Can you remember where you were when you bought your first NFT? I was sitting in my living room in South Philadelphia, compulsively toggling my attention between Discord and CNN as reports of Russian forces descending on the city of Kyiv trickled in from across the digital ether. It was late February 2022, and I’d been putting off dipping my toe into the world of NFTs for as long as I could, partly because I still couldn’t get past the mainstream conception of them as an environmentally deleterious form of gambling. But here, finally, was a reason that seemed like ethical justification enough: I’d just found out that an artist acquaintance of mine was located in the city, and people were rushing to mint a generative NFT he’d designed the year before as a quick way of “wiring” him a bit of extra cash.
People buy NFTs for all sorts of reasons. Ever since that vertiginous week in late December 2021 when Ethereum and Bitcoin went into freefall, signaling to everyone who was paying attention that the giddy euphoria of the 2021 bull run would soon be coming to an end, pure, lizard-brained capitalist speculation has been ringing increasingly hollow as a catch-all explanation for why people shell out for these peculiar objects. Fast forward to summer 2023—when Bored Apes are worth only a small fraction of what they used to be, floor prices are down across the board, and outlier collections from a few years ago suddenly return with a vengeance—and it’s difficult to imagine a newcomer entering the space primarily because they’re looking to make some passive income. Besides, if we’re being honest, people’s motivations are always a lot more complex. Even the most craven degen shiller is probably in it partly for the community of degen shillers they met along the way.
I bought my first NFT because I wanted to offer a gesture of support to someone on the other end of the globe. What equally powerful motivations will the NFTs of the future need to tap into if a new generation of cultural consumers is to embrace these tools? Companies are already hard at work trying to divine the laws of physics that will govern consumer desire in a post-bull-run landscape—they have millions of dollars riding on the answers, after all. But the only people who know what drives these decisions are the ones actually making them. We tracked down five people who bought their first NFT in the past year and a half to find out what compelled them to cross the rainbow bridge—and how digital collectibles can deliver forms of value capable of withstanding the ups and downs of the market.
January 26, 2022: Channel Season 0 Founder Token
Writer, curator, and strategist
I knew about NFTs before, but I didn’t come across a project that spoke to me until [Channel released its Season 0 founder token]. Mat Dryhurst, Holly Herndon, Joshua Citarella, New Models—I’ve read pretty much everything they’ve written in the last few years. So when I saw all these people I really respected say, “Hey, we are actually going from theory to practice, we’re building a new media network to solve some of the problems of Web2 that we’ve been discussing for a long time.” I was like, “Wow, this is interesting.”
I had this resistance at first, because my rational brain was like, “Are you sure you want to spend, like, 800 dollars on [this]?” And I kind of wanted to resist, but then I was like, “Whatever, this sounds great. I want to support this. This corresponds to my worldview.”
There were, I think, multiple elements of wanting to be part of it. One was the support [factor]. The other was that I thought, “Hey, this could be a great community to be part of.” There were 666 founder tokens. I saw other people that I knew or was connected with tweeting that they bought the NFT. There was a Discord channel. I had FOMO, basically.
I wrote an article about the experience. In it, I cite Brian Eno, who in the 1990s wrote about, like, how does an artwork receive value when there’s no objective value to it? And he argued that [the thing that gives an artwork value]—the thing that a buyer wants to buy—is the aura of confidence that the artist projects. Channel launched under the narrative that these three big podcasts [were coming together to form a media network], and I feel like this aura of confidence was created through those co-founders that were behind it.
Something I think about is how I never look into my wallet. You would think that a wallet would be kind of like an album, where you look into it and go, “Oh, here are my little NFTs. And they [all have] little different stories to me.” I never [do] that. And I never trade NFTS. The only thing I do is join a Discord or do whatever a token gives me access to. But the NFT itself kind of remains forgotten.
May 21, 2022: Boys Club “Main Character” NFT
Cree de Beauvoir
Senior Ecosystem Manager at Aave & Lens
The first NFT I bought was a Boys Club Main Character NFT. I was completely new to crypto, NFTs, everything when I got my first job in Web3. I was looking for community and friendship in an industry I didn’t know even existed three months prior, and then I found Boys Club, which is a social DAO made up of women in Web3.
Up until then, I hadn’t minted any NFTs, because I barely understood how to purchase crypto, let alone use crypto to purchase an NFT. But when Boys Club teased their NFT, I knew I wanted to figure out how to mint it, and asked some seasoned crypto friends for help. Boys Club regularly holds events in NYC (where I lived at the time), in addition to putting on the absolute best parties during many of the big crypto conferences. The NFT allowed me to get early RSVP access to any Boys Club event, but the [real] value of that NFT for me was community.
June 7, 2022: Chaos Pack
Developer advocate in Web3
I am a sculpture/visual artist, like an installation artist, and I’m really in this more underground music scene as well. And so, at least visibly, there [weren’t many projects] bridging Web3 and that underground scene until [around] May of last year. It wasn’t until, for me, more conceptually interesting pieces started coming out that I was like, “Oh, I want to collect this.”
Thinking about Web3, and especially Ethereum, there’s so much of an emphasis on coordination. With Chaos, I liked that aspect of [a] collaborative collective, of creating this music group. Like, how do we build collectively? How could you push coordination in this virtual way? I also liked the aspect of [using NFTs] to collectively build up a treasury, where people who are part of a project can get compensated for their work. How do we think of a model in which artists are getting paid for their work, or being seen on this platform level where they don’t need to go to Spotify and get pennies on the dollar for each play?
I think it was mainly the story behind that art piece [that compelled me to mint something for the first time]. And the larger aspect of the art piece itself having value to me, because it’s pushing certain concepts that I really believe in while also pushing a lot of boundaries around my own thinking about art. It was essentially about being a super fan, in a way: supporting them, and I think wanting to support art in general. I feel more like a collector than someone who’s speculating on a return.
January 17, 2023: Dirt “Founder Pass” NFT
Author and podcaster
The first NFT I bought was my custom Ethereum domain. But the second NFT I bought was a founder’s pass for Dirt, a daily newsletter that deals with taste and culture. I hadn’t minted any NFTs before that because I was in jail for two and a half years, during the peak of the NFT craze.
When I was in jail, I had a subscription to The New Yorker. They sent me a copy every week, and after I would finish reading it I would take off the cover and decorate my room/cell with it. After I got out, I was checking out who was doing what, and [Dirt CEO] Daisy [Alioto] interviewed me for an email that focused on how to get music in jail. I saw that their reporting was kinda similar to what I could find in those first few pages of The New Yorker.
My motivations for minting the Dirt NFT were purely functional. I really saw the benefit in having a pass that let me get over the paywall—not just every year, but forever, which is what the founder’s pass is. The NFT they provided was icing on the cake. Plus, the art itself was pretty cool. There’s this mushroom. It has spores. I saw what they were doing as a new version of the subscription model that gave me an NFT instead of a magazine cover.
March 30, 2023: Grimes’ “Gen 1 Avatar” NFT
Teacher and Grimescord admin
[The first NFT I bought] was the Grimes NFT. It’s this video of a woman, and she has these flowers going around her, and she has white hair. I’m a fan of Grimes, so that was my biggest reason—and also because it was pretty. I think she implied that there was going to be some lore around it, and I thought that was cool. So aesthetics and the lore, I guess.
When Grimes announced her NFT, I initially wasn’t even going to get it. [None of the NFTs I’d seen] were aesthetically pleasing to me, and I thought that most of them were very overpriced. But then she said it was free and that it was customizable—so that kind of tempted me to get it. There’s a file that you can download and use to customize it [inside her Elf.Tech portal], which I also thought was cool—just the possibility of it being like a free art template, essentially.
Grimes has just always kind of created stories with her albums. This story, which is going to be Book One and Book Two [and which she’s been trickling out through the Elf.Tech portal], is mostly focused on the future and AI and stuff like that. So I think the NFT ties very nicely into the vibe she’s going for. She’s still working on it, and we don’t actually know what it’s going to be in the end, which is also kind of cool. You just had to pay the gas fee, so it’s not like you’re throwing money at something but you don’t know what it’s gonna be. It’s more like a surprise present, you know?
A lot of people can’t justify spending that much money on a picture or a moment or something. So I think the fact that this was free and it’s a whole experience kind of wrapped up in one place—I think that is what made a lot of people willing to buy this. It’s like buying free merch, in a way. It’s something you can keep forever, but change with the times and also customize forever.
As I spoke with the culture fans who shared their stories for this piece, I kept flashing back to a passage in an essay by Severin, my first source, where he likens the experience of purchasing the Channel NFT to “surrender[ing] to the world” its creators were suggesting. “NFTs in that sense are ’magic beans,’ as Venkatesh Rao described them,” he writes. “They may or may not be access passes to a possible future that is partly created by the author(s) of the NFT and partly created by the expectations the holder projects into the token.”
In other words, he explains, NFTs only make sense as commodities if you let go of the idea that they should have objective, quantifiable value. Rather, they are only valuable to the extent that the thing they are promising (ie, the possible future they project to the world) lines up with the highly subjective hopes and aspirations that an individual collector decides to project onto them at the moment of purchase. And, of course, if the purchaser perceives them to be successfully delivering on those promises—sometimes real, sometimes wholly imagined—over time.
This makes it difficult to come up with new narratives about NFTs, and why people buy them, that are powerful enough to replace the ones that no longer hold up in the light; if these five accounts tell us anything, it’s that our motivations for wanting them are as mysterious and idiosyncratic as we are. Still, even in this limited sample, it’s hard to ignore the recurring motifs. People buy NFTs because they want to be part of a community. They buy them because they want access to the specific utilities (like access to a magazine, or a Discord, or other creative tools) that these digital tokens purportedly unlock. They buy them because they want to throw their support behind the specific people who created them—or the ideas (and possible futures) they believe these creators are capable of bringing to life.
These motivations may be more apparent now, post-bull market, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t part of the appeal all along. And though we can expect the forces of industry to keep throwing new theories into the mix—the Grimes avatar, especially, feels emblematic of the current vogue for low-cost or free “open editions,” which reimagines the NFT as a kind of onchain analog of a screenshot you might snap to save your desktop—it’s important to remember that most people don’t pay much attention to the stories being written by the folks in charge. Mikki didn’t mint it because she wanted to have an NFT; she minted it because she had to in order to follow one of her favorite artists on a journey into the unknown.