Two years is a long time, enough to build a whole new world. At the first gathering of SXSW in Austin after a two-year pandemic hiatus, the brave new world was all about NFTs and the metaverse. If the metaverse is the next web, promising fully immersive digital destinations, then NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are increasingly positioned as a ticket to get in.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital assets that can be bought, owned and traded, with proof of ownership that lives on the blockchain. Unlike dollars or Bitcoin, which are “fungible,” meaning that all of them have equal value, NFTs are more like collectibles, real estate or artwork. Their value is determined by a variety of metrics from scarcity to street cred buzz. And while they may look like a silly Bored Ape or a psychedelic JPEG to the naked eye, they are selling like hotcakes with hefty price tags to the credulous. As a matter of fact, if a hotcake sells for a $1.99 an NFT of a hotcake might bring in 100 times that much, at least.
Because NFTs are made of code and pixels, they can be used in infinite ways ranging from the stupid to sublime. At SXSW, NFTs were a shape-shifting asset. They took the form of artwork, games, event tickets, loyalty rewards, mementos of an experience, fundraising tools, and accessories for avatars, just to name a few. And because they’re tracked on a blockchain, and must be purchased using crypto, the NFT phenomena has boosted the use of crypto. A recent study by NonFungible.com and L’Atelier BNP Paribas found that NFT sales reached $17.7 billion in 2021, up from $82.5 million in 2020.
Roaming the NFT Streets of Austin
The largest NFT worlds at SXSW came from companies that didn’t even exist a few months ago. Fluf World, a fledgling New Zealand NFT company, is all about rabbit iconography, so it’s fitting that their SXSW arena looked like a bunch of rabbit warrens. Each dome held lounges for talks, digital projections of NFT art and of course, the electro-tech DJ. Most interestingly, Fluf World asked attendees to sign a petition for an open metaverse, a stark reminder that the likes of Meta were also in the house.
Over at Doodle, another large arena, it was all about pastel-colored art reminiscent of a cross between a 2nd grade doodle and one of those professional artists that draw visualizations at conferences and events. Its collection consists of 10,000 NFTs that, in addition to allowing you to own the art, join you into the Doodle community. A partnership with Behr Paint at the show let you scan pastel paint cans to generate a Doodles POAP (Proof of Attendance) NFTs. Watch the crowds engage.
Axie captured the heart of Texas by incorporating Southwest pastimes like mechanical bull riding, duckpin bowling, and shuffleboard along with its NFT gaming experience. Axie Infinity is a “play to earn” game that allows you you to purchase cute little play monsters and then earn money as you pit them against each other battle. As a player you earn crypto and NFTs by playing the game, adding value to the network. Axie recently broke $4 million dollars in sales, proof that play to earn has its allure.
At the NFT Gallery you could find yourself in a more upscale, highly-curated museum of super-artsy NFTs created with Marecl.art. Kreatr took a fork in the road by selling physical art as NFTs. Fox Interactive launched its Blockchain Creative Lab, which garnered plenty of Fox News coverage. You could walk through visualizations of the blockchain, view art, discover music with NFTs dropped by the artist, and mingle with folks like the WWW wrestlers who are apparently all in on NFTs. (There is a major conceptual overlap between their domains—suspension of disbelief is critical.) At the Blockchain Creative Lab, Dolly Parton launched her personal NFT, a statement in support of women who’ve gone way beyond working 9 to 5.
You could find yourself at NFT Carnival, featuring artists working with TokenFrame, an authenticity system. The Grit Daily House produced an overload of NFT content with a heavy focus on women and minorities. Even SXSW issued its own NFT creation based on the bat of Austin as a POA (Proof of Attendance). And Axios counted more than 28 NFT conference sessions at the show.
Women and Minorities Say No to Bro-World
SXSW was also an eye-opener about the inclusivity and the diversity of NFT mania. There’s a real “no one is getting left behind” quality to this new Web-go-round. NFT talks and galleries featured black, women, LatinX, and even military NFT creators. The Equality Lounge featured a session on art and tech where speakers talked about how NFTs are defining our journey into the metaverse. While there was a distinct rah-rah feel to these talks, the bros were outnumbered here.
Noticeably absent in the gaudy world of large NFT activations were many of the gold-standard metaverse companies like Fortnite and Roblox. They were, however, represented on panels, including this one featuring Epic Games (creators of Fortnite), Ready Player Me, maker of avatars that can be transported between metaverse worlds, and SecondLife, bringing its veteran lessons from well over a decade of operating a metaverse business. In a livestreamed appearance, Mark Zuckerberg announced that NFTs would be coming to Instagram.
And of course the naysayers were there too. Former Nintendo CEO Reggie Fils Aim´ took his moment at SXSW to offer harsh criticism about the improbability of success for Facebook’s Meta. Mark Cuban expressed great skepticism about the NFT gold rush. “We’re all chasing the shiny,” futurist Amy Webb said in her SXSW talk. And, the biggest naysayer, Ben McKenzie, best known as the actor on OC, has been incredibly vocal about the crypto bubble and crypto marketplaces, calling them specious investment vehicles like penny stocks and micro-cap stocks. “They burst. Bubbles don’t slowly deflate,” he said in a SXSW Live Studio interview. Even the most exuberant pro-NFT sessions cautioned about scams, class action suits, and illegitimate actors.
It’s fitting that NFTs sucked up so much of the air in Austin’s “Keep it Weird” city limits. The lines blurred between great art, video art, supposed art, and generative art created by computers. Low brow and high brow blurred. I found few people with an actual discerning eye for art. And with the exception of a few artists like Banksy, who launched an NFT collection, most NFT creators were apparently still waiting to be discovered. Still, the thread of the NFT fest was clear: using NFTs to make using crypto, otherwise a little scary, approachable. It’s a stepping stone to what many believe will be a new economy. And, adding the ownership and the ability to make money if your asset appreciates gave the experience a breakthrough kind of feeling.