The following essay is a homage to collecting enabled by web3. It is a living document, minted as a collectible Writing NFT. By collecting it, you encourage me to keep refining and elaborating these views, which will be updated here.
Introduction: The Social Web Progresses into the Art of Collecting
The technology underpinning web3 enables ownership of digital media – including images, music, and writing. Some have said that this brings property rights to the internet. A common framing is that the web has evolved from read-only (web 1), to read + write (web 2.0), to read + write + own (web3).
Another way to think of the progression is to compare the verbs used on web2 platforms to those in web3. In web2, we like and share media; on web3, we collect. By introducing property rights to the internet, web3 moves beyond the like and share primitives of social to include a third and more powerful gesture: collect.
The social structure of collecting resembles contemporary art collecting – involving creators, collectors, and curators. But a key difference is that web3 empowers creators to engage instantly and directly with global collection markets. The disintermediation of the creator-collector relationship is reflected in the absence of the role of a dealer or central platform. This focuses web3 on creators and collectors.
“A Simple Trick” – Selling Ancient Ethiopia to Strangers on the Blockchain
In October of 2021, as Covid rates declined and the world became hopeful of reopening, an Ethiopian family of artists operating as a photography collective called Yatreda minted their first NFT collection on Foundation.
The series, titled Kingdoms of Ethiopia, included twelve motion portraits depicting historical heroes and heroines from Ethiopian history. The first NFT auction settled at 10 ETH ($30,562.80 at the time), and total sales topped 109.11 ETH ($388,741.47).
Yatreda is independent – an African family working from home, using local tools. After their blockbuster sale, the founder of Yatreda, Kiya Tadele, gave Vogue Italia context about the shoot:
…we photograph and film everything in our front yard. Neighbors and the construction workers building houses around us wanted to know what we were doing, wanting to know who these people in historical costumes were walking around our house.
During the editing process, Kiya applies “a simple trick” using Adobe software to create video clips that loop smoothly. This is an example of a creative competency in technique. But artists also develop competencies in conceptual understandings. For Yatreda, the decision to mint Ethiopian history as immutable NFTs is inseparable from the art itself:
Imagine how far back Ethiopian history goes, and how many different unique things we can capture and preserve? Which heroes will we decide to mint and spread all over the world, decentralized and almost impossible to destroy? Books can disappear forever. NFT not so easy. That’s the work I’m trying to do.
It was early evening in Ethiopia when the family uploaded the forever-looping clips of ancient heroes to Foundation, and tokenized them on Ethereum. They finalized their timed auction, and two hours received their first bid.
It’s web3 that uniquely enabled a family of artists in Ethiopia to sell a quarter of a million dollars in art overnight to collectors in Canada, England, and the United States. They didn’t need to find a dealer, connect their bank, or create an account on a centralized platform – they just needed an internet connection. The program that ran their auction will continue servicing any artists like them, without intervention or maintenance, at all hours of the day, for every day of the year.
But it’s unclear whether the creative process can run sustainably without intermediaries. Intermediaries in the creative process are not just economic – roles like dealers can function as cultural intermediaries.
Dealer Not Required? Challenging the Proposition of Artist-Collector Disintermediation
In Bound by Creativity, an ethnographic fieldwork exploring the contemporary art scene in New York City, Professor Wolh examines the social processes underlying artistic production and evaluation. She reveals the interrelating roles of the artist, dealer, and collector:
Artists must decide how to produce their work, dealers and curators must select which works to exhibit, critics must choose how to interpret exhibitions, and collectors must purchase certain works for their collections.
Both practical and supportive, the dealer serves as an important cultural and economic intermediary between the often eccentric artist and their prospective collectors.
Dealers must maintain their role as true supporters of artists’ creative visions, while also keeping the lights on. In their interactions with artists, they delicately negotiate three kinds of creative decisions: what kinds of work artists make, how to arrange these works in the exhibition space, and the exhibition timeline.
Bound to the creative visions of both creator and collector, the dealer must nurture and guide the artist’s talent.
Collectors do not think about collecting discrete works. Instead, they view themselves as collecting artists’ creative visions, while also expressing their own creative visions through their collections. This perspective shapes which artists’ bodies of work they select, which works they purchase within these bodies of work, and how they claim status as collectors.
In the conclusion of Bound by Creativity, Wolh underscores that artists must “negotiate others’ interpretations of their creative visions as their work circulates through the art world”. Amidst web3’s absence of cultural intermediaries, artists are assumed to take full responsibility for this role, and the longevity of this approach is not proven. To become a home for serious cultural creation and evaluation, web3 might need to facilitate more than just efficient economic relationships.
From Collection to Collective: Token-Based Memberships
It was during the pandemic, while many were forced to search online for connection and community, that the web3 narrative took hold. Entrepreneur Trevor McFedries, the creator of virtual pop star Lil Miquela, had just launched an online club called Friends with Benefits – equating membership in the club with ownership of the “$FWB” token. Anyone who had the token could send some to their friends – expanding the group to others who shared the same cultural values and wanted access to events and chat rooms. The more people who wanted to join the group, the premise went, the more valuable the token would become.
By the time the New York Times reported on it, the group had expanded to over 6,000 members and FWB’s mission had evolved to “becoming the ultimate cultural membership in web3”. Investors had noticed; famed crypto fund a16z Crypto had valued it at $100m, banking on the group’s potential to take web3 mainstream:
Because of FWB, it’s now possible to envision a world where the first time you interact with crypto is when you walk into a bar or attend your friend’s concert.
During this time, the most compelling application of tokens seemed to transition from financial speculation to community membership. I realized that if web3 starts with collecting, it ends with belonging.