NFTs and Open Access:
Promiscuous Communities

Last month, I wrote a post about “NFTs and Open Access: Power in the Age of Digital Individualism” that proved pretty popular. What surprised me, however, was the sheer range of people it appeared popular with.

On the one hand, it received acknowledgements from people working in Web3 that I respect and admire, and who I look to in trying to understand this strange new online world. On the other hand, it was shared by people with some weird NFTs as Twitter avatars that seemed, on the surface, to be the very people I was actively disparaging in the piece…

Here we find the flipside of the problem discussed. The initial post was inspired by a random tweet announcing that people into NFTs aren’t “in a community” with people who care about “digital abundance”, connection and equality. I argued that “digital abundance” isn’t a virtue in itself, since it has been — and continues to be — exploited by platform capitalism, which parasitizes the abundance we generously produced for ourselves and others for the sake of its own profits — profits that our “communities” never see.

In this sense, the way I see it, the function of NFTs isn’t solely about accumulation and scarcity. Accumulation is what platform capitalism does with our data, and if anything is being made scarce it is the profits that can be drawn from certain digital cultural objects. As big tech makes moves into this space, it is clearly because they want a piece of this market enclave, playing up a sense of “exclusivity” that was only ever flirted with to keep them out! But nothing seems to be settled in this space. It has interrupted who profits from certain forms of cultural production, restricting access from the global market that has gotten all too used to gorging itself, drawing on the productive potentials of each individual on social media for their own sustenance.

Of course, this is simply the idea(l) that some crypto projects long for. They hope to disrupt the process of shadowy marketisation, relying less on individuals and more on communities who control the income from their own activities for themselves, often allowing those who invest in their outputs to have some sort of input. To “invest” in a community through tokens or what have you is to be a part of that community. That’s not to say this is the reality at present. And it may never be the reality, as big tech makes furious in-roads into some spaces. But it is nonetheless true that there was small communities of people wanting to do cool things with this tech that are, for the time being, wholly off the radar or otherwise closed to the platforms that would otherwise passively capitalize on their self-initiated activities.

So there is a clearly progressive application for this technology that could be used by people who run communal spaces, in much the same way they are run IRL. I still carry a few “club cards” in my wallet for community spaces in London, and this is, of course, a model vaguely copied by big supermarkets and chain stores. But the idea that your Tesco clubcard sits alongside your membership card for your local queer space doesn’t negate the potential over the latter by proximity to the former. In much the same way, there is potential for blockchain governance to easily support those types of activity and make communal support for independent ventures not only go further but also remain wholly independent.

However, in the last post, I mostly focused on how berating crypto’s apparent “individualism” ignores this clear communitarian orientation. But the flip side is also true. Focusing on community spirit as an inherent virtue ignores how communalised capitalism has become.

This was something briefly outlined in an unannounced book I’m proofing at the moment, so I won’t cite or quote at length, but they make the argument that the way “monopoly capitalism” functions — and what is “platform capitalism” if not the digital version of this — is that it displaces the authority of an “individual tycoon”, replacing them with “a corporate ‘managerial stratum'” of executives. Essentially, monopolies, particularly those that are made up by vampiric conglomerates, buying up and subsuming all the smaller innovators, already follow a communal and often horizontalist model. It is not simply the case that individualism bad / communalism good, no matter what direction you’re looking at this from. Context is important.

But it is nonetheless worth recognising that some of these NFT clubs or DAOs leave a bad taste in the mouth because they speak like communal spaces but act like managerial boardrooms. Being able to distinguish between the two is important, for fans and critics alike.

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