CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet

Can selling tweets help create the next Discord?

March 24, 2021, 7:55 PM UTC

This is the web version of The Ledger, Fortune’s weekly newsletter covering financial technology and cryptocurrency. Sign up here to get it free in your inbox.

Jack Dorsey posted this tweet—the world’s first—on March 21, 2006. Fifteen years and one day later, someone paid the cofounder and chief executive of Twitter and Square nearly $3 million to buy the unassuming, 24-character note.

That someone—Sina Estavi, CEO of Bridge Oracle, a Malaysia-based blockchain company—didn’t really buy the tweet, of course. Dorsey is still the official owner, and he can delete the post at will. Dorsey can also sell other versions of it elsewhere. Heck, as Twitter’s CEO, he can probably even delete Twitter in its entirety, if he really feels like it.

What Estavi actually purchased is a non-fungible token, or NFT. Basically, this is a one-of-a-kind, virtual stamp on a blockchain—a digital collectible item that, in this case, points to Dorsey’s tweet. Estavi shelled out millions, in other words, for a smidgen of real estate on a worldwide software database called Ethereum that declares him, as acknowledged by Dorsey, to be the possessor of said tweet.

To figure out what that means in plain English, I turned to Cameron Hejazi, the chief executive and cofounder of Cent, the marketplace that hosted the auction of Dorsey’s hatchling-tweet. “It’s very much like the digital analog of the signed baseball card, just for digital content. You’re buying a certificate that references the tweet,” he says.

Consider it the crypto equivalent of bragging rights.

Putting your two cents in

Cent originally launched as an alternative social media site based on cryptocurrency micropayments rather than advertising. “We were like a quaint rural village 100 miles away from the superhighway that was mainstream social media. Pleasant, but isolated,” as Hejazi put it in a tweet of his own (which had zero bids on Cent as of press time).

The product gained little traction, and Cent pivoted. The startup ginned up Valuables, an NFT registry and marketplace, that it released in December. As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of about 10,000 buyers and sellers on the site had placed around $21.6 million in bids on tweet-NFTs, Hejazi says. Since many bids have gone unclaimed, that has translated into a total of $3.1 million in transactions—the vast majority of that sum being attributable to the recent Dorsey sale. (The startup takes a 5% cut of the sales, bringing its revenues to $155,000 total so far.)

“Our mission is, at the end of the day, to get money in the hands of creators,” Hejazi says. “Rather than having social media today be dominated by public concourses, where everything is out in the open, we think there’s an opportunity to complement that with more private experiences that we build out on our side.”

What might that look like in practice? “We want to provide an experience like Discord,” Hejazi says, namechecking the gamer-beloved chat app that is reportedly in talks to possibly be acquired by Microsoft for $10 billion.

Seeking harmony

Twitter is just a start. Hejazi plans to connect influencers and fans spanning the gamut of social media sites, from Instagram to TikTok and beyond. Eventually, he wants creator communities to form on Cent into “amorphous organizations,” much like they do on Discord servers today.

The prospect of payment will be the glue. “You might buy someone’s work, you might buy someone’s tweet, and that might be just the first step into introducing them to other artists to collaborate with, or helping them out with some editing, or any type of action that is more than just pure fandom,” Hejazi says. “The point is, NFTs are the way to get these participants to have skin in the game and to encourage [group] formation to happen much more rapidly.”

It’s a mighty ambition for a pipsqueak of a service that some might regard as ludicrous or even, well, kind of stupid. But Hejazi isn’t the only entrepreneur chasing this dream. A mysterious, controversial rival called BitClout that purports to hold a similar vision caused a stir in recent weeks after scraping people’s Twitter profiles and linking their names to virtual coins that people can buy and sell. (The alleged founder is already being sued.)

Hejazi remains undeterred by naysayers. “We’re very early in this,” he says. “We’re still figuring it out. We just learned that we can tokenize tweets, right?” If you doubt him, look no further than Facebook’s origins. Before Mark Zuckerberg created The Social Network, he built a cringey, looks-rating game called FaceMash that let people rate each other’s hotness.

“Be patient, because it’s evolving really quickly. And what we think of as our frame today, is going to drastically change with the products and services that are being built for tomorrow,” Hejazi says.

“There’s a reason there’s so much speculation and hype” in cryptocurrency markets today, Hejazi adds. “There’s something core and fundamental to the internet that is changing.”

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

DECENTRALIZED NEWS

Credits 🚀

Banks fear disruption from Fed's digital dollar ... Searches for "NFT" have reached 2017 crypto-bubble levels ... Stripe M&A lead goes to Ribbit Capital ... A.I. loan underwriter Upstart pops 171% on strong growth ... VP in charge of Google Pay leaves after 15 years ... Blockchain.com raises $300M at $5.2B valuation ... TIME magazine releases NFT covers (and wants a new CFO comfortable with Bitcoin) ... German banks test settling blockchain sales to fiat ... NFTs help musicians make up lost revenue ... Infinite Objects is just one startup working on NFT displays ... Decentralized finance platform Uniswap upgrades to version 3.

Debits 🐻

Crypto mining boom runs up against global chip shortage ... Turkish lira plunges on central bank disruption ... Blockchain art pioneer Beeple thinks the NFT market is a bubble ... and immediately converted his $53 million ETH to USD ... but NFTs from Fyre Festival, Pizza Hut, and Charmin will surely hold up ... Is techie inflation anxiety just Bay Area bias? ... Tokenizing other people's tweets may upset them ... Russian pleads guilty to ransomware plot against Tesla ... New bankers beg for lighter workloads ... Hong Kong's strict quarantine rules rattle bankers ... Man receives final paycheck in the form of oil-soaked pennies.

FOMO NO MO

We’re now seeing new stories attract new people to the cryptocurrency space who don’t care much about money and finance. It turns out there are more people in the world who primarily care about art, music, sports and culture. And stories about art, music, sports and culture tend to be more fun and relatable.

From Nick Tamiano's essay Stories, Scarcity, and Mimetic Desire. Tamiano, an investor and former Coinbase staffer, argues that NFTs have grown faster than cryptocurrency itself (at least in the short term) for the very simple reason that "stories about art, music, sports and culture tend to be more fun and relatable" than the stories about money that motivated early Bitcoin believers. Tamiano makes a particularly winning use of philosopher René Girard's theory of "mimetic desire," or the idea that humans are largely driven by what they believe other people consider important. That's also fundamental to why cryptocurrencies have value, but a more intuitive point when it comes to art and collectibles.

"NFTs offer a sustainable way for anyone to turn stories into scarce assets," Tomaino says in a fair summation of his thesis. He's not talking about environmental sustainability here – a debate for another day – but market sustainability. He insightfully observes that, no matter how ridiculous the current NFT bubble is, "an NFT is a concrete product (a digital good), not a promise about the future," making it structurally distinct from the ICO boom of 2017. Things might be a bit trickier than that: a lot of NFT buying is fueled by speculation.

But the basic point about emotional resonance is powerful: "Authentic stories will win."

BUBBLE-O-METER

33%

The chance of each of three possible economic outcomes of the Biden stimulus bill, according to former Obama and Clinton economic guru Larry Summers. (Hat tip to Steve Matthews at Blooomberg.) Summers told Bloomberg there was a "one in three" chance that the stimulus will trigger serious inflation with no growth, or 'stagflation.' He also said there was a one-in-three chance of a recession without inflation ... and a one-in-three chance of rapid growth with no inflation. 

In short, the most influential economist of the last thirty years looked at the biggest economic policy of our time and couldn't do better than a dice roll.

THE LEDGER'S LATEST

How 'open banking' can make the economy truly inclusive - Craig Vosburg, CPO, Mastercard (commentary)

Coinbase takes its stock roadshow to Reddit - Lucinda Shen

Jordan Belfort has more thoughts about Bitcoin - Shawn Tully

Fed Chair Jerome Powell says Bitcoin is a 'speculative asset' - Chris Morris

One analyst thinks stimulus checks will push Bitcoin higher - Lance Lambert

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

 

MEMES AND MUMBLES

This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. We are currently accepting pitches for guest columns. Contact david.morris@fortune.com.

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.