Sporting an NFT of a pixelated man or a cartoon animal as a social media profile picture was once an obscure trend confined to blockchain devotees. But over the past few months, that online trend has been gaining mainstream acceptance... at least among those who can afford one.
The price of NFTs attached to unique images have skyrocketed recently, with top projects such as CryptoPunks netting millions of dollars per pixelated character. But it’s not just CryptoPunks; there’s apes, penguins, clowns, cartoon rocks, and much, much more. Even more affordable spinoffs of popular projects—for example Bastard GAN Punks, which remixes CryptoPunks using machine learning—are proliferating like the Skechers to the Nikes of the new market for online status. People are even renting NFTs for a brief taste of what it’s like to be among the crypto-elite.
One of the latest entrants in the NFT game is three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry who Saturday snagged an NFT of a tweed-wearing monkey with blue fur from the collection Bored Ape Yacht Club. Curry paid $180,000 for the privilege, peanuts for a national athlete but several times the annual wage in the U.S. Of course, he made it his Twitter avatar.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are proofs of ownership stored on the blockchain that are supposed to show whose wallet owns which digital file, how much it cost to receive it, and who has previously owned it. Pretty much anything online can be turned into an NFT, including images based on a free clipart image of a rock that now sell for as high as $2.8 million.
“Much the same way people in the real world wear different brands to express themselves, [now] you see this level of personalization coming to profile pictures,” gmoney, the pseudonymous NFT investor who sold his CryptoPunk #7610 to Visa for $165,000, told Motherboard. CryptoPunks, which consist of 10,000 pixelated images of people, zombies or aliens, is one of the earliest and the most expensive NFT collectibles widely used as profile pictures.
“The difference is that you can verify how much the transaction was for on chain,” gmoney said. “Much harder to fake.”
“The emergence of the metaverse, and globally connected applications now allows people to flex wealth and status throughout the internet via these new internet-native assets, which are easy to prove ownership of,” an NFT investor pseudonymously known as 0x650d told Motherboard. In late July, he spent $7 million on a collection of 104 cheapest CryptoPunks. Why? “Because I choose wealth,” he tweeted regarding his purchase.
Although they may look like a bunch of childlike images to outsiders, NFTs have also developed sub-sub-cultures and their own hierarchy. Alex Svanevik, CEO of blockchain analytics firm Nansen, told Motherboard that CryptoPunks are considered somewhat elitist within the crypto community due to their high price, while Bored Apes Yacht Club has gone mainstream, attracting celebrities from culture, entertainment, and sport. “And Pudgy Penguins is mostly a fun and friendly gag on the internet,” he said.
“I’m by no means a penguin maximalist; I own a whole zoo of jpegs, ranging from ducks to doges,” he said, but not apes; he sold forty Bored Apes way too early, he said, which could have netted him more than $10 million if he held on. But like all crypto projects, it’s the community that matters to him the most, he added.
“I strongly believe we are entering an era where an NFT like a punk is your digital flex, social status, your Rolex, Birkin bag, and so on”
For those who want to flex online with a pricey NFT but can’t quite afford it, the crypto industry has come up with eccentric solutions. One of them is reNFT, a protocol that lets people rent an NFT for a limited period of time.
“I strongly believe we are entering an era where an NFT like a punk is your digital flex, social status, your Rolex, Birkin bag, and so on,” Nick Vale, co-founder of reNFT, told Motherboard. He explained there has been a successful case of a three-month CryptoPunk rental that the tenant has seen his “[social-media] engagement skyrocket and has made a full name for himself in the space.”
Instead of renting a whole NFT for a limited amount of time, another solution that’s much cheaper is to buy a fraction of it. “Owning a rare profile picture is the best way to signal that you ‘made it’ in the crypto world,” Andy Chorlian, co-founder of fractional.art, told Motherboard.
Can someone buy a fraction of an NFT and flex the whole thing on their profile? “That is totally up to social consensus, but so far it seems like yes,” said Chorlian, who owns whole, non-fractionalized CryptoPunks, Bored Apes, Pudgy Penguins and Cool Cats. “I like how they look and [they] also have cool communities of people attached,” he said.
Digital artist Mistcop, who is behind the NFT project Big Brain Society, said that it can be hard for new projects to stand out and gain footing amid the explosion.
“As more money flows in, people want to maintain an image that they can sell to corporate investors, because let’s be honest, most of these folks (not me) are here just for money,” he told Motherboard. “They are not here for the tech, the art or the liberating aspect of blockchain tech.”
“I am just saddened that we as people have brought the same problems from the traditional financial and art worlds into crypto.”
Perhaps, similar to Crocs’ resurgence as anti-fashion footwear, the next new flex will be sporting obscure and bargain-bin NFTs in defiance.