The global NFT market is currently estimated to have a valuation of around $14 billion. Digital artworks, photos, memes, videos, in-game items, and god knows what else is being sold and bought as NFTs. This blockchain-based system has introduced a new concept of ownership, and now anybody can own almost anything in the form of a digital token.
However, this digital ownership which is sometimes described as a ‘meme gold rush’ is also believed to affect the unrestricted availability of memes, images, and other digital items. Recently, the popular YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger” was bought as an NFT by a user named 3fmusic for $760,999 in an online auction, but soon after the deal, the original video was removed from YouTube (duplicate copies are still there), and this is just one of the many examples of how non-fungible token deals affect the "free" market of the internet.
What is the ‘meme gold rush’?
Before understanding the meme gold rush, it is important to understand that owning an NFT doesn’t mean that you own the copyright of something. It is more like a digital autograph from the meme creator, certifying authenticity.
An NFT is essentially a digital code recorded on a blockchain ledger from where anyone can see who is digitally authorized to sell a particular item as a non-fungible token on an online marketplace. For example, if you bought the image of the Tesla Model S as an NFT on OpenSea, then only you could sell the image on as an NFT, because you are the blockchain-certified owner of that NFT. However, because an NFT is not a copyright, you can not prevent Tesla or Elon Musk, or anyone at all from using the same image on the internet or anywhere else. To put it in terms of physical art collecting: anyone can buy a print of a work by Picasso. But only one person can own the original.
With the advent of NFTs, artists and creators are now also able to sell their work as NFTs on various marketplaces (like Syscoin, OpenSea, etc.). Surprisingly, many viral memes from the past such as “Disaster Girl”, “Overly Attached Girlfriend”, “Side Eyeing Chloe”, “Nyan Cat”, etc. are now being sold in the form of NFTs for as high as $590,000. This trend of buying and selling memes as non-fungible tokens for large sums of money has led to the meme gold rush.
The rise of the NFT market and the meme gold rush have proved to be a boon for many creators who were earlier annoyed with the free and uncontrolled use of their creations on the internet. In an interview, Chris Torres who created the Nyan Cat said, ”I didn’t know how to handle things. I had to sit back and watch as people stole my art and used it without asking.” Later, Torres partnered with meme manager Ben Lashes and sold Nyan Cat as an NFT for more than $560,000.
Zoë Roth, the smirking girl from one of the internet's earliest viral images, the “Disaster Girl”, previously admitted to feeling frustrated, because anyone could use her photo without her consent. In April 2021, Roth sold the disaster girl photo for $500,000 as an NFT, she believes that this money will pay off her student loan. Due to the use of NFTs, many people like Roth and Torres have been able to regain financial control of their lost art and effectively monetize their creations.
Is the NFT powered meme gold rush restricting the internet?
There is likely no harm in people earning money from their memes but there may be another different side of this picture as well. In May 2021, a digital agency named NetGems announced that the respective creators of the memes “Two Pretty Best Friends”, “Numa Numa”, and “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” will delete their original content, as all these three meme videos will be auctioned as a part of the agency’s NFT collection on OpenSea.
Many internet users have expressed their unhappiness with such decisions, they argue that many original meme uploads have also been an important part of pop culture (like “Charlie Bit My Finger”). When these are suddenly removed from the internet, all other data related to them, including comments, posts, likes, and shares are also lost.
Some users consider the removal of such beloved internet memes unfair because they believe that the internet has always been a free platform and now, through the means of NFTs, everything on the web, including memes, has the potential to be restricted and monetized, and being restricted to the use of a privileged few. Many critics suggest that NFTs could lead to the permanent loss of some of the most iconic content on the internet.
However, according to tech commentator Geoff Quattromani, “The internet that we know today is about 26 years old, it really is that age where you start to value things. So much of the content we see on the internet today has been largely free all this time, it really isn’t a surprise that it’s now finding ways to be monetized.”
Apart from the concerns raised by meme fans regarding the removal and commercialization of free content on the internet, a genuine problem with NFTs is that almost anyone can tokenize a digital artwork, image, or even a tweet without needing the actual owner’s permission. In March 2021, famed actor of Star Trek fame, William Shatner, tweeted about a Twitter handle @tokenizedtweets, whom the actor found selling his images and tweets without his consent.
So @Jack & @TwitterSafety @TwitterSupport I am very concerned about these @tokenizedtweets stealing content, images I upload and my tweets which are all under my copyright being tokenized and sold without permission. Authors, actors, models photographers, etc..should be concerned— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) March 7, 2021
In another case, Corbin Rainbolt, a digital paleoartist and illustrator, found that the artworks that he used to share on his Twitter account were being sold on an NFT marketplace without his knowledge. He blocked many such NFT accounts that were selling his works illegally but he is still not sure if more such accounts exist.
What if you lose the rights to your own digital identity or your digital assets (photos, videos, comments, etc) are removed from the internet just because some random person on the internet sold the same to a random bidder on OpenSea? The above-discussed cases indicate that there is a possibility where non-fungible tokens could be used as tools for digital theft and they may even someday be used to control the flow of some types of data (such as least memes) on the internet.
Looking at the size of the digital economy that is powered by non-fungible tokens now, one thing is pretty obvious that in the coming years NFTs might completely change the way the world interacts on the internet.