How NFTs further open the door to world of crypto and pop culture


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Professor Lee W. McKnight of the iSchool recognized the permanent value in non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, when they were only being used in an online tamagotchi-like game called CryptoKitties. In 2021, just a couple years after the development of that game, the same software that spawned the cute collectible cats was used for NFTs that would sell for millions of dollars a piece.

Despite NFTs’ popularity leveling off recently, McKnight is confident that NFTs are more than just a fad.

“When every athlete, when every music singer, when every young person — and old people, and Wall Street people — all know about NFTs and cryptocurrencies, there’s something happening that you should not think is just a passing fad,” said McKnight, who specializes in blockchain and internet cloud architecture.

An NFT is a digital artwork, image, code or creation that has been minted on the blockchain. Initially conceptualized in the 1990s to timestamp digital transactions so they couldn’t be backdated, blockchain technology is now used to create a space where anything posted can be owned, tracked and sold as a unique object online.

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The majority of NFTs are created, bought and sold with Ethereum, a type of cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is virtual money created by computers performing complex equations. According to a report from Dune Analytics, in the first half of 2021, NFTs grossed over $2.5 billion in digital sales as a result of the creations of famous artists, musicians and even athletes who all issued their own NFTs. In this newly intangible and evolving art industry, many young artists and students — including ones from Syracuse University — get creative and compete with corporations and celebrities all looking to carve out their own corners of this virtual world.

NFTs’ pop culture status peaked in mid-February, when memes such as “Grumpy Cat” and “Nyan Cat” sold for $83 thousand dollars and $600 thousand dollars, respectively. But cryptocurrency, and in turn the NFT community, has remained a consistent part of the virtual world despite some people initially thinking of NFTs as a fad.

Saniya Moore, who graduated SU in 2019 and now reports on cryptocurrency for online digital asset news site “The Block,” said NFTs may be successful because they give a face to the binary world of cryptocurrency.

“A lot of people forget that behind every crypto project there is a human,” Moore said. “There is a team of people that are trying to do something. NFTs have really shown the human side of crypto and blockchain technology.”

In addition to acknowledging the permanence of NFTs, Moore said that major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s that began hosting NFT auctions represent a paradigm shift in the business of contemporary art. With the evolution of NFTs and virtual art, factors such as geography are no longer an obstacle for bidders and artists.

Since the auctions are entirely virtual, participation simply requires an internet connection and a device to log on from, provided participants have the money to bid, Moore said.

Joey Papoutsis, a 2013 graduate of SU’s Bandier Program, is a founder of the NFT drop site Illumino, an online gallery where NFTs are curated and bid on. Blockchain-based artwork is a budding new genre of art, Papoutsis said.

“There’s sculptures. There’s traditional oil on canvas. Then there’s really cool animations and digital art and animated digital art,” Papoutsis said. “They’re all different mediums, and it’s just an entirely new category.”

Since NFTs that have sold for millions of dollars range from memes to artwork by celebrated artists such as Andy Warhol, it’s hard even for Papoutsis to put a finger on what makes an NFT blow up. But, he said it often has more to do with the artist’s intent than the work itself.

Max Biscarr, a 16-year-old multimedia artist, issued his first NFT last month, an AI-based animation called “A Reionized Universe.” He isn’t a coder or software engineer, but after spending about $20 to upload his animation to the Ethereum blockchain, Biscarr now has a work that will exist forever online. For him it’s not about procuring celebrity-level fame or even selling the work, Biscarr said, but being a part of the NFT movement.

“This is the start of something that not only the art community but the world as a whole is going to benefit from,” he said.

Biscarr compared the feeling of minting an NFT to having his own personalized collectible Pokémon card. It’s something that has a lot of value because he made it, and now anyone can see it and know it’s his, Biscarr said. But no matter how great it feels, Biscarr said he doesn’t see himself getting rich off of NFTs.

New cryptocurrencies are constantly being created and used in all kinds of “pump-and-dump” financial scams, McKnight said. But beyond those scammers is a global group of artists and appreciators on NFT sites because they see legitimate use and longevity in virtual money and art.

McKnight said that he sees NFTs becoming permanent financial infrastructure as well — a new asset class similar to other commodities such as U.S. dollars, gold or wheat.

The world of cryptocurrency is volatile by design, and NFTs are no different. As long as artists keep making art, hoping to get lucky as the pool of bidders grows both geographically and economically, the NFT community will continue impacting the art world, Moore said.

“The original NFT boom does feel like it’s starting to die down, but it’s really revolutionized a lot of digital collectibles,” Moore said. “It’s really revolutionized the way we see and view art.”



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