Normally, I’m not allowed to make sales pitches in my columns.
But this time is an exception, because what’s for sale is the column itself.
That’s because I’ve decided to enter the freewheeling world of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, the newest frontier in the cryptocurrency gold rush. This is my first experiment — a column about NFTs that is, itself, being turned into an NFT and put up for auction.
An NFT, in layman’s terms, is a new kind of digital collectible item that is stamped with a unique bit of code that serves as a permanent record of its authenticity and is stored on a blockchain, the distributed ledger system that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. These collectibles can be bought and sold like trading cards, and the nature of blockchain technology means that once a token is created, it can’t be deleted or counterfeited. That makes it useful for artists, musicians and others who want to create limited edition digital goods.
The NFT market is exploding right now, as early adopters and cryptocurrency enthusiasts try to cash in on the trend. Recently, Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist from South Carolina who goes by the name Beeple, sold “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a tokenized collection of his art, at an online auction at Christie’s for more than $69 million. NFTs representing other pieces of internet art — like an illustration of Homer Simpson as Pepe the Frog — have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. NBA Top Shot, a partnership between the N.B.A. and the blockchain company Dapper Labs that turns basketball highlight videos into unique cryptocollectibles, has $230 million in sales since 2019. Even well-known musical acts like Kings of Leon are getting in on the NFT action, selling millions of dollars’ worth of music in the form of digital tokens.
As I watched these riches change hands, I thought to myself: Why should celebrities, athletes and artists have all the fun? Why can’t a journalist join the NFT party, too?
So I decided to turn this column into an NFT and sell it on the open market. Whatever I make from it will go to The New York Times’s Neediest Cases Fund, a 110-year-old effort started by the former Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs that supports charitable causes in New York and beyond. (Administrative note: Since the Neediest Cases Fund doesn’t accept direct cryptocurrency transfers, I’ll have to convert the proceeds to dollars first, meaning that this is not a tax-deductible gift for the buyer.)
The first step in making my own NFT was setting up a digital “wallet” that would be used to hold my token, as well as any cryptocurrency I made from selling it. I used a browser extension called MetaMask and set up an empty wallet for Ethereum, the cryptocurrency network of choice for NFT collectors.
Then I had to find a place to hold the auction. I chose an NFT marketplace called Foundation, which hosted the sale of the famous “Nyan Cat” graphic this year for nearly $600,000.
Once I joined Foundation and linked my account to my Ethereum wallet, I had to upload an image of my column to a decentralized storage service called InterPlanetary File System, or IPFS. I then had to mint a token mapped to that file — essentially, generating a unique cryptographic signature that would live on the Ethereum blockchain, marking the file I uploaded as the real one.
Foundation makes minting an NFT easy, but adding it to the Ethereum blockchain can be expensive. It requires paying a “gas fee” — a kind of congestion tax that is based on how busy the network is — and listing my token required two transactions: one to mint the token and another to generate the code that runs the auction. These days, gas fees to create a single NFT can exceed $100, although many are closer to $50.
The next step was to list my new NFT for sale. I set the minimum acceptable price of the auction at 0.5 Ether, or about $850 at today’s exchange rate. The auction will run for 24 hours after the reserve price is met, though more time gets added if people bid in the last 15 minutes. After a winner is named, the token will be automatically transferred to that person’s Ethereum wallet. I will transfer the proceeds to the Neediest Cases Fund (minus the 15 percent cut that Foundation takes and any costs associated with the donation).
In addition to selling the token, many NFT sellers add perks. Kings of Leon, for example, are sending a limited-edition vinyl album to people who buy their NFTs, and giving buyers of a special “golden ticket” NFT free concert tickets for life.
I don’t have concert tickets to offer, but I did want to sweeten the deal. So here’s what you’ll get if you win this NFT auction:
As with all NFT sales, you’ll get the token itself — a unique digital collectible that corresponds to an image of this column in PNG format. (Our lawyers want me to note that the NFT does not include the copyright to the article or any reproduction or syndication rights.)
You’ll also be featured in a follow-up article about the sale, along with your name, your affiliation and a family-friendly image of your choice. (NFT sales don’t require identifying yourself by anything other than your Ethereum address, so you can stay anonymous if you’d prefer. Also, my bosses want me to note that The Times retains editorial control over the follow-up column, and reserves the right to decline submissions that don’t meet our editorial standards.)
And as a bonus perk, Michael Barbaro, the host of “The Daily,” will send you a short, personalized voice memo congratulating you on your purchase.
The biggest perk of all, of course, is owning a piece of history. This is the first article in the almost 170-year history of The Times to be distributed as an NFT, and if this technology proves to be as transformational as its fans predict, owning it might be tantamount to owning NBC’s first TV broadcast or AOL’s first email address.
Of course, that’s far from a guarantee. NFTs could turn out to be a passing fad that is feeding a speculative bubble — the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies — and your investment could turn out to be worthless.
But if they stick around, NFTs could transform the way digital goods are created, consumed and traded online. Some news organizations, including Quartz and The Associated Press, have already experimented with selling NFTs, and YouTubers and other online influencers have begun creating their own lines of cryptomerchandise.
Some of the NFT buzz is shallow hype, no doubt. The cryptocurrency world is full of scammers and get-rich-quick hustlers whose projects often end in failure. (Remember the initial coin offering boom?) And critics point out that NFTs and other cryptocurrency-related projects require enormous amounts of energy and computing power, making them a growing environmental hazard. There are also legitimate questions about what, exactly, NFT buyers are getting for their money, and whether these tokens will turn into broken links if the marketplaces and hosting services that store the underlying files disappear.
But there’s something real here that is worth taking seriously. For decades, artists, musicians and other creators have struggled with the fact that, on the internet, making copies of any digital artifact is trivially easy. Scarcity — the quality that gives offline art its value — was hard to replicate online, because anyone who downloaded a file could copy and paste it an infinite number of times, with no loss in quality.
Blockchain technology changed that by making it possible to stamp digital goods with a cryptographic marker of authenticity and keep a permanent record of its ownership. You can copy the file contained in an NFT all you want, but you can’t fake the digital signature behind it, which gives collectors of rare digital goods some peace of mind. And NFT fans think the technology could be used to keep track of all kinds of goods in the future — titles to houses and cars, business contracts and wills.
Creators can even attach a royalty agreement to their NFTs, entitling them to a cut of the profits every time their assets are resold. (I’ve made this NFT royalty free, mostly because it saves our legal and accounting departments a lot of paperwork.)
It’s easy to be skeptical of NFTs. But I’m cautiously optimistic about them, for the simple reason that they represent a new way for creative people to eke out a living on the internet.
For years, traditional media companies have resisted new, internet-based distribution strategies because they viewed them — often correctly — as a threat to their business models. Most things on the internet were free, and things that weren’t free could be easily pirated or copied. If you wanted to get paid for your creations, your best options were to create a paywall, hire an army of lawyers to enforce your copyright or put yourself at the mercy of a licensing service or a huge social media network, which might share some of its advertising revenue with you, if you were lucky or exceptionally good.
Digital subscriptions are one way for creators to take back control of their own destinies. NFTs could be another. By making it possible for artists and musicians — and, yes, journalists — to turn individual works into one-of-a-kind digital collectible items, NFTs could erode the economic dominance of social media middlemen and give more power back to the people who are producing creative and interesting things.
In any event, it’s worth a try. So please, check out my NFT auction at foundation.app/kevinroose, and let the bidding begin.