Back in March, out of a kind of morbid curiosity, I reviewed Seattle’s very own NFT museum. The review was not a favorable one: I ultimately concluded that NFTs were, for all intents and purposes, a scam.
NFT enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and publicists inundated my inbox for a brief period afterward. Not a one of them had read the article, and all of them wanted me to write about their NFT, which was definitely “the next big thing.” At least they were proving my point, I guess.
More recently, I got a different pitch, one from a woman named Rachel at a fancy-sounding agency named Maneuvre (you know it’s fancy because that’s French for maneuver). She had read the article, and her email contained fully formed thoughts about it.
“I understand your point on NFTs,” she wrote, “but I’d also like to introduce you to a totally different perspective on them — not having ‘exclusivity as an end goal,’ as you wrote, but actually having charity, community and doing well as the main purpose.”
Any journalist can tell you that part of having your byline online, especially when your email is associated with it, is getting a never-ending stream of bad pitches. If you’re lucky, they might be tangentially related to your beat; most are just whatever fulfills some account executive’s quota of sent pitches. If you’ve written articles about how much you hate meat, you’ll get pitched a bespoke barbecue mail-order subscription box. Conversely, if you’ve written about how much you love meat, you’ll get pitched vegan dog treats, and that’s doubly likely if you’ve ever published anything about hating dogs.
This is all to say that getting a pitch that’s not functionally spam is pretty refreshing, and I was so taken aback that I actually agreed to do what Rachel asked: meet with Danny Yang, the co-founder and CEO of a company called Metagood.
Before getting into NFTs, Yang launched Taiwan’s first cryptocurrency exchange and ran a crypto analytics company. The idea for Metagood came about when his friend and co-founder, Bill Tai, a venture capitalist famous for being the first investor in Zoom, tried to organize a fundraiser for sea turtles. Tai did this via another one of his investments, Dapper Labs, which bills itself as “The NFT Company.” The company minted him an NFT, people bought in and, presumably, some turtles were saved.
“Since then, he’s been looking for the right time to start a company that can take that and scale it up,” Yang said. “Not just one NFT, but how can we scale it to many communities that can do good with NFTs?”
Tai, Yang and co-founder Amanda Terry were enamored by the idea of generating big bucks for nonprofits in the metaverse, raising funds by minting NFTs instead of hosting inspirational breakfasts and sending pleading emails to donors. Since its founding in 2021, Metagood has launched several collections, raising money for a variety of charities, mostly in the climate and conservation arena. While the environmental impact of NFTs themselves is another article in and of itself, this is probably a good place to mention that Metagood’s first NFT collection, OnChainMonkey, was minted in a single blockchain transaction, greatly reducing its environmental impact.
One of the Metagood community’s more notable projects was to use funds raised during the sale of that first collection to help relocate Sharbat Gula — the woman made famous when her portrait, called “Afghan Girl,” ran on the cover of a 1985 National Geographic — to Italy after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021. Metagood has a high-profile list of backers, including Apolo Ohno, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson, and the company recently minted an NFT for Sean Penn’s nonprofit. OnChainMonkey’s website boasts that the “community is stacked with crypto experts, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and investors with unlimited access to capital.”
Yang lives on the Eastside, so we decided to do a few laps around the dirt path at Bellevue Downtown Park. While Rachel really nailed the pitch, she did forget one key component: telling Yang anything about her pitch or my previous work on the topic.
That said, when I told him that I was actively not into what he was up to, he was a really good sport about it.
“Give me your elevator pitch,” I proposed. “Then I’ll tell you why I don’t trust NFTs, and you can try to change my mind.”
To his credit, Yang did not hesitate to admit that NFTs have been a hotbed of scams and fraud.
“Most NFTs are quite scammy and terrible, and it’s all about speculative greed,” he admitted. “People are just buying it to play the pump-and-dump game.”
“Pump-and-dump” commonly refers to the act of inflating the value of something in order to sell it off and leave the buyers holding a useless asset — like a jpeg.
The NFT space also brought about the lovely phenomenon known as “rug pulling,” which is when NFT creators generate a lot of hype around a collection, raise funds for it and then abandon ship. To avoid any appearance of that, Metagood declined to contract influencers to promote its NFT collections, waiting for interest to grow organically. It probably helps to have a lot of famous friends signing on, but still, some points for integrity.
“That’s a harder road to travel down,” Yang said, “because the NFT game is really about pumping the project up and maximizing your war chest to then figure out what to do next.”
It helps in this instance that the target audience for an NFT collection aimed at funding charity is people who are interested in doing charity, which is to say wealthier people. Many scam NFTs, Yang noted, are out to exploit people with more dollar signs in their eyes than in their bank accounts. If all NFTs are a scam, Metagood’s are at least the kind we like: stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Or, at least, to a skatepark resurfacing project in Brazil.
That one was decided on as part of a micro-funding effort by the OnChainMonkey group’s DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization, which is a separate fund generated by an NFT’s sales that is then collectively managed by the holders of that NFT. Being able to decide on projects to fund and rapidly deliver resources to them is one of the advantages of the NFT charity model, Yang said. As someone who has witnessed the grant application process, I can’t help but agree. Who doesn’t love the idea of a democratically managed, global direct aid system that can deliver money in minutes?
When I asked how an “NFTs for good” project could address bigger, more structural issues, like the fact that poverty is the single biggest health risk in human history, his arguments became a bit more vague. While I enjoyed bandying about ideas around NFT-based universal basic income systems and absolutely salivated at the idea that you could build a global, digital financial system with built-in limits on inequality, those are still just ideas.
Metagood did release its second NFT collection, “OCM Genesis,” for free, so a low-income person with an internet connection and a freakishly good knowledge of the Web3 landscape could have gotten in on the ground floor. They’re now listed on NFT marketplace OpenSea for around 0.7 Ethereum (a cryptocurrency), or about $1,300, which would represent a pretty tidy profit.
However promising Yang’s redistributive ideas are, for now Metagood’s collections do what NFTs already do — make their owners look cool to other people online, just with a charity component.
That brings up my main criticism of NFTs, which is that their core value is exclusivity. They are the idea of it distilled down into a product, essentially. Even if you own one that is successful — even if it saves sea turtles — you’re still owning the idea of having something that no one else has but everyone else wants. To me, that’s one of humanity’s worst impulses.
In response, Yang pointed out that selling exclusivity as a product in and of itself is in no way unique to the NFT space. He’s absolutely right: The notorious skateshop-turned-fashion-brand Supreme sold red clay bricks imprinted with their logo for $30. After they sold out, one popped up on a reseller site for $1,000. For a brick.
But of course you’re not buying the brick — you’re buying the brand.
Branding is another thing that, while obnoxious, is by no means exclusive to NFTs. I pressed Yang a bit on using charity as part of your pitch and the ethical concerns around that. He blithely pointed out that charity art auctions are also not new. They just haven’t happened in the metaverse.
At the end of our conversation, I came to agree with what I think Yang’s main point was: NFTs are inert. They are not, in and of themselves, the downfall of our society. Rather, they are a new form of digital art with a very complicated ownership certificate and a bit of a nerdy collector’s club angle. How they are used depends on the user, which I think gets at why people, myself included, have been so quick to judge NFTs as intrinsically bad.
If we start to think about the reason such technology has allowed a few lucky or well-placed people to get rich instead of democratizing wealth, defrauding plenty of hopeful innocents along the way, we have to take a look in the mirror. Technically, cryptocurrencies and NFTs exist outside of the big financial and political institutions that we often blame for inequality in our society. In an eerie demonstration of Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism — “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” — we were given the chance to recreate our socioeconomic system online, and we remade the one we already had.
Yang, for his part, is still hopeful that the metaverse can be different.
“I agree with you that there are crazy things going on [with NFTs], and it’s not good,” Yang said. “But I think what is good is this technology … it is new and powerful for the future, and that’s what we’re building in it. There’s no guarantee it’ll be like the internet where it kind of transforms the world in 10 years from now, but there’s a good possibility.”
It might be a slim one. According to crypto news source CoinTelegraph, NFT sales have dropped 98 percent since January of this year.
Read more of the Oct. 19-25, 2022 issue.