10 Lessons for Crypto Media: Dirt’s Year in Review

By Kyle Chayka and Daisy Alioto.

Dirt sent our first dispatch on December 5th, 2020. Since then, we have sent 244 (free!) emails and supported ourselves with $65,000 in NFT sales, including an OpenSea collection. Our subscriber list has grown to over 6,000 and we’ve been mentioned in Axios, Nieman Lab, Adweek, TechCrunch, CoinDesk and more.

In the 12 months we’ve been around, we’ve had the opportunity to observe significant shifts in streaming, entertainment and digital culture. Here are our largest takeaways from The Dirtyverse–and what we predict will happen next.

  1. The secondary market is the primary market.
  2. Old media is recentralizing while new media is decentralizing.
  3. Media needs subscriber governance.
  4. Communication is key.
  5. Algorithmic feeds are failing.
  6. Individual creators are sharing less and partnering more.
  7. The metaverse is driving aesthetics for a new era.
  8. Intellectual property is still gold.
  9. The new big brands are open-source.
  10. Mainstream NFTs need a cheaper blockchain.

Support Dirt by buying our Dirty Dark Holo edition minted on Mirror, a special 10/10 for the end of our first year. Sales will fund our next season of content. The edition also comes with $DIRTDARK tokens that will be factored in to DAO governance.

1. The secondary market is the primary market.

In 2019, I wrote about the “bootleg” subsuming the original luxury product in the popular imagination. Brands like Diesel and Gucci were embracing their own counterfeits, producing new garments that looked like knockoff ones. “The unauthorized copy, or bootleg, is authentic as a riff on the original. An original fake,” I wrote.

In 2021, we saw a similar reversal between the primary and secondary market. In handbags, watches and even NFTs the original value of an item is less important than what it can be eventually sold for. “Newness” is no longer the pinnacle of desirability.

Brands that were once reluctant to even acknowledge the consignment of their products, happily leaving resale to the likes of The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective, might take a cue from NFT projects that facilitate trades within their own Discord community and begin to embrace being an authorized dealer for their own pre-owned items. Eileen Fisher already has.

This shift is part of the changing definition of ownership beginning with leveraged luxury–through credit card debt and financing like Affirm–and now fractionalization, owning a piece of a Rolex or Birkin or Warhol. If one can feel a sense of ownership over a mortgaged house, a financial arrangement that only comes under scrutiny in the wake of disaster (like the 2008 crisis), then surely some of the population can come to see digital real estate as not only real but valuable.

In his book The Life of Things, the Love of Things, Italian philosopher Remo Bodei traces the role of objects in society over time. “It is evident that the value of the use and exchange of objects today has partially given way to their transformation into simulacra or their exhibition as mere status symbols,” he says. What separates an object from a thing, a JPEG from an artwork, is the ability of the owner to invest meaning in it. To turn that on its head, to own is to invest meaning.

What is the definition of “thing” in the metaverse? If we could answer this question we would hold the keys to retail and ecommerce in Web3, but maybe we don’t need the answers right this second. I can tell you what I think a thing could mean, based on my understanding of “creation, consumption and curation” three buzzwords that frequently recur in Web3 spaces.

In my 2020 project, What Is Lifestyle? I wrote, “Contemporary lifestyle is a cycle of creation, consumption and curation. A thing is created when we ascribe meaning to it. It is consumed when we assign a value to it. It is curated when we tell a story about it. This semiotic loop also applies to the performance of lifestyle itself. A lifestyle is created when it is described. It is consumed when it is shared. It is curated when it is received.”

Whether through Instagram Shopping or OpenSea, the winning retailers will be the ones that can provide context. Curation and contextualization are intimately related. As storytellers, we envision a future of ecommerce on the blockchain that looks like Ssense. At Ssense, strong fashion editorial (led by Durga Chew-Bose) functions as an on-ramp for customers into the retail ecosystem. There’s a reason we’re not just typing Issey Miyake into our browsers. Dirt aspires to function the same way. To wit, the first dispatch of our recent gift guide picked up 100 new subscribers!

And maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. The Dirtyverse–the virtual environment we are cultivating–is a space to play. Our readers trust our taste, and the ways that they invest their time and attention in the future of media is just as important as monetary investment. When you see Dirt land in your inbox, you feel like a part of something. That’s the thinginess of Dirt. — Daisy Alioto

2. Old media is recentralizing while new media is decentralizing.

2020 was the year newsletter creators struck out on their own and 2021 was the year some of them came back to the fold. As with the hand-wringing over millennial cord-cutting, the limitations of supporting 10+ independent creators at $10 a month is similar to the impracticality of a Hulu, HBO, Criterion, Topic, Netflix and Amazon Prime subscription (phew). The pendulum has swung back to bundling–whether in a form like Every, or some sweet Atlantic media money.

Meanwhile, DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) unbundle the community experience from a top down digital hierarchy like a social media network, coworking empire or national magazine. Group governance is the participatory pledge drive, a focus group led by the group itself.

Imagine if during the last pendulum swing toward decentralization The New York Times had not only spun off their Games and Cooking sections but enacted a form of subscriber governance in which the best recipe comments could form permanent navigable content (like Letterboxd for recipes) and crossword heads could vote on future puzzle themes and guest editors?

But even DAOs will have to have centralized forms of reciprocation, if not explore bundling themselves. The stakes are high if we aren’t going to reproduce the inequalities of web2 media–not just between rich and poor creators, but rich platforms relative to all creators. Are we designing for revolution, or just reconstructing the sound of an Olive Garden?

It will take a lot of humility to move culture forward because the most interesting people working today do not want to follow technology to the proverbial slaughter (again). Trust is earned, and in both old media and new media trust is everything. — Daisy Alioto

3. Media needs subscriber governance.

The media industry is going all-in on digital subscriptions; the New York Times has become a behemoth cash machine because of them. Substacks thrive on smaller numbers of subscribers. Subscriptions are mostly pitched as giving access to content. You pay so you can get around the annoying paywall. But the increased familiarity of paying for content will also lead to the desire to give more feedback on it. Substacks have comment sections and Discords where a sole proprietor has to answer to fans or risk alienating them. The New York Times, however, has little way for subscribers to give feedback on what they’re interested in or want to see developed, except for writing letters to the editor or canceling their subscriptions (kind of defeats the point).

To an extent, we’re talking about governance: Subscribers, or NFT collectors or any kind of supporters, should have a say in how a digital content operation functions. Some NFT projects essentially give themselves over to their buyers via commercial rights. DAOs have governance votes using tokens in order to decide how to distribute funds or what to build. But those strategies are more difficult with media companies, which exist in order to publish and curate specific kinds of content, usually broadcast from the editorial team to the audience.

So how to resolve decentralized decision-making with the tastemaking function of media? No subscriber wants to decide for themselves what to read all the time; the point of a magazine is that there’s already a bunch of stuff you might like. With Dirt, we’re figuring out how to use our tokens and voting mechanisms to decide what kinds of content to invest in and what to cover. That doesn’t mean readers dictate what is written; it means that subscribers can tell us if they want more coverage about books, or movies, or TikTok, or digital assets. Votes could be set up to decide between commissioning particular freelance pitches, with the funds immediately distributed to the winner, a la Mirror’s Write Race.

Subscribers who want to participate in governance are good readers. They’re the people media companies should be seeking out. — Kyle Chayka

4. Communication is key.

It’s really hard to reach NFT buyers. Almost laughably hard: Someone can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in ETH to get a collectible from your brand, and you can have no way of communicating with them save airdropping to their wallet address. In part this is by design, the verifiable anonymity that blockchain technology enables. But it’s really inconvenient when you’re trying to build an actual community or gather a fanbase around NFTs or tokens.

Media companies are familiar with this problem from social networks: Facebook made it hard to access your fans there if you don’t pay Facebook; Instagram’s algorithm changes at a moment’s notice. Your audience isn’t really your audience. But at least on social networks you know someone is following you. NFT collectors can buy and disappear, even if you think of them as your biggest fans.

The main communication platforms that the crypto world uses are Twitter and Discord. Twitter is the engine of crypto hype and the public square used to promote your wares. Discord is more decentralized and private: It’s impossible to know where conversations are happening and easy to miss the real-time chatter unless you’re there constantly. No average internet user is prepared to either follow crypto Twitter or subscribe to a dozen Discords. If the market wants to expand beyond its niche, and certainly in order to sustain media businesses, this problem has to be solved.

Dirt has tried to work around this by embracing our newsletter infrastructure: Our fans already open an email from us every day, so we can communicate with them in that space. But readers aren’t the same as collectors or supporters, and we need better ways to keep in touch with our buyers and token holders. For now, we have a separate email list and channels in Discord. As DAO dashboards evolve, I expect those services will become opt-in participation points, where a collector might check in once a week or month to look for new NFTs or weigh in on governance decisions. NFT projects are all about storytelling, but that effort can’t be limited to a core group of fanatics who are online 24/7. — Kyle Chayka

5. Algorithmic feeds are failing.

This year, Zillow gamed the real estate market–until the market gamed them. As Insider reported, the company was forced to sell 9/10 of the homes they bought in the Phoenix housing market at a loss after their iBuyer algorithm failed. “Leveraging the power of big data, tech firms estimate the price at which they think they can sell a property, which then informs their offers to buy. They tend to offer lower prices than traditional buyers, but attract sellers by promising faster, all-cash deals,” wrote Wired.

Algorithms aren’t just failing unsympathetic corporations, they are failing individuals as well. Instagram has become Tumblr, Twitter has become Clubhouse, TikTok has become YouTube and the result? We’re getting less of what we want. This tension has been building for a while, but the difference between this moment and when Instagram switched from chronological to algorithmic feeds (an inflection point for user dissatisfaction) is that this time we have an alternative. Facebook has even undergone a rebrand as Meta to position itself as the solution to problems it created.

But the solution isn’t one particular platform, it’s the entire ethos of web3. Even if the average Twitter user can’t agree on a definition of web3, “something else” is enough for now! We want the control that algorithms took away. TikTok caught on during lockdown because it felt like the new StumbleUpon. As Ben Turner wrote in Dirt:

StumbleUpon helped me start to understand, almost at a humanistic level, how vast the internet could be. TikTok often yields a similar result, though with a key difference. On TikTok, almost all videos trend toward a kind of visual consistency and repeatability. Silly voices or bits of speech become ‘sounds’, to be reused, repackaged, and recontextualized. On StumbleUpon, however, a new discovery was almost nodal: your world would open up into something entirely, profoundly new.

Dirt writer Nikhil Sethi also revelled in TikTok’s algorithm before becoming disillusioned with trying to encompass all of his interests in one FYP: “How could there be a singular ‘For You Page’ when there were so many me’s?” Sethi’s solution was to game the algorithm, creating a separate TikTok account and training it to only serve him exercise-related content.

Also this year, television creators gamed the Netflix interface by making Unskippable Intros, Eliza Levinson wrote that keeping phones out of Berlin’s clubs was keeping them weird (the opposite of digital blandness) and Matthew Specktor escaped YouTube by listening to KJazz 88.1.

Remo Bodei again: “Material culture has ceased to be a minor genre, also because understanding the life of things requires just as much acumen as understanding the life of people, whether on a historiographic or a theoretical level.” The internet is part of material culture, too. So is the metaverse.

Humans use things–whether blockchain-backed or not–as avatars of their lifestyle. It’s no wonder that the most successful generative NFT projects to date have been used as literal avatars for their owners. “…things don’t have avatars, or if they do have avatars they are us, the people who invest symbolism in them. This is the principle of hyperreality: the preference for a humanity that looks more like things,” I wrote in Dirt.

Never have things been so central to community engagement, and never have the algorithms delivered us so little of what we want. — Daisy Alioto

6. Individual creators are sharing less and partnering more.

Instagram recently rolled out a feature that lets two accounts share the same post simultaneously. This is good for big creators working with micro brands or big brands working with micro creators or maybe for the equally yoked brand and creator when their audience has little overlap (yet). This is definitely better than playing the social media lottery.

Today’s most-discussed brands–whether a global retailer or an individual influencer–are sharing less and partnering more. Newsletters like Blackbird Spyplane and Opulent Tips cultivate a sense of intimacy. Everything is either a limited edition or a collection. Nobody is spewing out content–nobody wants to be the SHEIN of media!

Instead, we can look to Aimé Leon Dore x Woolrich, Rowing Blazers x Seiko, Ugg x Telfar. Each of these brands: ALD, Rowing Blazers, and Telfar have risen by rebelling against what came before while also edifying it. For ALD that means regionalism in streetwear aka Civicore. Rowing Blazers satirizes the prep. And Telfar makes luxury accessible–but make no mistake, they do make luxury.

Like Dirt, the brands that will define cryptocurrency will be self-referential and skeptical of their own culture. DeFi with a wink. We have to be willing to admit when the emperor has no clothes. Cryptocurrency began as a fringe movement but it can only survive if it mainstreams. This is the punk rock paradox. Everybody is nobody now.

Not every brand can and should scale, and decentralization can offer pockets of consumer culture where loyalty is more lucrative than virality. Earlier this year, perfume TikTok (aka PerfumeTok) put me on to a brand called Thin Wild Mercury. The perfume company received so much interest that they are still digging out of pre-orders. Bram’s Fruit™, a tantalizing tribute to produce, became unavailable the very week I became aware of it. Not every brand wants to participate in the hype cycle–where loyalists vie to speedrun bots that flip the latest drop to Grailed. In web2, even if you didn’t build for everybody, you could become for everybody through algorithmic forces beyond your control. There are consequences for overexposure. Just ask Von Dutch.

The future of the internet looks more like a finsta. Wallets will be public but personal data will be private. We know that the average Dirt collector holds $570 in Dirt NFTs and has 78 total NFTs in their wallet but we don’t even know their names.

As in fashion, web3 partnerships have to deliver value to the audiences targeted. Rolling Stone x BAYC and TIME x CoolCats generated a lot of discussion but did more to validate the blockchain with traditional media prestige than they created a lasting on-ramp for Rolling Stone and TIME readers onto the blockchain. Without community, we’re left with intellectual property. Just ask Noah. — Daisy Alioto

7. The metaverse is driving aesthetics for a new era.

In a viral twitter thread, Shaan Puri writes that the metaverse isn’t a virtual place, it’s a moment in time: “The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life.” He makes it clear that this moment isn’t an overnight shift, but the gradual progression of decades.

From an aesthetic perspective, the idea of an imaginary moment is a driving force in creation. What is steampunk? The imagined moment that industrialization overtook romanticism. What is vaporwave? The imagined moment that digital devices overtook analog. Neither aesthetic belongs fully to the past or the future but contains within it a realm of possibilities that can only be artistically represented when realism leaves few alternatives. Maybe steam could have been the dominant energy system. Maybe dead malls could be nodes of community rather than its vestiges.

A similar dynamic is at play when a regional museum goes viral on TikTok, a Japanese City Pop soundtrack turns life into a movie, and men in their 30s dress like Pokémon trainers.

In What Is Internet Criticism? I wrote about James Bridle’s movement, The New Aesthetics. They observed visual intrusions of the virtual into non-virtual life in the late aughts:

“Reading early coverage of The New Aesthetics now is interesting because most of what was said is still true but tonally it is no longer accurate. It was written nearly a decade ago, when it was fashionable and appropriate to write from the perspective that there might still be alternatives to these technological intrusions. But the new new aesthetics, wherever they may be (here, I guess) can only write from the posture that there is no alternative.”

Visual intrusions become auditory intrusions–from Zoom, to Clubhouse, to Twitter Spaces. A lot of people want to feel in control of their web3 identity in a way they couldn’t in web2, so the idea of an immersive metaverse is more exciting as an aesthetic than it is a social and political reality.

Generative NFT avatar projects–works for an imaginary moment in time–do have common elements. Long-faced animals, the “glitch” that spills pixels or guts across the screen, armor or bare bones (skeletons), and a sort of rigid cuteness. Some people find this beautiful, many do not.

2022 will be the year that “taste strikes back” in the NFT space. Just know that the aesthetic history we are weaving will surely not be remembered accurately. — Daisy Alioto

8. Intellectual property will become less defensible in the short term but it is still cultural gold.

I was recently watching a video of Variant Fund’s Jesse Walden when I zeroed in on his Zoom background: Standard Study #3 by Ed Ruscha. The background reminded me of Ruscha’s first foray into gas stations as art, a fitting parallel for this moment in NFTs.

In 1963, Ruscha released the book Twenty-six Gasoline Stations consisting of photographs of gas stations with minimal text–the first edition was 1/400. Now, we are used to seeing influencers’ coffee tables piled high with similar concept books and artist monographs but at the time he was the first artist of his generation to position a barebones tome as an art object. It’s hard to imagine now given Ruscha’s popularity, but the book was not well-received. It was kind of a joke–a joke now held in the MoMA.

From “my kid could do that” to “right click and save,” new media from the early 20th century onward has been poorly received. As W. David Marx writes of NFTs in Dirt, “whether or not this particular NFT bubble bursts, we should take them seriously as status symbols to better understand how humans will create exclusivity in the digital world.”

Even the worst, least tasteful artwork can generate value if enough people see it as intellectual property, and intellectual property was a recurring theme on Dirt this year. Kyle Chayka wrote about world-building as an exercise in IP accrual: “ the most profitable thing to create now are worlds, franchises, cultural DNA that can be spliced and recombined into an infinitely extending range of products. TV but also movies, video games, VR experiences, Fortnite skins.” The rights to the r/WallStreetBets story were sold even as the events that sent Gamestop stock soaring were still unfolding. Even pasta was intellectual property.

How can creators use this to their advantage? I pointed out that the potential for film and TV adaptations upends the conventional wisdom that novellas don’t sell. “I’ve read the premium mediocre novels, I’d rather see genuine talent paid for the 35,000 words collecting dust in a drawer.”

Critics of the decentralized internet are correct to say that right now there isn’t much protection in place to prevent claiming an NFT as one’s own. However, the ability to authenticate something on the blockchain is a lot easier than verifying a Gucci bag–and as in luxury fashion, self-referential bootlegs abound!

Another lesson from the world of fashion comes in the wake of Guess ripping off Telfar. You can copy a design, but you can’t fake community. — Daisy Alioto

9. The new big brands are open-source.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are valuable brands. No matter what you think of the technology, that much is true: millions of people have invested money in them and they have become mainstream phenomena, in the news cycle day in and day out. So what kind of brands are these? Bitcoin isn’t owned or run by any one entity; Ethereum is to some extent, but its identity is fairly neutral. The logos of each currency have become iconic.

NFT projects are similarly dictated as much by their holders as their creators, if not more. Because of their prominence, CryptoPunks and Bored Ape Yacht Club are decentralized lifestyle brands, like Supreme, Louis Vuitton, or Rolex. Bored Ape holders can use their ape as a free-floating symbol, even as a way to brand their own commercial products (like this beer). What Bored Ape symbolizes, exactly, is unclear. (Probably something like bro-y internet-era masculinity and shades of fuck-you money, like owning a huge car.) But ambiguity is an advantage for a brand — Supreme means nothing. Other NFT projects are user-driven and ambiguous (or meaningless) from the start. CrypToadz is all about the vibes, and the vibes are worth many millions of dollars.

To have an open-source brand, you need to trust your collectors, or be willing to have them do whatever they want with your imagery. That’s not always going to be pretty and will inevitably result in some controversies. But if a decentralized brand puts too much pressure on its holders to stay in line, it’ll also be less desirable. A balance has to be struck between decentralization and aesthetic coherence. — Kyle Chayka

10. Mainstream NFTs need a cheaper blockchain.

Everyone wants to onboard more people into the crypto ecosystem. More wallets, more tokens in wallets, more NFTs purchased. Right now, on Ethereum, this is something of a joke. Gas fees range from $60 on up to hundreds of dollars in ETH to mint an NFT or accomplish minor tasks like sending an NFT to someone for free. Buying an NFT barely makes sense unless it’s thought of purely as an investment vehicle whose value will rise or a piece of art that’s ineffably valuable beyond its price. That doesn’t strike me as an ideal situation for creating something bigger or more equitable than the traditional art world. It’s intimidating and presents too much of a roadblock for many people, particularly at the levels and frequency of purchases needed to sustain something like a media business.

The major environmental issue of blockchain technology presents the same problem. It’s easy for critics to dismiss NFTs as bad for the environment, though their overall contribution to Ethereum network demand might be negligible. For mainstream adoption, that concern needs to be addressed. Ethereum Layer 2 could solve this, or moving to a different blockchain like Solana or Tezos for particularly casual NFT transactions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what route is taken, only that the present situation is untenable. — Kyle Chayka

Support Dirt by buying our Dirty Dark Holo edition minted on Mirror, a special 10/10 for the end of our first year. Sales will fund our next season of content. The edition also comes with $DIRTDARK tokens that will be factored in to DAO governance.

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