Are your NFTs on the wrong blockchain?
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The recent craze for blockchain-backed digital art certificates, or NFTs, has been focused on the breakout artists, celebrities, musicians and athletes creating them. That focus is understandable because, as collectibles, the value of NFTs derives largely from the people or communities involved in their creation.
But the value of NFTs (short for ‘non-fungible tokens’) depends on another factor that is at least as important, and is much less frequently discussed than the newest drop from Grimes or Lindsay Lohan.
Take a moment to ponder this question:
Do you know which blockchain NFTs actually exist on?
If you can’t answer that, and you’re considering dabbling in NFTs (or already have), it’s time to take a step back, because you’re officially in over your head.
If you don’t know it’s a trick question, take about three steps back.
Blockchains are competitors
NFT discourse has inherited one of the laziest and most misleading habitual inaccuracies of the cryptocurrency industry. These art claims, we hear all the time, “live on the blockchain.” You can trade them “on the blockchain.” The blockchain, the blockchain, the blockchain.
It’s enough to drive a person to drink (more). Because there is no such thing as “the blockchain.” There are many blockchains, and they are effectively competing for market share in a battle that will have winners and losers. So the blockchain your NFT calls home could be just as important to its value as whether it was created by Rob Gronkowski or the CryptoPunks team.
“You can’t really have that kind of value accrual unless the blockchain underlying it is secure,” according to Sam Kazemian, cofounder and President of Everipedia. The blockchain firm has branched out from its initial Wikipedia-like project to build what Kazemian calls “Adobe for NFTs.” The aim is to help companies and artists easily launch their own NFTs, and Kazemian recently helped the Associated Press get its feet wet, but Everipedia doesn’t run its own blockchain.
The health of a blockchain is fundamental to the unique functionality of the NFTs on it. Just like cryptocurrencies, the real point of NFTs is that they offer a form of digital ‘ownership’ that doesn’t rely on a central authority, and their trading can’t (in principle) be censored. If the NFT is in your digital wallet, you don’t just own it, you possess it – the kind of possession that’s 9/10ths of the law. That’s why these things have any value as a category.
All that security and functionality depends on decentralization. Every blockchain is secured by a decentralized swarm of administrators, known as miners or stakers, reacting to economic incentives that keep them honest as they facilitate transactions.
The problems start when a blockchain has software flaws or, just as bad, too few administrators. The loss of miner or staker interest can make weak blockchains vulnerable to manipulation, even allowing attackers to rewrite the contents of the chain. If that happens, your NFT might wind up worth nothing at all.
State of Play
The good news is that the landscape of blockchains for NFTs is currently fairly simple. Of the top NFT lines, the overwhelming majority reside on Ethereum, which has the advantage of age and broad adoption. “It’s totally decentralized,” says Kazemian, “[but] it’s a little bit expensive to use.” (Incoming Ethereum patches are trying to address the cost problem.)
The other system currently winning the NFT war is called Flow Blockchain, created by Dapper Labs. NBA Top Shot, the currently most successful NFT line, runs on Flow. Kazemian describes Flow as “slightly more permissioned,” meaning more centralized and more controlled by its creator. This is important, he says, because it allows greater integration with mainstream payment systems. But the downside is that more centralized chains may be more vulnerable to decay in the long run, and in very broad terms may provide a weaker guarantee of digital ownership.
Kazemian considers Binance Smart Chain another viable environment for NFTs. It’s less expensive to use than Ethereum, but it has some of the same centralization concerns as Flow Blockchain.
Then come a few dark horses. The EOS blockchain has NFT functionality, but hasn’t caught on the way Ethereum has. Tron (TRX) also launched NFT functionality in December, but the system has a strong reputation as a hype-driven Ethereum knockoff with few real users.
Kazemian urges a cautious approach to NFTs created on those outliers. “That’s the scary thing about picking these different small [chains]. They haven’t been battle tested the same way Ethereum has.”
“[If] the smaller blockchain gets attacked, if there’s a security issue,” Kazemian says, “do you really want to buy an NFT for $50k and if something happens, it’s gone?”
David Z. Morris
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MEMES AND MUMBLES
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This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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