Crypto, NFTs and a weird new culture war
As I have said several times before on this newsletter, I think the developing culture war over cryptocurrency and the blockchain is one of the most interesting things happening online, and potentially a canary in the coalmine for the next stage of political and cultural conflict.
Over the past few of months, we’ve seen countless manifestations of the crypto backlash Some recent examples:
Mozilla, the longstanding nonprofit that maintains the Firefox web browser, announced it would accept donations in cryptocurrency, then quickly backtracked and put the project on pause in the face of an avalanche of criticism. One particularly loud voice was the company’s co-founder Jamie Zawinski, who tweeted that “everyone involved in the project should be witheringly ashamed of this decision to partner with planet-incinerating Ponzi grifters.”
Discord, which has developed into the primary communications and organising tool for the Web3 world — and the place where most scams happen, incidentally — backed off from offering native integration following user outcry. This is the gravitational centre of the crypto universe being too skittish to actually implement NFTs at an infrastructural level.
Matt Damon appeared in a highly lame ad for Crypto.com, which led to substantial backlash. This was mostly centred around the fact that, under all the hype — and forgetting for a moment Damon’s high-flying climate activism — it really is a guy with a net worth of $170 million encouraging retail investors to dive into highly volatile speculative instruments.
The gaming industry, which is usually heralded as the tip of the spear for widespread crypto/Web3/metaverse/etc adoption, has also faced an uneasy ride. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 developer GSC Game World cancelled its NFT plans after a fan revolt, and veteran publisher Sega signalled it did not want to get involved in a space that was perceived by players as being driven by “simple money-making”. Ubisoft, the first major game publisher to make a serious move into this space, sold a grand total of 15 NFTs after a month of operation, and has somewhat moderated its more gung-ho rhetoric after — you guessed it — player backlash.
Several crypto-critical pieces went viral online at the tail end of 2021, including this one on NFTs at Gawker, featuring this passage: “And this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers.”
Prominent figures like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey attacked the Web3 world as being fundamentally captured by venture capital and subject to its whims and incentives, despite the soaring rhetoric about returning power to individuals and creators. (I wrote about this in a bit more detail here.)
A guy downloaded all 10,000 NFT images in the Lazy Lions NFT collection and turned them into a giant mosiac of a person right-clicking. (Right-clicking is the unifying action of the anti-NFT movement, who argue that they can just save the picture without needing an on-chain record of ‘ownership’.) “The real issue is that they represent an attempt to re-impose artificial scarcity on culture,” creator @nicodotgay later tweeted. “‘Digital scarcity’ is an anti human evolution ideology that imposes board game-like rules which serve no purpose than to preserve the game itself - to hide the internal contradictions of capitalism that become painfully obvious in an area of culture that has overcome scarcity.”
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actor and co-creator Rob McElhenney bought a Bored Ape NFT for over US$300,000 and tweeted a picture of it, only to delete the post thirty minutes later and pretend it never happened after everyone laughed at him. (This one isn’t particularly instructive, it’s just funny.)
In most of these disparate conflicts in the broader crypto culture war, you find a common thread: institutions and individuals trying to get involved into this frothy new landscape, and finding that their existing fanbase and other stakeholders are not only not onboard with it but deeply hostile to the whole project. And they’re loud enough on social media to throw a spanner in the works.