How token-gated communities are reimagining storytelling online

Akansha Jain
October 20, 2022
A depiction of Azurbala, produced by Tally Labs.

What makes humanity unique is our capacity for storytelling. NFTs add a fundamental new dimension to this ancient craft. By distributing IP ownership, web3 makes it possible for thousands of people to collaborate on building a story. Akansha Jain explores what makes the best stand out.

Stories have the power to transform our everyday existence into immersive worlds, feelings, and ideas. Humans feel connection through stories. The reality is we are all storytellers from the very earliest days of our lives, and through it, we begin to learn the power of our own memory and imagination.

We preserve stories in forms like a book or a recording or a film. Many of them guide us on how to live lives, like religious texts or our nation's constitution. For centuries, we told stories orally, memorising complex narratives down the generations. But technology is transforming the way we tell stories.

Initially, television, film, and radio gave storytellers a diverse creative toolbox through which they could tell their tales. Subsequently, the internet gave everyone access not only to a seemingly endless library, but the tools to tell stories ourselves, mainly through our social media posts. Today, franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are a few of the most profitable franchises of all time; the video streaming industry is expected to be worth over $300bn by 2030. Why? Because we innately love stories and immersing ourselves in fantasies beyond the norm of our everyday lives.

NFTs can empower the next generation of storytellers.

Underneath the bad press, scams, and the JPEGs, there’s a fundamental organising technology that makes NFTs special. Verifiably unique digital assets that cannot be directly replaced by another token, NFTs are how users own things on the internet. But the value of an NFT lies not in the scarcity of a particular trait, but in membership of a community which that NFT confers.

Renga is an excellent example of how creators can multiply the value of their art by tying it to a developed story.

Indeed, cryptoartists often struggle to find a market for their craft because scarcity tends to become valuable when it is connected to something more tangible. The purpose of the story is to get the audience to care about the JPEG, as well as the scarcity baked into the smart contract underneath, encouraging people to collect and engage rather than flip and trade.

Built around “sequential art, with a liberal use of page space and sparing use of dialogue,” Renga is an excellent example of how creators can multiply the value of their art by tying it to a developed story. The artworks, which blend 900 traits across the 10k collection, intentionally leave much to be interpreted, and the community is welcomed in to contribute narratives via 'Black Boxes', which let community members claim their own character from the Renga universe.

It is in this way that NFTs can empower the next generation of storytellers. But this shift is an evolution, not a revolution, and builds on what makes stories popular. First come the foundations, an intriguing plot and interesting characters — ultimately, immersive lore. When done best, it represents a core narrative that motivates fans to contribute their own ideas on the side. Fan fiction takes on enormous relevance. Jenkins the Valet has reached popular acclaim in no small part due to the depth of its lore, which began as one character in the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection, but has gone on to cover a broad range of characters in a newly-imaged world, Azurbala:

With NFT storytelling, the mark of an excellent project is when its creators have designed an open-ended ecosystem like Azurbala, with characters and environments that allow fans to become community members and for members become collaborators, contributing their own ideas and vision. With NFTs verifying who has the rights to each contributing IP, all that's left is for the story to be written.

Jenkins' collaboration with the New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss is the furthest a storytelling NFT collection has gone so far in terms of writing quality: community members voted on the overarching narrative; Strauss applied his expertise to bring it all together.

“Azurbala is a holy city, but it's one that is overrun with greed, power, and corruption. 5 factions jockey for power. You have the aristocrats in House Calypso, the artisans and craftsmen in the Syndicate, the corrupt prison guard in The Edokan, the Monks and other religious folk in the Monastery, and the crimelords running the underworld in The Sprawls.”

These cultural and governance innovations open up the opportunity for stories to become communal again. Rather than going through a small group of people for every story to be told, every spin-off book or film adaption, every fan is able to contribute an idea and see it professionally delivered.

There's a huge range of extra media built on top of Harry Potter, but there's even more fan-fiction. Professionals and successful story-tellers are coming to recognise this opportunity, with established creatives pivoting to web3 in order to explore the applications of blockchain technology. Omega Runner is built by Hollywood stalwarts Bryan Unkeless, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Bryce Anderson, and Blaise Hemingway, whose credits range from The Hunger Games to the Disney Animation Story Trust.

“If you want to play in it and tell other stories, please do.”

— Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Runner

Runner tells the story of a futuristic new world where the currency of power is speed. As Unkless put it to Decrypt, “we wanted to create a world where 10,000 stories could be told.” His introductory blog post explains how community members will vote on the creative direction, with the ecosystem built to grow. Nicolas-Troyan adds, “we tell the story of a dozen people in it, but there are millions of people in this world. If you want to play in it and tell other stories, please do”

NFTs create an entirely new approach to governing intellectual property, making it possible to open up the creative process whilst managing rights and royalties at scale. With this, readers represent a new, tangible wave of creativity to make these story ecosystems, such as of Harry Potter, more imaginative, more diverse, and more enjoyable. All that is needed is for entrepreneurs and storytellers to refine these cultural and governance innovations and tell their own tales.

Created by Hollywood veterans, Runner illustrates the calibre of storytellers moving into web3.
Created by Hollywood veterans, Runner illustrates the calibre of storytellers moving into web3.
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Akansha Jain
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Akansha is a researcher at Unidentified Dao and also contributes to the DeFi protocol DZap.