the 9:30 am start time. The crowd was young, female, and impeccably dressed, a far cry from the grungy twenty-eight-year-old traders who populated most of the conference. I was seated across from a bleach-blond lawyer wearing a tweed dress and a nose ring. She recently left her corporate job to focus on “web3 law” full-time.

She asked me what I was doing in New York. I told her that I am a student trying to learn more about NFTs.

The lawyer worked for the startup founder seated next to me. His company made virtual helmets for the metaverse. He showed me a mockup of the helmet design on his phone. The helmets had a blank rectangle in the front where users can display their personal NFT collection.

The helmets are just a proof of concept, he told me. Long term, he wants to make digital suits with lots of surface area for brand sponsorships.

“Like NASCAR?” I joked, imagining an army of avatars running around in flight suits covered in Burger King logos.

“Exactly,” he said. “Like NASCAR.”

* * *

After another half-hour of small talk, the DressX founders got up to the front of the café, and the room quieted down. They were both young women from Ukraine, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. Someone pulled up a Powerpoint, and the two founders started walking us through the logic of DressX.

Fashion, one of the founders began, is one of the most wasteful industries in the world. Hundreds of millions of pounds of clothes go into landfills every year, and for what? So that you can wear an outfit once for an Instagram photo and then discard it. In contrast to wasteful, impractical physical fashion, digital fashion is instant, perfectly sustainable, and accessible to anyone. Just buy the NFT for some digital earrings or a digital sweater and voila. No wait, no waste. (And don’t look too closely at the energy burned to secure digital scarcity.) She flicked to a selection of photos showing a mix of real-life Instagram models and virtual avatars mugging in stylish virtual dresses.

The crowd was nodding along. At this point, the second founder piped up. “Plus, we will need clothes for the metaverse!”

The metaverse comment struck a nerve. People started clapping, louder and louder until the café was ringing. The DressX girls giggled and took their seats as the applause continued.

Later, when everyone returned to small talk, there was a buzz in the air I can only describe as hope.

We will need clothes for the metaverse.

“This Is a New Fraternity”

I went to NFT.NYC because I wanted to learn about digital art. But I quickly learned that members of the burgeoning NFT community see themselves not as art collectors, but as the vanguard of a larger shift from physical to digital life.

The NFT boom is not about art or ownership. It is about escape.

The American writer Joan Didion devoted her seminal 1968 essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” to the 1960s phenomenon of young people who ran away from their comfortable, middle-class lives hoping to find something in California. ​​The runaways Didion described were part of the much larger youth counterculture movement that emerged in the late 1960s. Disillusioned with the rigid moral expectations of post-war America, they gave a proverbial middle finger to the conventions of their elders and embraced sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. They dropped acid. They went to Woodstock. Emboldened by the popularization of the pill, they had guilt-free, pre-marital sex.

It was wild, but the party has ended.

Our generation is notable for our lack of a youth-led counterculture, or any coherent rebellion, at least not on the scale of the late 1960s. But this lack of open rebellion does not mean that we are more satisfied than previous generations, or that we have nothing to rebel against. We are by many measures poorer, sicker (mentally and physically), and have fewer close relationships than our parents or grandparents. But instead of running away to some proverbial California, we have mostly chosen to express our frustration in private, on the internet, where you can laugh at memes about major depression or wanting to kermit sewer slide from the safety of your bedroom.

In the NFT community, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of a generation that is so alienated, so profoundly unfulfilled, that they are considering abandoning the physical world altogether. At least the metaverse is something new—maybe somewhere they can be rich, or important.

Ask a member of the NFT community to define the metaverse or “web3” (a buzzword that refers to a next-generation internet that incorporates cryptocurrency, NFTs, and immersive reality) and you will likely get a rambling answer about decentralization and a future where digital communities own the internet. But push a little harder, and you can uncover some less comfortable truths about the future that the NFT community is proposing.

NFTs are, fundamentally, an investment in the metaverse. The NFT community is anticipating the arrival of fully immersive virtual worlds that will take precedence over, or at least exist in parallel to, the physical world. One of the more sophisticated crypto investors I met in New York cheerfully informed me that humanity is approaching a singularity where our digital selves (the version of ourselves in the metaverse) will become more important to us than our physical selves. And once this singularity is reached, she explained, we will have no problem spending real money on digital assets, because our digital lives will matter as much or more to us than our physical lives.

In the metaverse, the story goes, digital ownership will no longer be a novelty. It will simply be ownership. And if our digital lives were actually worth more to us than our physical lives, then why couldn’t the market for digital assets someday be as large (or larger) than the market for physical assets? Hypothetically, you could support an entire NFT economy of digital goods, powered by eager metaverse inhabitants looking to improve their social status online.

But there is no natural scarcity in the digital world. All the scarcity in this metaverse economy has to be imposed, against the nature of the medium, at great effort and energy cost. In the physical world, competition exists by necessity. In the metaverse, it exists for its own sake—or maybe for the sake of investors.

Most NFT community members I broached the topic with were willing to admit that the vast majority of current NFT projects have almost no practical or aesthetic merit. But through the lens of the metaverse, the primitive JPEG NFTs being sold today are just a baby step into the brave new world of digital ownership.

Today, bound by the limits of web2, metaverse enthusiasts are limited to buying cartoon profile pictures and digital art to signal their affiliation with online communities. Tomorrow, they imagine that their communities will gather in immersive digital worlds, complete with NFTs for virtual land and virtual houses, virtual tickets to virtual events, and virtual clothes for their shiny new avatars.

Debating whether NFTs have real-world utility ignores the raison d’être for digital ownership. The real use case for NFTs comes later, in the virtual world.

* * *

On my first day in New York, I attended a midtown lunch meetup I found in the NFT.NYC Telegram group. I struck up a conversation with the man who organized the lunch, an investor named Jack. Jack was wearing a black hoodie emblazoned with a cartoon ape, indicating that he owned a Bored Ape. At the time, the floor price of a Bored Ape was around $20,000. A rare “Golden Ape” recently sold for $2.8 million, and Jack’s ape sweatshirt probably cost around $800. Jack also invested in traditional startups, and unlike most people at the conference, mentioned that he was married.

I nodded politely when Jack took out his phone to show me his NFT collection, which included his prized ape. The Bored Ape series is a generative art collection; all 10,000 available apes are variations on a common template, with randomly generated variations in fur color, accessories, and expression. His particular ape was brown and smoking a blunt.

Jack asked me how I got interested in NFTs. I replied that I was more interested in art, proper, than in anything in particular about NFTs. Before he could respond, I realized that Jack and his ape hoodie might be offended by my flippancy. So I backpedaled: art is relative, I tried to explain, and could certainly include cartoon apes.

He cut me off. “It’s not art. Don’t call it art. That’s offensive to real art.”

 “This,” he gestured to the ape on his phone, “is a new fraternity.”

It sure looked like it. Across the street from our al fresco lunch table, a multiblock line of mostly male “apes” (as Bored Ape owners refer to themselves) waited to get wristbands for an ape-only warehouse party happening later in the week. And while most NFT.NYC attendees would not affiliate themselves with a stodgy, real-world institution like a fraternity, the motto of the conference might as well have been community. I heard it again and again. This time is different. It’s not just speculation, it’s about community. A Coinbase promotional video for NFT.NYC declared that “NFTs are community.” Everyone there attested to the power of NFT communities to change lives.

At a meetup for owners of a series of cat NFTs called “Cool Cats” (ranked one peg below Bored Apes in the NFT status hierarchy), one man stumbled drunk through the party, wearing a tablet displaying an NFT cat cartoon around his neck. He was grabbing strangers for stability and telling them how owning his Cool Cat “changed my life.” “Before this cat, I was a loser,” he said to anyone who would listen, “but now, because of this community, my life means something.”

I tried to contain an awkward laugh. The engineers at the party were busy gawking at his NFT, which was apparently one of the rarest Cool Cats in circulation.

Outside, the line for the Cool Cats meetup was spilling ten blocks out the door. Hundreds of strangers waited in the freezing cold, hoping to get inside and meet their fellow Cool Cat owners. Later that night, when it became clear that the venue was hopelessly overcapacity, the cops shut the event down.

The most dedicated NFT holders I spoke with described their membership in certain NFT-gated communities as something that had transcended financial interest and become a part of their core identities. Around the conference, stories abounded of early buyers who stood to make millions in unrealized gains by liquidating certain NFTs, but who nevertheless refused to sell out of loyalty to their online communities. Cashing out on their favorite NFTs would be like pawning family heirlooms or selling their affiliation with their alma mater.

I met one clean-cut, suit-wearing lawyer who, somewhat astonished by his own devotion, declared that he would never sell his Bored Ape, even if the market crashed or it was worth $5 million.

“It’s a part of me now,” he said. “It would be like cutting off my left arm.”

The existence of fanatical online communities is not novel in and of itself. But unlike Potterheads or K-Pop fans, the NFT community is not interested in remaining a subculture. NFT community leaders believe that they are just early to understand that the future lies in virtual worlds, and that normies will embrace the metaverse in good time. The strength of NFT communities is therefore an important proof of concept for the broader viability of online life.

Josh Ong, a 38-year-old “Brooklyn dad” and unofficial community manager for Bored Apes, is aware of the important role that the Bored Ape community—with its many celebrity members like Jimmy Fallon, Steph Curry, and DJ Khaled—plays as an advertisement for the metaverse. In an interview for Input magazine about NFT.NYC, Ong explained that his goal as community manager is to “​​build a community so strong that…people understand why NFTs are the bridge into persistent digital ownership that can take us into the future, which will be immersive digital worlds.”

The ethos of the NFT community is perhaps best encapsulated by wagmi (pronounced wag-me). Wagmi, which stands for “we’re all gonna make it,” is an expression of capitalist communitarianism. The motto originally comes from Zyzz, the now-deceased bodybuilder who became deified by internet lifting culture. From there, it spread across the web and was eventually adopted by the crypto and NFT spheres. If web2 was about minting a few billionaires, then web3 is supposed to be about everyone getting rich together, or at least, everyone who was smart enough to buy NFTs. In NFT parlance, “making it” generally means “make a lot of money.”

The founding idea of the NFT community is that if the metaverse is really coming, then anyone who bought digital assets early is bound to see their social (and actual) capital skyrocket when virtual communities go mainstream.

By buying in today, you can secure your piece of a multi-trillion dollar market that could dwarf the current global economy.

We’re all gonna make it.

The Things That Don’t Crash

It is tempting to dismiss any discussion of NFTs and their enthusiasts because NFTs aren’t real—at least, not in the sense that a designer coat or a house are real.

There is some truth here. NFTs do not exist in the physical world. They are also not real in the sense that you can never actually own a digital entity the way you own a physical item, because digital entities are infinitely reproducible whether or not you technically own a crypto token that points to the URL.

It is a pleasant narrative. If NFTs aren’t real, and are doomed to crash, then the entire movement around them can be dismissed. Perhaps this wishful thinking is why, when Facebook recently announced that it was changing its name to Meta and pivoting to the metaverse, the decision was met with more eye rolls than fear. It all seemed like the last gasp of a fading giant trying to keep up with the kids.

But this assumes that the staying power of NFTs is the technology itself. In practice, the ownership rights bestowed by NFTs are socially, not technically, enforced. The beauty of NFTs is that it is extremely simple to confirm who owns what, and thus to create and enforce social hierarchies based on your virtual holdings. This is very real.

All week in New York, the myriad token-gated parties and meetups applied social filters based on digital ownership. Tickets to these events could only be purchased once you connected your crypto wallet and proved that you held the correct NFTs. At any given party, the coolest people in the room were always the “whales,” semi-mythical figures who own over 1000 ETH ($3 million at the time of writing) in digital assets. Rumors of exclusive “whale dinners” trickled down through the ranks of attendees, who jockeyed in anonymous group chats for passwords to invite-only events.

A popular activity at the conference was pulling up your crypto wallet on your phone and comparing NFT portfolios with your neighbor. Even if NFTs are not real in the physical sense, the social sting of displaying a less-than-impressive NFT collection certainly can be.

Once we place enough value on our digital identities, online consumption can feel far more consequential than physical consumption. Online, the clothes you wear, the places you go, and now, the various digital tokens you own, are attached to you permanently in a way that the ephemeral actions in your day-to-day life are not. When ordinary people buy followers or go to expensive music festivals just for social media photos, they have accepted the idea that their digital appearance is worth spending real money on.

In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion captured a moment in time; a small group of teenagers who tried to find meaning in psychedelics. But it was also one of the first major literary works documenting the broader phenomenon of American decadence, or cultural malaise in the face of unprecedented economic prosperity. In the fifty-odd years since “Slouching” was published, a diagnosis of “decadence” has become shorthand for a constellation of cultural neuroses plaguing Western countries, including technological stagnation, cultural repetition, sterility, and nihilism. Unlike in the 1960s, it no longer includes coping with unprecedented prosperity.

As I wandered through New York, I wondered what Didion would think of the festivities at NFT.NYC. Are the desires of NFT proponents to rebuild the world online the endgame of a fully stagnant society—a final detour into the absurd before we give up on progress for good? Or is the starry-eyed optimism of digital true believers a last stand against decadence?

The growing pro-metaverse contingent is perhaps the logical conclusion of decades of rhetoric that “innovation” is synonymous with “digitization.” For the twenty-somethings who populate the NFT community, the greatest and most salient innovations in their lifetime have occurred in the increasingly pleasant digital environments of their phones and gaming consoles. Meanwhile, the primary narrative they have been fed about the physical world is that it will probably kill them one day, via COVID-19 or climate change. Our generation may not be consciously hostile to the physical world, but we have little affection for it either.

For now, one of the great appeals of the metaverse seems to be that it is not here. But where more transcendent movements might promise a respite from material concerns, NFT culture is aggressively, wholeheartedly concerned with earthly victories. Success is measured in ETH, which is itself measured in dollars. The founding myth of the NFT community is that if the metaverse is really coming, then anyone who bought digital assets early is bound to see their social (and actual) capital skyrocket when virtual communities go mainstream. Bitcoin, NFTs, and other alternative assets may be a middle finger to the current financial system, but their followers embrace the premise that money can buy happiness.

And yet perhaps because of this one-note proposal, the NFT community is one of the rare spaces where you can find young people expressing sincere excitement about the future. NFT culture is notably short on irony, self-deprecation, or any of the usual trappings of millennial humor. In most online spaces, sincerity is mocked and dissected; in the NFT community, “bullishness” is gospel. Web3 is coming. We’re all gonna make it. Any criticism of NFTs generally gets interpreted as bitterness about not getting in early enough.

When you talk to NFT enthusiasts about the metaverse or their online communities, they get a little glint of hope in their eyes. They have a tendency to look a little bit past you, like they are seeing something right over your shoulder, some intangible form of the future that will disappear if you turn around.

What Society?

I came away from NFT.NYC with a certain respect for the NFT community. They are not taking decadence lying down, and have found a way to revel in the absurdity.

But for all the rhetoric of innovation and transcendence, online life does not actually make up for physical decay, either in people or in society. Extended time in digital worlds necessarily takes time away from the few factors consistently shown to improve human happiness: family, physical health, and time with close friends.

One trait that stands out about the NFT community is they never say “fuck society. The sentiment is more like “what society?” When the NFT community discusses potential problems with the metaverse, the talk focuses on technical constraints like energy consumption and data storage. In all the discussions I participated in about the coming metaverse, no one ever mentioned how people would reproduce if they were spending all of their time in a virtual world, or how young children would be onboarded to this new reality.

Perhaps this is the result of the NFT community being populated mostly by single men. The question doesn’t come up, as if they have just forgotten the existence of children or the physical sex necessary for them to be born. There is already a strange asexuality within the NFT community—a sense that sex and intimacy are probably not worth the effort. On NFT Twitter, a common category of memes depicts men skipping sex to buy NFTs, or using their gains to pay for divorce lawyers after their wives complain that they spend too much time trading.

Say that we actually give up on reality and fully shift our attention to virtual worlds. How would you find a real person to marry? Do we still need houses, or just dark rooms with computers? Do we make babies in test tubes? Do we still have to exercise? Does it matter?

If you believe your physical life has meaning, then it is hard to justify strapping into VR life. But if you are already deriving no pleasure or hope from your physical body, your family, or your friends, then the vaguely pleasant numbness of the screen world starts to look pretty good.

* * *

On the last day of the conference, I waited for an Uber with my friend David. He had also skipped school to come to New York and mingle with NFT people.

David asked me what I had learned during my week in New York.

I told him that before this week, I had thought that NFTs were just a new type of art. Instead, I learned that these people really believe that NFTs are a first step into the metaverse, a passport to digital life, and that living in the metaverse will make them happy. I continued that the metaverse isn’t so far off. Americans already spend seven waking hours a day looking at a screen. How much of the real world is there even left to give up?

I didn’t tell him what I was actually thinking, which is that I suddenly could not imagine myself having children anymore, if I would just have to watch them slouch away into the confines of digital life. If I do have children, they will likely grow up in a world where living online is normal, or at least a viable option.

David paused to think. “Ya, it kinda sucks.” He looked out into the street and thought a bit more.

“But it could also be cool, right? Like, right now, if I have a sword in a video game, I only have it in one game. But if we had a metaverse, then I could take it anywhere, and it would still be mine. And maybe it’s like, the only sword in the whole world that could kill a certain monster. That would be really cool.”

He sounded so excited. I didn’t want to argue.

‘“Yes, that would be cool.”

Ginevra Davis studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford and now works in art and design. She writes about technology and youth culture. You can follow her at @ginevlily.