Baby Steps into the Metaverse

Anand Venkateswaran

A beginner’s gentle guide down the rabbit hole world of NFTs, collectibles, art and cities. Includes links and resources.

“I don’t get it,” said a friend after a 40-minute exposition on how new worlds are springing to life on the back of the Ethereum network. Like A’Tuin, the great world turtle. After 40 minutes of explaining to him that the NFT space was the convergence of politics, finance, economics, art and culture. “Why would you spend $20,000 on a plot of virtual land you can never step on or access in the real world?” he said. Why indeed.

At the time, the question seemed preposterous to me because the answer was obvious. However, the more people outside of crypto (or even outside of the NFT space) I spoke to, I realised that I was doing this wrong. Enthusiasm and a self-induced NFT high isn’t going to win anyone over. A massive dump of new information is a sureshot way to put someone off.

The NFT space is a rabbit hole. I was not pushed in. I was simply taken to the edge and asked to peek in. I fell in myself. This blog is an attempt to take you to the entrance – a half step from the edge – and show you a glimpse of what I’ve seen. You might be interested, perhaps you’ll come back for another look tomorrow. You’ll fall in too when you want to.

Chapter 1 – When cats broke Ethereum

In late 2017, around the time I gingerly entered the crypto space, a fun experiment was launched on the Ethereum network. Cryptokitties, they called it. It was a game where you could acquire and share digital kitties, breed them with other digital kitties and get more unique digital kitties. When you breed a kitty, it might inherit some features from both its parents – like the colour of its eyes or a shaggy mane or something – and it can in turn breed with another kitty and sire something else.

Each of these kitties are unique and can be bought and sold. Apart from realising that saying ‘kitties’ is addictive, I also understood that each kitty is a non-fungible token, or NFT.

Unlike other crypto currencies which are fungible – that is, one ether is equal to another ether – every NFT is a unique…thing. They’re all kitties, but one kitty isn’t the same as another, even if it is priced the same or looks kinda the same.

But that wasn’ the big lesson in 2017. In fact, most of us would have simply smiled indulgently and moved on if not for the fact that Cryptokitties brought the Ethereum network to a halt in December. This is because close to 200,000 people signed up in less than three months. Some $2m had been spent on kitties. A couple of kitties had been sold for over $100,000 (it isn’t as preposterous as it sounds, if you look at it in terms of Ether and Bitcoin alone, without converting them to USD). People were buying and selling kitties like there was nothing else to do with their Ether. Oh wait, there really was nothing else to do with Ether at that point.

Here’s a look back at what the world (or at least the crypto part of it) was talking about in December 2017. Anyways, the volume of transactions touched 11% of the network capacity and pending transactions piled up. It triggered some necessary conversations around scaling, and also shot down any doubts anyone might have had on the Cryptokitties premise – NFTs are fun.

At a time when speculation and profit were the primary motives for people getting into the crypto space, NFTs infused an element of pure child-like joy into the system. It should come as no surprise that people would want to spend money on something fun, something that surprises and delights them. 

Typical of crypto, the kitties bred not just other kitties, but other ideas in the NFT space. Some of them cheekily capitalizing on the bubble, like the ironically named Ethertulips. Others were grander ideas like OpenSea, a marketplace for trading NFTs. While 2018 was drowned in a flood of wild speculation and hyperinflated ICOs, the seeds of some really cool NFT ideas were germinating slowly, undisturbed.

Here’s an article in the New York Times around the time Cryptokitties happened.

Coming soon in Chapter 2 – the fascinating politics of land.

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