Opinion | What Are You Paying for When You Buy a GIF for $25,000?

On March 13, Li Jin sold a GIF for $25,000. The moving image, which was uploaded to a decentralized series of servers called a blockchain and was purchased at auction via the cryptocurrency Ethereum, sold in 24 hours. Depending on whom you ask, the transaction is an example of a thrilling new path for ownership in a digital world that allows creators to sell things directly with no intermediaries, or it’s a total scam. The most bullish argue transactions like Ms. Jin’s could be the beginnings of a brand-new version of the internet, while detractors see it as a reckless, overhyped speculation market and an “ecological nightmare pyramid scheme.”

The GIF Ms. Jin sold, created by her childhood friend, an artist named Annie Zhao, is an example of something called a nonfungible token. NFTs are essentially digital collectible items (GIFs, images, memes, games, code, videos, artwork, music, games, even text) that people can buy, sell and trade. Almost any piece of digital content can be made into an NFT and have its public documentation of ownership recorded on the blockchain. Some of the ideas behind NFTs — documentation of ownership and chain of custody, scarcity, trading, valuations and speculation — are as old as markets. The innovation is the decentralization, which in turn means you can take NFTs anywhere. No one platform or middleman controls them.

The most popular example of NFTs come from Top Shot, a marketplace the N.B.A. set up to sell highlight reels. The whole thing operates a bit like analog sports trading cards. A highlight reel of LeBron James recently sold for $200,000. In the art world, an investor recently bought an NFT of illustrations by Beeple, a digital artist, for $69 million. Twitter’s C.E.O., Jack Dorsey, recently sold an NFT of his first tweet for nearly $3 million. Just today, my colleague Kevin Roose decided to mint his most recent column (on NFTs) as an NFT.

Before I lose you completely, I feel compelled to note that I am 33 years old, and typing those last few sentences made me feel absolutely ancient.

For Ms. Jin, the auction was an experiment to explore a new frontier of the attention economy. As a venture capitalist, Ms. Jin focuses her investments on businesses in the creator space, which is loosely defined as individuals whose influence and fame originates from online platforms. She’s a deep believer in the power of technology and the internet to empower younger generations and build careers — she described the allure of influencing to me recently as “monetizing individuality.”

But the more time she spent with influencers and creators, the more she realized an unsettling truth: Creating a living on the internet is almost always precarious and lopsided. Those at the very top are showered with riches and fame, but even those with large followings struggle at the whim of online platforms and algorithms. In an excellent December article for Harvard Business Review, she detailed her findings at length, arguing that there is no creator middle class and offering solutions to build one.

Back to the $25,000 GIF. The moving image Ms. Jin put up for auction was an illustration of her Harvard Business Review article. Her hope was that turning it into an NFT would be a bit of performance art and that the process would gin up conversation about the article but also about new ways for creators to make money and control the ownership of their work.

She expected it to fetch a modest price. But overnight, a bidding war took place. Eventually, a cryptocurrency investor and founder of Collab.Land named James Young — who helped build the popular game Farmville and a cryptocurrency-powered adult entertainment network called SpankChain — won the NFT.

Mr. Young says he bought the NFT in part to prove a point. He wanted to use the purchase to signal that cryptocurrency and NFTs in general could be a solution to the problems Ms. Jin outlined in her article. “In college I read Marshall McLuhan and how the medium is the message and thought, ‘What if I communicated via this transaction?’” he said in a recent podcast about the purchase. So he paid up.

“It made me come to this conclusion of, I don’t know, YOLO, let me just try this,” he said. Ms. Jin was stunned and humbled by the final bid. “It’s so exciting,” she told me. “He wanted to start a conversation with me. He was drawn to the image because of what it represented and it started a real relationship. For him, buying it was a form of activism.”

If all this makes you want to roll your eyes out of your skull, I would like you to know you’re not alone.

As someone who routinely gets excited about new technological frontiers, I remain deeply skeptical of the NFT craze. A big reason is the worrying environmental impact of NFTs and other blockchain projects, which require large amounts of energy for their computations. Another reason is the creeping concern that the NFT art market is being bolstered by crypto investors to inflate the fad. Sometimes the whole thing feels like an elaborate prank — last week a Brooklyn man sold an NFT of a fart for $85. Then there’s the decentralized ownership claim, which some suggest is suspect, given that some of the NFTs rely on the longevity of specific websites. Most of these concerns, of course (especially the last one), are disputed by NFT evangelists.

At the moment, NFTs feel wildly overhyped, with a small subset of artists and personalities extracting huge value from speculators who don’t know what to do with their money.

But, like Ms. Jin, I’m also fascinated with how NFTs make us rethink how we conceive of assets in the digital world. If a short, authenticated video clip of LeBron dunking — something anyone in the world could see on YouTube — can become a valuable collectible, it seems poised to force us to reconsider deeply held notions of value. This seems like another maturation of the attention economy, where anything can be sliced up, repackaged and sold.

Recently, my colleague Taylor Lorenz profiled a few companies that were looking to find new ways to help digital content creators and influencers make money online. Among the new ventures was a platform called NewNew, which wants to build a “human stock market,” where fans can vote to control mundane decisions in a creator’s day-to-day life. Other ideas included custom influencer cryptocurrencies (in essence, tokens that can be used only to purchase items directly from the influencer), paying for fan interactions and using NFTs to give fans shares of ownership in YouTube videos and other content.

A quote from NewNew’s founder and chief executive, Courtne Smith, gave me pause. She told Ms. Lorenz, “We’re building an economy of attention where you purchase moments in other people’s lives, and we take it a step further by allowing and enabling people to control those moments.”

Human stock markets! Controlling an influencer’s every life choice! That feels like the logical end point of the attention economy — the part where The Machines win for good.

Anil Dash, the C.E.O. of the programming company Glitch and a veteran of the tech industry, went a bit further, calling NFTs a scam. That’s noteworthy because Mr. Dash accidentally helped invent the concept. Back in 2014, while onstage at a tech conference, he bought a GIF from artist Kevin McCoy and published the transfer of ownership on the blockchain as a quirky experiment in ownership, making him one of the first people to participate in the cryptoart market. But Mr. Dash argues that what’s taking place today isn’t empowering or sustainable, but exploitative.

“If you were going to say, ‘Let’s let creators own their work and profit from it in perpetuity,’ the system you’d design would be the opposite of this,” he told me recently. “Instead, they designed an environmental catastrophe in which the only way you can participate is to have already bought into hyperinflated prices on a completely contrived market.” He compared the NFT market and its exorbitant prices to expensive condos in cities like Manhattan bought by billionaires that sit empty. “It’s just a store of value,” he said.

What seems inevitable is that all of this will push us to re-evaluate how we assign value to attention. This is why people like Mr. Dash are worried about the creep of NFT speculation under the guise of celebrating and empowering creators.

“The gig economy is coming for absolutely everyone and everything,” he told me. “The end game of that is the GoFundMe link posted beneath a viral tweet so they can pay for their health care. Being an influencer sounds fun until it’s ‘keep producing viral content to literally stay alive.’ That’s the machine we’re headed toward.”

Ms. Jin understands the precariousness but sees it differently. The path to a creator middle class, she argues, is to democratize your income streams across a variety of digital platforms. She described it to me as being like a pyramid — at the bottom are standard advertisements, which monetize viewers, even if they’re coming to your work accidentally. Higher up, you have affiliate links, where fans can buy something an influencer recommends. Atop that might be a subscription fee to a Patreon or Substack newsletter. Higher up still is custom merchandising or social media posts for superfans. NFTs, she argues, are for the single superfan — a creator’s one true fan who is willing to shell out an extreme amount of money.

As we spoke, I argued that NFTs seemed like the ultimate way for creators or influencers to monetize their audience’s attention. She suggested I had it backward: NFTs are a way for those with enough means to gain the attention of a creator. “In this case of my NFT, it’s really that I am paying attention to him,” she said, referring to Mr. Young. “I ended up forming a real bond with him because of his investment in me and my idea.”

Are NFTs just an attention hack? Why shell out $1 million for a tweet from the billionaire Elon Musk if not to catch the eye of the notoriously mercurial richest man in the world?

While NFTs as the ultimate form of patronage makes sense, I’m still unconvinced that they help solve the problem of the internet’s class inequality. This isn’t to impugn Ms. Jin’s work as an investor in companies trying to lift up new creators and build a more sustainable business model. I first reached out to her in part because her work has centered on creators as a powerful and important segment of the digital economy. But the current pyramid structure Ms. Jin described to me sounded like an exhausting hustle (she agreed). It also seems to herald a maturation of the attention economy — one that feels increasingly precarious and that continues to privilege those with big audiences whose attention is worth a considerable sum.

But for those who can find an attentive audience of buyers and those with deep pockets to pay, there’s an upside. It’s not lost on me that Mr. Young — who sought to start a conversation with his big bid — got exactly what he wanted with his purchase, including this column. In his podcast episode about the sale, he argued that his investment in Ms. Jin’s NFT “led to this very conversation.” He may be the proud owner of Ms. Zhao’s artwork, but the real performance is the dollar figure and the specific interest it sparks. In this way, the sale is not terribly different from any high-value art purchase that generates headlines.

“Crypto is, for lack of a better term, performance art,” he continued in the podcast. I was trying to figure out, ‘How do I move this conversation forward?’… and when you look at the saturation and noise in media, it’s clear: What is novel is to get attention.”

YOLO, indeed.

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