It’s hard to keep up with the dynamic pace of technology. And if you’re barely used to the NFT craze - which took the world by storm in 2021, it’s only a prelude to what is coming: Web 3.0, a new phase that might overhaul the internet and maybe even society as we know it. Before we delve into what it could mean for the arts, it might be useful to talk about what the previous generations of the internet were.
Let’s start with the first stage of the internet: Web 1.0. You just used it to surf and read. It was anarchy. Remember the ugly designs, the flat graphics, anonymous game playing, random fan pages, downloading music (and worrying about getting in the trojan horse virus), impractical user experience, and oh so many guestbooks. During the phase of the internet, the artworld had almost no presence on the internet. It was messy, and there was no algorithm to decide what was relevant for you.
Web 1.0 was just sort of the original kind of flat website on the internet. One of the starkest differences with the later phases in the evolution was its decentralised nature and the small number of content creators.
Web 2.0 roughly starts in 2004 and we’re at the tail end of it right now (apparently). In this phase, we saw the rise of social and interactive sites. Social media, personal accounts, content creators, dynamic and beautifully designed websites that are user friendly. Artists sharing their work online on their website and social media accounts, online auctions, online galleries, collectors sharing their collection on social media platforms; the internet grew to be more and more important for the arts.
But also, big tech and social media giants completely monopolised the internet, making immense profits with the platforms they own. Yes, they’re free to use and yes, there’re some monetisation possibilities for its users. But it’s limited compared to the profits the tech companies are generating. Moreover, they have the power to erode democracy and ignite polarisation by having (at times overt, but often also covert) control over what their users get to see.
Right now, we’re at the cusp of Web 3.0. By some, it’s being envisioned as a decentralised future. This could mean that pretty soon, the all-encompassing centralised power could shift away from big tech, back to its users. The ramifications could be endless: Web 3.0 could entail equal power to users, putting users in control of their data, and protect them against Big Tech monopoly, data thefts and leaks, monitoring and spying, or influencing behaviour.
Sounds too good to be true? Technically, this isn’t as far fetched as it seems to be, because blockchain technology can enable all of this. Blockchain? Basically, blockchain is the underlying digital foundation that can keep track of all transactions. It’s sort of a huge logbook, with an input field for everyone where you can insert records within the network. The date within the logbook is immutable, so whatever is carved on the Blockchain cannot be changed, by no one. So it’s the most reliable and transparent way to keep records. It also enables smart contracts, which are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.
And like we wrote before, NFTs are verified by blockchain technology that represents a unique digital item, and thus they are not interchangeable. NFTs can represent all sorts of digital files and creative work. Anything digital can be an NFT. Because it’s not interchangeable, it can’t be replaced with something else, which means it’s unique. Once an NFT is created, it can be digitally traced forever.
But what does it mean for the arts?
NFTs are being embraced by artists because, unlike a regular file, NFTs can’t be duplicated, giving it a similar or even more protected status to an original artwork. So an NFT harbours the authenticity of, let’s say, a digital artwork that comes in the form of a JPG or GIF. And blockchain opens up a lot of overdue possibilities for royalties for artists when a piece gets resold.
Granted, the NFT market right now is being dominated by creators who aren't serious about their practice and are in it for the big bucks. But, there is a lot of potential for serious artists too.
Potential benefits for the arts
When lots of artists turn to creating NFTs in addition to their non-digital work, virtual NFT museums are likely to come into existence. It’s possible that the traditional roles in the museum world will still exist. Curated exhibition programs and events, visitors paying for their tickets, curators selecting NFTs, collectors can loan their works for exhibitions. It’s not likely that they will replace real-world museums, but it might be an additional avenue to increase accessibility to other new audiences of the arts.
Blockchain might make it harder to sell and buy fakes because the provenance (previous owners) can’t be altered. Currently, unlike in many other parts of the creative industry, royalties in the visual arts are not a thing. So if an artwork gets sold from one collector to another, the artist who created the work gets nothing. When a file is minted as an NFT, it’s easy to decide which percentage you want, every time it gets resold. It would be a good thing if this practice could also trickle down to non-NFT artworks, making royalties a common thing in the industry. If more collectors or art institutions get into NFTs and buy art with cryptocurrency, it could become common practice that the certificates of authenticity will be minted as NFTs, making the provenance (previous owners) transparent and reliable of physical and digital artworks.
So, because of how Web 3.0 would start to work, artists and galleries can directly connect with their audiences. With this ecosystem, they will be enabled to build only the right set of audiences for them. And this is a feat that is currently difficult to achieve with web 2.0, with platforms like Instagram deciding who’s going to see your content. It might be cheaper to sell art online in Web 3.0 if there is a direct transaction from one wallet to another, without needing to use third parties like PayPal. Maybe there will be a new, more decentralised social network where artists can show and sell their work. This would also mean that galleries can have new ways to collaborate and foster relationships with artists and collectors.
No one knows for sure if Web 3.0 will come into existence. And if it does, no one knows exactly what Web 3.0 will entail and if it would mean the decentralisation of the internet. Trying to phantom a completely decentralised internet is nearly impossible. Do people want to adopt? Will they leave their social media account? Are companies not going to obstruct? Is it going to be a gradual or abrupt transition? While the absence of a central controlling or mediating authority has a lot of advantages, someone has to keep people in check. Don’t we need something to keep filtering out ghastly material that people shared on the internet?
For now, there are more questions than answers. The future of the internet is unknown but it’s good to know that things might change, and adapt quickly when it does.
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