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Here’s everything you need to know about the controversy around NFTs and artists

If there’s anything that makes it obvious we’re living in the 21st century, it’s cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies are so futuristic that not even the prolific Phil of the Future predicted their volatile introduction to the digital market—which is probably why they remain so confusing to those of us who are technologically inept. But now, cryptocurrencies are adding a new complexity for us to be perplexed by with NFTs.

Bitcoin, Dogecoin, and the like are decentralized digital currencies that exist as “fungible tokens” made to be traded for or as profit. Do you know what’s even more fun than trading a digital currency? Declaring “no takebacks” with nonfungible tokens (NFTs). While fungible tokens like Bitcoin act similarly to physical currency and stocks, NFTs are more like highly valuable, irreplaceable works of art. The Verge describes NFTs as “one-of-a-kind trading cards” of internet history, like digital drawings, GIFs, music, videos, tweets, and more.

Some of the latest NFTs include the Disaster Girl meme, which sold for $500,000; the Nyan Cat gif, which sold for $580,000; digital artist Beeple selling a piece of digital art for $69 million; and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey selling the very first tweet for $2.9 million. NFT has made recent headlines for some other sales: virtual influencer Miquela is selling NFTs for free; Cara Delevingne used an NFT video of her vagina to raise money for her foundation; and Kings of Leon became the first band to sell an album as an NFT.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “I just sent the Nyan Cat gif to my group chat, so how was it sold to the highest bidder?” When someone purchases an NFT, they’re buying the unique file and proof of ownership, which Forbes describes as “digital bragging rights.” For example, you can technically hang up a printed copy of the Mona Lisa in your home, but the Louvre is the only one that has access to the original Mona Lisa. The same can be said for Nyan Cat. You can keep using the Nyan Cat gif for free, but whoever paid $580K has the original file to verify ownership.

From a buyer’s perspective, NFTs can still be a headscratcher. It can be confusing that anyone would pay such high dollars for something that is available for free on the internet. From a creative’s perspective, however, NFTs can help artists finally receive compensation for their work.

In an interview with Coin Desk, digital artist Vakseen said, “There are so many hurdles and obstacles involved with gaining any sort of recognition within the art world as a Black man, as a man of color, or as any person of color. The NFT space is changing that and the exhibition is giving us an opportunity to be seen.” Vakseen’s digital painting of Michael Jordan sold for $16,800 as an NFT and led him to be commissioned for a second piece.

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Another artist, Andre OShea told Coin Desk, “As a Black artist, NFTs mean leveling the playing field and taking the keys away from traditional gatekeepers in the art world. It is also a way for me to uplift my community through creativity.”

For musical artists, who couldn’t rely on touring as their main source of income during the pandemic, NFTs offered monetary opportunities. In 2021, this led quite a few musicians to turn to NFTs to continue to make a profit. Shawn Mendes, Grimes, Steve Aoki, Disclosure, Bhad Bhabie, and more have all sold NFTs, with some even teaming up with visual artists to benefit both parties.

However, not all artists are willing to tap into NFTs because of their high environmental costs. Most NFTs are sold as part of the cryptocurrency Ethereum blockchain. While Ethereum exists in the digital sphere, it involves a physical system called “proof of work,” in which a “miner” or user has to solve a cryptographic puzzle that uses a lot of energy. In order to uphold transparency and prevent cheating, the process was intentionally built to be energy-inefficient. According to the New York Times, some researchers claim that producing a single NFT amounts to 200 kilograms of carbon, while others say that cryptocurrencies use more electricity than entire countries like Argentina, Sweden, or Pakistan.

But why do supporting artists have to come at such a steep cost to our world? Why can’t we pay artists and conserve our natural world? It’s frustrating that the trade-off to paying artists is destroying the environment. Like many digital innovations, NFTs sounds great in theory. In practice and in reality, it’s hard for everyday people to use NFTs as a way to support artists, and it’s even harder for most of us to stomach the detrimental effect they have on the environment.

The real conversation behind NFTS boils down to the fact that we need to pay creators. I’ll be the first to admit, I learn a lot of information from YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter users. Even when they’re not helping to educate others on literally every issue ever, many online creators draw jaw-dropping fanart, edit funny videos, write hilarious tweets, post 100K-word fics, and offer mental breaks from the stress of living life to bring a lot of us joy. This labor—and it is absolutely labor—is rarely compensated, and it’s why there’s a larger movement in which creators are putting their Cash App, Venmo, and PayPal links in their bios.

As with all exploitative and capitalist schemes, NFTs will probably stick around—because they’re helping some people make a lot of money. For those of us without millions in our bank accounts, the least we can do is donate what we can to the digital creators we follow and support. If we create a substantial movement around a simple yet effective practice, maybe then our global society will prioritize compensating creatives rather than claiming “digital bragging rights.” Because without creatives, our world would look pretty bleak.

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By Kayla Webb

Kayla Webb is a writer with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. When she's not obsessing over words and sentences, Kayla can be found trying to read too many books at one time, snuggling with her cats, and fangirling over everything pop culture.