Looking Back on a Wild Year of NFTs With Rhea Myers

A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Receive a weekly update on the Internet’s future by signing up Here are past issues.

Clubhouse was a cool app I found that allowed me to get more information about an interesting phenomenon I heard about, but didn’t fully understand. NFTs. The app brought me to a group of people who were convinced that NFTs (or non-fungible tokens) would transform culture, commerce, and technology. They were passionate, but very small in size and isolated. Many people didn’t even know of NFTs.
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It’s amazing how a single year can make a big difference. As we wind up 2021, NFTs were one of the year’s breakout stories, worming their way into nearly every aspect of pop culture, from music to sports to Marvel Entertainment. Neighboring concepts are of interest to you DeFi, DAOs The metaverseAs investors and companies around the globe prepared for a digital-first world, they too exploded.

Rhea Myers, an artist and blockchain programmer was my guide to a crazy year in metaverse. Myers created blockchain-based art using early cryptos like Bitcoin, Dogecoin, and other chains eight years prior to NFT art becoming mainstream. Dapper Labs employs her as a smart contract specialist. NBA TopShot CryptoKitties. Like me, Myers was somewhat skeptical about the prospects of NFTs in 2021: “At the start of the year, I was quite down about the artistic engagement with, and use of, the blockchain space,” she says. “And everything just blew up a couple weeks later. It’s been so invigorating.”

I asked Myers to survey the landscape in 2021—and also to hand out some superlatives. These are extracts of our conversation.

Have you ever seen a crypto year as amazing?

There’s a couple years it reminds me of: In 2017, when the Cryptopunks & CryptokittiesWe had our first ever curated exhibit of crypto art. Ethereal [the Ethereum-focused conference]. ERC-721 [a standard for tokens on the Ethereum blockchain]It was released alongside the Cryptokitties initiative, which is what all other token standards have to be positioned in relation to.

Even earlier, in 2014, there was Nili Lerner’s NILIcoin, which was an early conceptual art project on the blockchain that was “selling” different company logo ideas. This was just the beginning of many things that would follow. Kevin McCoy’s amazing ideas! MonegraphA blockchain-based art registry. Two years that were incredibly creative.

However, this year saw crypto becoming mainstream. [We saw] it becoming the subject of fond jokes and sitcoms; stadiums being renamed; and the return of DAOs, decentralized autonomous organizations—the potential of those just feel so massive. There are just so many of them that are amazing, and I’m looking forward to seeing people really getting their heads around that technology and using it further.

Web 3’s most thrilling moment

The Sotheby’s Natively Digital auction. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t amazing to get the cash. [Myers’ “Secret Artwork” sold for $63,000.]However, it was incredible to receive that institutional, critical attention. It was also amazing to see the wonderful people from art theory and art curation start to take a more serious interest in blockchain technology. After years of getting weird looks, it was great to finally be able talk to someone who understands me.

Favourite NFT-art project

The most recent one I’ve been interested in is MateriaLaTurbo Avedon is the metaverse avatar creator. They’ve been engaged with cryptocurrency longer than I have, and their current project is just such a lovely long term engagement with the possibilities of the technology. It’s very much about the aesthetics of the space and of what you can do in virtual reality and on on-chain metaverses.

LaTurbo AvedonAn image from LaTurba Avedon’s NFT art collection “Materia.”

Most important technological development

In terms of answering the moral panic over energy use, it continues to be proof of-stake. Bitcoin and currently Ethereum use a system called proof-of-work, which was originally a scheme in which you run a complicated sum to prove that you’re not a spammer. Proof-of-work is deliberately inefficient: It’s designed to slow down attackers beyond the point where they can actually perform an attack.

Proof-of-stake says, rather than doing complicated puzzles using increasingly powerful hardware, let’s use the underlying technology of the blockchain, which is cryptographic signatures and the tokens that run the network. To approve blocks, all you have to do is put coins in a pool. And if you’re naughty, you lose your coins. So it goes from a sort-of worker elf system using lots and lots of work to a central naughty-and-nice list for producing blocks—to make it a horrible seasonal metaphor.

Favorite DAO

Friends with Benefits, a culture/collecting DAO. The sort-of ‘secret sauce’ to every successful project is its culture. And Friends with Benefits it’s just got a really good framing of, “Get involved, be excellent, shape the way things go.” It’s also finely tuned in the way they’ve used the staking and decision-making mechanisms.

The most alarming trend

Artists who use NFTs are the target of moral panic. There’s an emergent trend on social media of people feeling perfectly relaxed in saying, “Let’s bully NFT artists.” It’s based on outdated and poorly calculated information about chains other than the ones that artists are moving to.The focus should be on artists being leaders in the move to proof-of-stake, which has a minuscule fraction of the energy usage of proof-of-work, as well as better governance.

Favorite Web 3 Thinker in Social Media

@ArtnomeJason Bailey is his real name. He’s got a background in art analytics and data. It’s really interesting to see someone who is used to viewing art as hard numbers come into a space like crypto, which started out as hard numbers, but people are trying to turn into something more touchy-feely and creative. I feel that’s a good perspective to have.

The biggest takeaway of the year

Not only is the level of artistic creativity impressive, but so are the systems developers. Every complaint I’ve ever seen about the blockchain space either has an already-implemented, fine-tuned answer on a modern blockchain, or has several open source projects or start-ups working on something to make people’s lives easier.

I remember feeling quite low about artistic engagement and the use of the space at the beginning of the year. Then, everything went bonkers a few weeks later. It’s been so invigorating. And it’s the same with the technology: seeing proof-of-stake systems become self-governing, seeing zero-knowledge proof schemes being used in games. [Researchers hope that “zero-knowledge proofs” will be the key to creating secure online identification.] I’m hoping that paradoxically, we can get both better identity systems to help artists establish that they are who they say they are; and better secret communication systems so that if you can establish who you say you are, you don’t have to establish it to anyone you don’t want to.

Like everything else, games are the first step. This is why games and art are so useful: they’re low stakes ways of experimenting with new tech. And this year, the creativity on every level is the highest I’ve ever seen.

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