An image or a video eliciting humor while portraying the thoughts and feelings of a specific audience is a meme. Over the past few years, memes have been used to poke fun and evoke emotions. As a social phenomenon, memes are also evolving with those who use them. With the increasing adoption of blockchain and NFTs, this evolution has seen viral memes converted to NFT memes in a meme gold rush.
To clearly understand what could be happening and why a lucrative meme market rising and leveraging the distribution of the blockchain could change this subculture, we first must know what NFTs are and why it is a big deal for artists. NFTs are non-fungible tokens that are digital, minted on a public blockchain like Ethereum or BNB Chain, allowing creators to connect directly with clients and the former to have total control over their assets. Artists embrace NFTs for the efficiency it brings to the table and allows them to bypass intermediaries, including auction houses, reaping more from their creations.
In 2021, Beeple, a contemporary artist, sold his collection for $69 million, triggering a boom in NFTs as artists across the globe realized that they could also emulate Beeple's success. This wave also saw creators of viral memes mint their creations as NFTs leading to the great meme gold rush. For instance, the viral YouTube video "Charlie Bit My Finger" was converted into an NFT and sold for $760,999. Others, including "Nyan Cat", "Overly Attached Girlfriend", and "Disaster Girl", have found buyers on public NFT marketplaces like OpenSea and auctioned for as high as $590k.
The meme gold rush is seen as a welcomed development for artists who, before the spike in the popularity of NFTs and blockchain, had to watch from the sidelines as their memes were unrestrictedly used by everyone across the board. However, with NFTs, the original creator of a meme can mint their work as an NFT and sell it to the highest bidder at a moment's notice. On the other hand, the purchaser is protected by the distribution of the blockchain and an unparalleled level of provenance that gives them the power to truly own their acquisition. This blockchain guarantee creates a win-win situation for the artist and the client.
However, in this arrangement, the global meme community is adversely affected. Although users can freely circulate the meme's copy, there can be severe repercussions if the purchaser—or the owner—discovers that their work was used, knowingly or unknowingly, in commercial activities without permission. To prevent such a scenario from happening, some leading social media channels are de-platforming NFT memes from viral videos.
For instance, the "Charlie Bit My Finger" is no longer available on YouTube though copies may exist on other channels. The trend seems to be picking up momentum. NetGems, a digital agency representing artists behind some popular video memes like "Two Pretty Best Friends" and "The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger", also deleted the original videos when their collection, comprising these videos, was auctioned as an NFT collection.
This unsettling trend that observers say the NFT memes gold rush could be restricting the internet and slowing down a culture. In their argument, information flow is being muzzled. Timeless and irretrievable moments- including likes, shares, or comments- are permanently lost whenever a viral meme is pulled down and monetized.
Still, as the internet and NFTs evolve, it would be interesting to watch how blockchain technology shapes communication.