One Billion Emails About NFTs
I've learned to organize my perception of time by the PR blasts that appear in my inbox. The way I see it, there have been three distinct questionable financial eras since I started working as a full-time journalist in 2014. We endured the CBD barrage of the late Obama years, where ancillary television actors, fringe NBA players, and Austin-dwelling Instagram models suddenly became desperate for coverage of their specious Quasi Weed enterprises. (Advertising professionals would play madlib with every possible mid-2010s buzzword to spark a blog post; you'd seriously get press releases about "Health Goth CBD," endorsed by one half of the Chainsmokers.) But to its credit, CBD is at least a corporeal product, which made it much more palatable than the crypto spell of the Trump term. In 2018 my Gmail swelled with Twitch streamers and costumed DJs who were pioneering endless strains of digital currency — often sheathed in chilling posi-vibes language, ("Joycoin," "Arcadia,") and always worth a fraction of a cent — which forced us to ask some elementally unanswerable questions, like is it legal for Lil Yachty to sell fake money?
But it is the NFT boom, retched from the fetid bowels of the crypto wave, that brought me to my breaking point. In 2021, a handful of brain-damaged Silicon Valley apocalyptos hatched the final scheme of the anthropocene; redistributing Things That Are Already Free Online at incredibly high prices, backed solely by the dark imagination of all the usual suspects. (Washed rock bands, world-famous Call of Duty players, and septuagenarian auteurs who have all the wrong people whispering in their ears.) I think I speak for most reporters when I say that NFTs have forced me into some of the most insane conversations of my career. In November I found myself in a midtown hotel, listening to a man equate gaming with "slave labor." (He said that!) His reasoning? Gamers do not get to harvest revenue from the items they find in Skyrim or whatever, so we can only be free of our chains by turning health potions into NFTs. It's a hilariously sickening conceit for anyone except those who can profit from it, which should stand as enduring proof that below their milquetoast nonpartisan exterior, Tech Men are the most unhinged accelerationist psychopaths in public society.
Unfortunately, the actors most invested in this radical remaking of the economy also happen to be the most powerful companies in the universe. When Facebook is hellbent on injecting us into a decentralized sicko-libertarian wonderland, a certain fatalism sets in. I cannot be the only person who received a Coinbase referral code from their dad this summer. The pact is sealed. It's all inertia from here.
That's why the emails are so funny. At this point it's blatantly clear who is going to conquer the metaverse — the people who are already ludicrously rich have unilaterally set the terms of the deal — but like all prosperity manias that have passed through the American limbic system, (the gold rush, the dot-com bubble, those zillion dollar LeBron cards,) a whole bunch of doomed B and C players are breathlessly trying to break in and leverage the last drops of clout left in their celebrity. Real Housewives, one-hit-wonders, mid-level TikTokkers, it doesn't matter. We're all side-hustlers now. Ja Rule is printing his own NFTs, four years after he put his name on a selection of CBD tinctures. Lindsay Lohan auctioned off her Fursona, sparking a huge backlash within the furry community. I have emails from the representation of M. Shadows, the lead singer of Avenged Sevenfold — you know, the band with the skull and bat wings logo. He has an NFT he wanted me to write about, and the press release touted that Shadows has been instrumental in cryptopilling his prime Warped Tour colleagues — particularly Joel Madden from Good Charlotte.
A link in the copy directs to one of the saddest tweets of all time; Madden shows off a cartoon skeleton, rendered with a distinct, 2004 DeviantArt-ish flair, that somehow costs like $3,000. "I'm offish," he writes. The skeleton is part of the "Wicked Craniums" NFT token line, and after reckoning with that fact, you will be aghast to learn that the man who once threatened to rob the gentry in his biggest hit now has a Twitter bio that reads Music/Art/Meta. (DJ Marshmello has a Wicked Craniums token too. His skeleton is wearing a pope hat.) There it is again, that funny feeling.
The majority of my NFT email hoard arrived after I was added to the press list for a blockchain convention in New York. (I was working on a profile there that you’ll hopefully be able to read soon!) That's when it first struck me that nobody in this business — not the artists, boosters, grifters, and least of all the PR professionals — had any idea how to define the NFT ecosystem, leaving everyone terrified of asking too many questions and accidentally toppling the house of cards. As global capital spirals off into its psychedelic terminal sunset, the ministers of this community are attempting to translate the meltdown into the benign terms a farmer might use to describe the intrinsic value of a bushel of wheat. It’s uncanny. I received an email from a woman who is probably accustomed to handling the affairs of pop singers and 90 Day Fiancé characters before her boss dropped a 21-year old NFT artist on her desk. He was bringing something called "Creature World" to Hammerstein Ballroom, which consisted of an "inflatable bouncy house” highlighting his 10,000 tokenized portraits up for auction Ethereum on OpenSea. I imagine the PR staff drawing straws, determining which unlucky soul would be cursed with crafting the pitch.
"The Creature World is not only a reflection of me but a reflection of what everyone brings to it. It unifies us," reads a quote in the press release. The liaison notes that the artist's portfolio holds a “trading volume” (whatever that means!) of $100 million, and ominously, that "the creature will be in attendance, racing all those who dare challenge it.” What? These NFT projects sprung out of the ground overnight, fully formed, blanketed in a thick gauze of wobbly, unverifiable corporate hype. It is impossible to contextualize them within the grander scope of the financial system, which is probably the point. Instead, media professionals have been coerced into believing that oodles of cash can and should be funneled towards Creature World, or Bored Ape, or fucking "Wicked Craniums" as if we’ve already reached a perfectly airtight consensus on NFTs long ago. The journalist and the PR flack are both hurtling towards a murky, indeterminate destination like Thelma and Louise — at last, common ground for the two bitter factions to bond over.
It's been a long time since I was frequently writing pieces adapted directly from PR blasts. In my nascent blogging years, back when I made like $10 a post in college, stuff like this was my bread and butter. I have done crypto sponcon and boutique cannabis pablum; I once wrote a story about a website called NakedWeedReport.com; I have walked through the valley of death. This was the game, brother. There was no easier way to land on the front page of Vice than with a vape pen endorsed by Action Bronson. So I can lose hours daydreaming about the Zoomer version of Luke Winkie — broke, anxious, exhausted — staying up past midnight to dash out a couple paragraphs about a climate change-themed NFT gallery chartered by a suite of cartoon monkeys, all for a paltry pre-tax check that would likely arrive six months past the publishing date. (He's somewhere out there, I know it.) Obviously I'm glad that my pay is no longer contingent on excruciating phrases like "carbon neutral NFTs," but it was invaluable to learn how the sausage gets made. Call it the content industrial complex. Everyone who gets started in digital media is quickly humbled by how much control the business has ceded over its own pages; how so often, particularly on the lower rungs, reporters and PR contacts alike are consumed by the churn de jour. I think we both know that NFTs are a farce, but conceding that point would bring a screeching halt to the consumer momentum that spins the top, even as it seems to grow more feral and precarious with each passing trend. So we'll keep entertaining each one of these shakedowns, at least until the lights are snuffed out for good.