Every cultural movement starts with a group of people with a niche interest and a desire to change the status quo. The NFT movement is no exception. With blue-chip projects having already broken through to mainstream audiences, web3 has the potential to redefine how we create and collaborate on an enormous scale, argues Douglass Kobs.
Douglass is the founder of Wild and previously founded Apartment List.
During the most recent bull market, mainstream NFT adoption largely focused on a handful of high-profile collections that fetched remarkable valuations for a brand new creative medium. Even in today’s bear market, which has impacted the number of projects experiencing meteoric rise, the broader ecosystem is still fixated on this handful of marquis collections.
Less attention is paid to the fact that every pantheon of iconic, highly visible works must be accompanied by a broader ecosystem of niche creations from a variety of creators, who bring with them a diversity of opinions and collector communities. Only with both worlds — the blue-chip monoliths alongside the multi-disciplinary multitudes — will the web3 creator economy be able to reach its full cultural potential and reach.
Every major cultural movement started with an eclectic coalition of tinkerers and triers.
Today’s major NFT collections have captivated the broader cultural zeitgeist because they embody the fact that web3 is truly here to stay. But let’s be clear: these cultural figureheads, while influential and innovative in their own right, started off as niche communities and continue to be influenced by creative forces that exist on the fringes.
We’ve witnessed niche communities trigger massive cultural movements time after time. The punk rock movement of the 1970s was kickstarted by a small group of musicians and artists who were dissatisfied with overseas military involvement and the ‘establishment’ status quo, and found creative channels for expressing their frustration and anger. Their gritty, underground visual aesthetic and messaging eventually spread across the world, influencing not only music and fashion, but politics and the broader cultural sphere.
Countless once-minor movements within the environmental activism, social justice, and traditional art worlds have experienced similar trajectories. And while each of these movements now has its prominent figureheads and is embedded in the fabric of mainstream culture, their origins were obscure, decentralised, and countercultural.
There is no reason or way to effectively discern the exact moment a niche community becomes a global powerhouse, but the bottom line is that essentially every major cultural movement has started with an eclectic coalition of tinkerers and triers who aren’t afraid to mix and match ideas, cause some friction, and see what sticks.
The broader web3 movement itself has been simultaneously described as both a massive movement and as a niche community, depending on what point each pundit or industry commentator is attempting to make. And like every other subculture that preceded them, web3 creators are authentically informed by their unique tastes and preferences, which is what makes it possible for them to set off a spark of originality that ultimately appeals to a wider audience. Today’s blue-chip NFT projects were made possible by the initial upswell in grassroots web3 art, and they, in turn, will anchor the next generation of independent creators.
Web3 has massive potential to forge new connections and redefine how we collaborate, and this goes far beyond the web3 art galleries proliferating the space today. Consider, for instance, the works of Holly Herndon, who created an instrument that lets anyone sing with her voice and who distributed governance of her digital voice to an experimental artist DAO, along with a classified portrait series generated from AI datasets of her likeness. Then there is the Jonas Lund Token, a decentralised art experiment that lets members propose and vote on the real-world career path of Jonas Lund and share the fruits of his success (or suffer the repercussions of his struggles).
On top of all this communal experimentation, the web3 ecosystem is also witnessing the emergence of more projects like JPG, a curation tool for NFTs that makes it easy to discover different artists and projects based on experiential formats. Even the search categorisations for these next-gen curation spaces differ from previous models, ranging from collections designed to facilitate deliberate social interactions between NFT holders to more cerebral art projects focused on inventing new forms of self-expression.
What all these disparate niche projects have in common is the fact that they are focusing on building long-term relationships between artists and active community members, communicating clear intent behind each of their collections, and making visible efforts to learn more about their collectors and user communities. And given blockchain’s ability to seamlessly verify digital assets’ provenance and ownership, it is now easier than ever to give credit, and automate royalties, to the creators leading these niche movements. In other words, web3 makes it easier than ever for creators to cross-pollinate with one another without fear of being co-opted or erased by knockoffs and third-party intermediaries.
It is now easier than ever to give credit to the creators leading these niche movements.
Nobody can say for sure which niche community will be the next to break through the noise and reshape the broader web3 cultural space, alongside today’s leading web3 projects. But there is no doubt that, as is the case with all cultural movements, art is pioneered in waves — with each wave helping define, contextualise, validate, or contradict what has come before. The first wave of blue-chip NFTs did the heavy lifting, in terms of mainstreaming emergent forms of creative expression, value creation, and coalition-building. For this wave to remain and sustain, it must be validated by continued innovation, a charge that will be taken up by niche creators across a broader, stronger, more resilient surface area.
Web3 projects aiming for broad cultural significance must internalise the fact that it is better to have a hundred passionate advocates in your community than a million lukewarm social media followers. The most loyal followers of any community, the ones that have the most intimate relationship with an artist and their work, are often the ones who have been along for the ride since a project’s humble origins. And as more attention is being paid to the explosion of creativity occurring on the fringes of web3, there is no doubt that these artists and creators will ultimately transform today’s creative culture in unexpected, riveting ways.
Web3 has massive potential to forge new connections and redefine how we collaborate.
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