NFTs Reaffirm the Classism of Internet Culture

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Duke University recently became one of the first educational institutions to introduce NFTs as representing educational credentials, marking another step forward in the global emergence of blockchain technology and evolving culture of classism on the internet.

The relationship between NFTs and classism originates from the nature of NFTs themselves. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are assets that cannot be interchanged unless with another asset of equal value (similar to currency). Each NFT is stored on “public-facing digital ledgers called blockchains, which means it’s possible to prove who owns a given NFT at any moment in time and trace the history of prior ownership” as per the Harvard Business Review. As such, NFTs make ownerships easy to certify and transfer, enable cross-market credentials for a variety of goods and events. NFTs are digital keys that unlock access within the online world.

In a way, one could say that the value of an NFT – dependent on utility, ownership, history, future value, and liquidity premium – determines the value or power an internet user holds. While market value, potential future value, and the value behind the creator factor into the price of an NFT, an NFT’s worth is overwhelmingly determined by the perception of the buyer, once more putting power into the hands of wealthy consumers. While NFTs can easily be created through converting works on a blockchain using a process called minting, their limitedness and uniqueness create merit equivalent to owning an original work of art.

This leads to the explanation why NFTs are even worth purchasing in the first place: for the multipurpose function that transforms the consumer into an investor, a club member, a brand shareholder, a one-of-a-kind owner, and a participant in a loyalty program. NFTs can function like membership cards, “providing access to events, exclusive merchandise, and special discounts – as well as serving as digital keys to online spaces where holders can engage with each other.” Essentially, the reason behind purchasing NFTs in the first place establishes its core boundary fabrication, one where exclusivity based on wealth is rampant.

What we see with NFTs marking educational credentials are just some of the ways in which the token system neoliberally assigns worth to those with power and wealth. Most prominently, the association of NFTs with artwork has led to a counter-democratization of art on the internet. Where users used to be free to post content without regard for boasts of original ownership from outside consumers, now most domains lay under the claim of a wealthy internet user. Very few artists profit from this shift and simply put it has only elevated another elite group to the forefront of the internet. In regards to the mobile gaming artform, wealthy players gain more opportunities to play and blatant advantages over their opponents through NFTs, another signal of how classism is outpouring with the increased presence of NFTs online.

NFTs are not slowing down any time soon; instead, they represent the future of e-commerce by decentralizing exchanges and increasing transparency. Through enabling greater mercantile freedoms and providing different mediums for vending and consuming, NFTs represent a promising innovation for the economic sphere. However, there are still many issues to be resolved before blockchain technology is fully embraced with open arms. Plagiarizing through minting and environmental costs are just some of the concerns, but the distribution of wealth to those already in the top one percent rests at the forefront of the discussion. It’s worth evaluating whether or not there is a place for NFTs and their reform in a viciously neoliberal and capitalistic world.