October 31, 2022

Can an App Transform NFT Collecting?

With collectors increasingly supporting a narrow range of artists, Jason Bailey proposes a new solution
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Can an App Transform NFT Collecting?

Art is and always has been the best part of my life. When I was growing up, painters were my heroes and I spent all my time painting, drawing, and reading about art. I then studied studio art and art history in college. Upon graduation I realized that those who had warned me in advance were right — there was little opportunity to carve out a living as an artist. My response, like hundreds of my peers, was to give up and find another path.

As I created less and less art myself, the art of others kept me afloat. Museums were my sanctuary and in down moments I would surf the Web like an addict craving new work to replenish my soul. That is how I fell in love with digital art. My life was spent largely chained to a laptop and the Internet offered an escape to a vast and vibrant world of new artists. Yet I promptly realized that few, if any, of the many thousands of digital creators were able to make a living wage from their work.

Dev Harlan, Plus Basalt #35, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

When I discovered the nascent crypto art community in late 2017 I was overjoyed. Where the old star system had failed so miserably to support digital artists, this new grassroots movement had generated a viable alternative. Inspired by crypto’s disruption of traditional finance, a new wave of collectors began to explore crypto art’s decentralized ecosystem.

More than anything, crypto art (or CryptoArt) was driven by new collecting platforms. Yes there were individual artists incorporating blockchain into their art, but it was thanks to community platforms like Rare Pepe Wallet (RPW) and Dada.nyc that crypto art reached the necessary escape velocity to trigger a revolution. 

In 2016, RPW became the first NFT marketplace that focused on art — rather than gaming — to develop a large community of both artists and collectors. Based on the playful conceit of collecting provably rare tokens tied to JPEGs of frog memes, it ultimately became the blueprint for all subsequent NFT marketplaces. 

Yet fundamental to the success of Rare Pepe Wallet was its decentralized ideals — anyone could submit art and sell it on the platform. 
Rare Pepe Wallet home screen, 2022. Courtesy Rare Pepe Wallet

As its creator Joe Looney has said, RPW was not interested in being a central authority that decided which art was good or bad, it simply filtered out any work that was NSFW (“not safe for work”). This hyper-inclusive approach represented the antithesis of the legacy art world’s winner-takes-all model. Yet equally revolutionary was RPW’s decision to take zero commission from artists’ sales, both on the primary and secondary markets. In the traditional art market, it is common for galleries to take a 50% cut.

In 2017, Dada.nyc’s social drawing platform helped to dynamize the early crypto art movement by tokenizing the output of its own global community. Regarding everyone as an artist, like RPW, Dada had no interest in reproducing tired taste-based modes of artistic evaluation. The point was to encourage everyone to participate regardless of skill or training. The hope was that, through tokenomics, Dada could redistribute sale proceeds across its entire ecosystem, thereby removing any incentive to create based on what was likely to sell. Perhaps most importantly, however, Dada pioneered the automation of artist resale royalties through smart contracts.

Unfortunately, since 2018, crypto art and NFTs have become progressively less experimental, less pro-artist, and less altruistic, while increasingly embracing a new star system at the expense of emerging artists. 

While notable exceptions remain, and Tezos has taken pains to support a plural community of grassroots creators, today’s collectors are increasingly inclined to support a narrow range of artists.    

Ophelia Fu, UK; Mar Espi, Spain; Javier Errecarte, Spain; Joe Chiappetta, USA; Daveed, USA; Moxarra González, Mexico; Lissette San Martín, Chile; Otro Captore, Chile; Beatriz Ramos, USA; Boris Toledo, Chile; Ilan Katin, Germany; Massel Quispe, Peru; Boris Z. Simunich, Peru; Vanesa Stati, Argentina; Isa Kost, Italy; Marko Zubak, Croatia; Simon Wairiuko, Kenya; Alex Henry, USA, Screens: An Exploration, 2019. Courtesy of Dada.nyc

Inspired by platforms like Rare Pepe Wallet and Dada.nyc, as well as newer projects like Hic et Nunc and fxhash, I wanted to see if ClubNFT could find a way to reinforce positive collector behavior by expanding the number of artists being collected. My hope was that this might help to pull crypto art and NFTs back to their roots and away from the creeping elitism and hierarchy.

In order to engineer this cultural pivot, I asked dozens of collectors how they discovered new artists, since my goal was to encourage and amplify that behavior. In the event, everyone offered the same answer: “I look at the collections of others I respect to see what they are collecting.” 

This got me thinking: “what if we could build an algorithm that analyzed the collections of others in order to surface new artists?” So we did.  

I started by making a list of the top ten artists I had collected on Tezos. I then made a list of each artist that those artists had ever collected. Following that, I removed any artists I had already collected, which left a gold mine of artists I had never collected before! As I discovered more about these new artists I found myself feverishly collecting their work, quickly expanding the number of artists represented in my collection. 

This exercise not only helped me to discover new artists I loved, the market for many of them started to take off in subsequent weeks. It turned out that an algorithm designed to help support a larger number of artists was also exceptional at uncovering hidden gems who were about to take off. I took my findings to ClubNFT’s resident data scientist, Nick Hladek, who promptly turned my crude set of instructions into a sophisticated algorithm that could search more forensically and produce better results. We subsequently shared our prototype Pathfinder tool with a community of Tezos-based NFT collectors, lovingly named “The Bird & Worm Club.” Thanks to their feedback, we were able to create a production version of the tool that is now available for free to everyone! 

To give you a better idea of how Pathfinder works, I’ll briefly explain the process of discovering a new artist and purchasing a work for my collection. 

The first step is to plug in the public wallet address for your collection, since that is what we use to drive our recommendations. Note that we don’t ask for access to your wallet, we simply need to know where to find your collection. You can actually add anyone’s collection if you know their address. Indeed, trying out other collectors’ addresses is a fun way to use Pathfinder if you are curious about how its recommendations change depending on the wallet. If you wish, you can even add multiple wallets to produce a set of bespoke recommendations. Whatever you decide, having added your wallet(s), you can now go ahead and press the “Discover” button. We will trawl your collection and look for similar collections, recommending artists who appear in those collections most similar to yours that you are yet to collect (or haven’t collected in some time). This is a great way to expand your collection and to support a larger number of artists.   

Of course, we realize that everyone works to a different budget, so we added an option to filter by price. Personally, I like to collect on a daily basis, which means I am generally trying to discover artists before they become popular, and while I can still afford them. So I will often set my range between 1 and 10 Tez before hitting “Discover” to see what gems are out there. 

I’ve found this to be a great way to collect art in a down market when many collectors cannot afford to spend as much.

Collectors often have a preference for single or small editions. I’ve found that playing with a combination of price and edition helps me to find a sweet spot between rarity and cost. As an experiment, I’ll set the edition size from 1 to 5. Let’s see what we get! 

I’m immediately pleased with the results, finding myself drawn to a work by Dev Harlan, an artist I’d never encountered before. Pathfinder doesn’t show popularity signals like Twitter followers or historic sales so you really are collecting based on the art alone. Ultimately, I decided to collect both of Dev’s works because they are awesome recommendations — a warning sign that Pathfinder can be quite addictive.

In recent years, I’ve been fortunate to have made friends with many founders of the early communities and marketplaces in the NFT space. Rather than compete with them, at ClubNFT we’ve intentionally built tools we think are complementary. Following on from the launch of Right Click Save back in January and our backup tool in June, Pathfinder is our way of encouraging more people to collect from the NFT platforms we love. We know that collectors have their own preferences about which platforms they collect from, so we added filters that allow you to tailor your experience. In my case, if I use the same settings I started out with but restrict my search to fxhash, I get an entirely different set of results. 

One advanced feature that is great for discovering artists on the verge of wider renown is “User History.” Found under “Advanced Features,” you can set “User History” to the number of days you want and Pathfinder will search collector wallets as far back in time as you’ve determined. So if you set it for the last 50 days, you often get recommendations for lesser-known artists that sophisticated collectors have all started to collect recently. Several times, I’ve found that artists I collected with this setting quickly went up in value. I’m less concerned about making money from this feature but I do see it as a great way to collect artists before they rise above my price range.

One of the greatest benefits of Pathfinder is that, because it works based on what others have already collected, it does an amazing job of filtering out copyminters. Copyminters are scammers who upload work they’ve stolen from other artists as if it were their own. Since most of our recommendations have already been collected by at least one or two other collectors, they have already done some of the work of filtering out the copyminters for you, which honestly is pretty awesome!

Dev Harlan, Plus Basalt #19, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
Since our team started playing with the beta version of Pathfinder we have dramatically changed how we collect and think about collecting. 

We go in first thing in the morning because we don’t want to miss new recommendations (things change fast in the Tezos NFT market!). But we also pay a lot more attention to how many artists we are collecting and aspire to grow that number. We even created an inclusivity score that looks at how many artists you are collecting versus the total number of NFTs you have collected. I’ve always taken pride in collecting a wide range of artists but I was surprised to find that my colleague Danielle King is supporting a much higher number of artists. I hope that Pathfinder will steer others toward spreading their collections across a wider array of artists, particularly those who are only starting out or else those who are often overlooked and underappreciated. 

Who knows, maybe instead of flexing the most expensive NFTs in their collections, collectors will soon be showing off the number of artists they support. We can dream!

🎴🎴🎴

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog Artnome.com and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO. ClubNFT is a company that currently offers free NFT backups. Right Click Save is funded by ClubNFT but maintains editorial independence from it. Both ClubNFT and Right Click Save share a common mission to inform and protect NFT artists and collectors.