Relocations: Is ‘virtual community’ an oxymoron?

'CryptoPunks' are 10,000 uniquely generated characters available at larvalabs.com/cryptopunks.
January 19, 2023

Using ‘PFPs’ and fabricated names suggests a belief in selves without histories

Discord (an internet platform) is working toward an inclusive world where no one feels like an outsider, where genuine human connection is a click, text chat, or voice call away. A place where everyone can find belonging.’

By Herbert Rothschild

Often it happens after we notice something for the first time that we start seeing it again and again, and finally realize that it’s been around for a while. So it was for me and “NFTs” — non-fungible tokens. An article in The New Yorker of Dec. 5 introduced me to them and the digital universe in which they exist. Shortly thereafter, on Dec. 15, our ubiquitous ex-president announced the launch of his NFT trading cards, and NFTs became more widely known.

Herbert Rothschild

NFTs debuted about five years ago. They’re closely linked to cryptocurrency in that they both must exist on a blockchain exchange. The NFT of a digital collage by Mike Winkelmann (aka Beeple) sold at Christie’s auction house in 2021 for $69 million, but typically an NFT is bought with the cryptocurrency of its exchange. So, for example, the first sale of an NFT created by Yam Karkai, the subject of The New Yorker article, was for 0.07 Ethereum, a cryptocurrency that at the time (July 27, 2021) was itself trading at $2,143 but is now trading at roughly half that much. Last year was a high-water mark for both NFT and cryptocurrency valuations.

A blockchain is an ever-growing list of records— records of ownership in the case of NFTs and cryptocurrency. Each record, called a block, is given a timestamp and irrevocably fixed in position in the chain because it’s encoded with the identity of the blocks before and after it, thus making it tamper-proof. An NFT collection has a finite number of items. When each one is sold, that transaction becomes a block in a chain. So, although the images are digital, they aren’t legally reproducible. At any given time each image can be owned by only one person, who subsequently can sell or trade the image.

Real things, such as a piece of land, can be transformed into NFTs and sold. Overwhelmingly, however, NFTs are synonymous with digital images, such as Trump’s trading cards and PFPs, or profile pictures. Buying a PFP gives one the exclusive right to use it as one’s visual identifier on social media and gaming platforms.

CryptoPunks is a set of 10,000 algorithmically-generated 24- by 24-inch pixel art images which launched in 2017. Most are slightly varying punky-looking males and females. According to its website, “CryptoPunks, by turning top artists and art pieces into NFTs, not only upgrades the way artworks are hosted, but also transforms them from being elite-exclusive items to something that truly belongs to the people and mirrors their aspirations.” This allegedly democratized art is currently selling for a minimum of just under $75,000 per NFT, down from a high of more than $400,000 last year.

Another best-selling collection is the Bored Ape Yacht Club, 10,000 cartoon images of apes drawn from the shoulders up. They vary in facial expression and clothing. When launched in April 2021, they sold for $200 apiece. A year later, the cheapest was $400,000. Now they’re selling for about what the CryptoPunks do.

Karkai created a collection of PFPs called World of Women. She was extolled by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon for injecting feminist images into a market previously dominated by men. When launched, the WOWs began selling at a fairly good clip at modest prices, but a few hours later an NFT “influencer” named GaryVee (aka Gary Vaynerchuk) got on the WOW Discord chat server and talked up the collection. It sold out within hours for more than $1.5 million.

That people paid such extraordinary sums for images without much aesthetic merit (Beeple’s excepted) only tells me that too many people with too much money have too little sense of what is valuable in a life well lived. Also, the prominent role of celebrities and social media influencers in creating interest and inflating values reinforces the sense of evanescence that haunts all virtual reality. But what strikes me as real — and a window into our core cultural condition — is the effort to create communities around NFTs as well as games and other aspects of on-line existence.

Discord is a platform that allows a user to set up a server for as many as 800,000 people of similar interests. Here is what amounts to its mission statement: “Discord is working toward an inclusive world where no one feels like an outsider, where genuine human connection is a click, text chat, or voice call away. A place where everyone can find belonging.” That’s a worthy mission. It refuses to concede that existence on-line is inherently isolating. Rather, as many do claim, the Internet can facilitate community-building in ways never before possible. 

Will it? Karkai has been intentional about making WOW a community supportive of women, not just a commercial enterprise. But I’m troubled by the reluctance of people to say who they are on-line. Here’s what Discord says about using PFPs on its hosted sites: “Aside from your username, your PFP is the first thing that people see on Discord. Although it is very rare that people actually use their real pictures, you still want to make a good impression. Believe it or not, most people put a lot of thought into their Discord profile pictures. Your Discord picture is a projection of yourself and your personality. Choosing the best is definitely an important part of expressing yourself on Discord.” How do a made-up name and a CryptoPunk PFP project a human being with whom another human being can form a genuine human connection?

That these connections aren’t, for the most part, conducted in person doesn’t strike me as an insurmountable obstacle to authenticity. Actually, for some years there have been in-person conventions for players of popular on-line games, and lately NFT conventions have begun to spring up. What does strike me as an insurmountable obstacle is that the participants aren’t bringing their personal histories to the connections, mostly just their current interests. Indeed, using PFPs and fabricated names suggests a belief in selves without histories.

No such selves exist. If we erase our histories, we cannot know, much less affirm, ourselves, so how can others know and affirm us? A character in Laura Dave’s novel “The Divorce Party” (2008) says to another, “These things … they are who you are. They brought you here. To this day. You didn’t give me a chance to understand that even the unattractive parts of you, the messy parts, were something I could accept.”

Most on-line connections, I fear, will manifest what Frederic Jameson deemed “the supreme formal feature of all the post-modernisms,” namely, “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense.” I wish it were otherwise.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.


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