NFTs and me: meet the people trying to sell their memes for millions

·24 min read

The photographer Jeff McCurry’s favourite Harambe memes are the ones where the dead gorilla is in heaven, Photoshopped alongside Diana, Princess of Wales, Tupac and Muhammad Ali. “It’s like: wow,” says McCurry. “What greater spot can you be placed in? Harambe’s at the top of the hill, waiting to meet you there.”

McCurry took the photograph of the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla that went on to become a meme. In it, Harambe kneels, projecting a fearsome aura of strength, nobility and calm. A former volunteer photographer at Cincinnati zoo, McCurry was there on 28 May 2016, the fateful day a three-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla’s enclosure, forcing zookeepers to shoot Harambe dead. “It didn’t seem real at first,” says McCurry, who was a regular visitor to the zoo. “When any of your friends die, it’s hard to process. I was in shock.”

After Harambe’s death, McCurry, who now lives in north Kentucky, was stunned to see his photograph go viral. It was used on T-shirts, pillows, mugs, wall art. “I didn’t mind the meme people,” he says. “I wasn’t bothered about them. But when professional publications used the photo without my permission, that was disappointing. It shocked me how much they did it.”

Although McCurry owned the copyright to the image, there wasn’t a huge amount he could do, other than email individual corporations, threatening to sue unless they stopped stealing his work. McCurry made money from Harambe’s image, but nowhere near as much as he felt he deserved, given how widely it was used.

Then non-fungible tokens (NFTs; sometimes pronounced as “niftys”) came along. These are unique digital assets that are stored on a blockchain, a decentralised ledger of transactions, the same technology used to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. NFTs can be used to record ownership of just about anything: digital art, music, films, games and pornography. Once the files are uploaded and verified by a third party, they acquire a rarefied status, in much the same way as a hard-to-find stamp or unique piece of couture. The rock band Kings of Leon have generated more than £1.4m in NFT sales of their music this year alone.

Since early 2021, wealthy collectors have started buying slices of early internet history: the original versions of the rudimentary viral videos and memes from the early days of the internet. Collectors want to “own” the original digital file from which all the memes subsequently sprang: in McCurry’s case, the unedited, uncropped picture of Harambe, direct from his memory card.

In the minds of these collectors, NFTs of these memes and viral videos are akin to cave art, painted across the walls of the web by the flickering firelight of a dial-up modem: the viral video Charlie Bit My Finger sold (the actual bidding was done in the ethereum currency) for the equivalent of £538,000 in May; the meme Disaster Girl sold for £350,000 in April, and the meme Overly Attached Girlfriend sold for £289,000, also in April. Unbelievably, in June an NFT of “Doge”, the image of a shiba inu dog long held to be one of the internet’s most popular memes, sold for £2.8m on the auction site Zora.

Like many other meme creators, McCurry has seen this emerging trend, and he wants a taste. On the day we speak, it is the fifth anniversary of Harambe’s death. This afternoon, the original file of Harambe’s photo will be listed for auction; this evening, McCurry will attend a candlelit vigil for the fallen gorilla outside the zoo. While he is there, McCurry will be anxiously contemplating a future in which Harambe, from beyond the grave, has the power to change his life beyond recognition.

“Who cares how disappointing it was for five years,” says McCurry, voice pregnant with hope. “I may just win the lottery.”

***

Images have been misappropriated for as long as we have had the technology to reproduce media at scale. The scurrilous cartoonists of revolutionary France depicted Marie Antoinette in pornographic poses, while, in 1989, the artist Shepard Fairey used an image of André the Giant in his Obey Giant street-art campaign, to the displeasure of the wrestler’s family. But the internet has supercharged the process by which people can appropriate each other’s creative property, whether it’s music (through the now defunct filesharing platform Napster) or movies. Women in public life tend to suffer the most as a result of this abuse, be it through sexually explicit deep fakes or nude photo leaks, such as in 2014’s Fappening. Last year, the model Emily Ratajkowski wrote a heartfelt essay about her attempt to block an unauthorised book of her photographs from going on sale.

Every time they plunge into digital waters, internet users accept the risk that they may go viral; their images may be used without their consent; strangers may mock them, take what they say in bad faith or even make them the villain of the day on Twitter. Nobody ever sets out to become a meme. It’s something that happens to you, an external force entirely out of your control, like falling in love, or winning the lottery.

“It was rough,” says the illustrator Chris Torres, 35, from Dallas, of the early years after his meme went viral. “I didn’t know how to handle things. I had to sit back and watch as people stole my art and used it without asking.” First posted online by Torres in April 2011, Nyan Cat – a pixelated gif of a cat with the body of a cherry pop tart – quickly went viral, becoming the subject of video games (“Nyan Cat: Lost in Space”) and a music video, set to the tune of Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya! by the Japanese artist daniwellP.

But nobody wanted to pay Torres to use his image. “It has been pretty much a constant for me that my ownership of Nyan Cat has been brought into question,” he says. In 2013, Torres sued Warner Bros for using Nyan Cat without permission (the dispute was “amicably resolved” the same year). He has played a game of whack-a-mole ever since, going after commercial entities that use his copyrighted image without permission. “When something is on the internet, people assume it is something that can be taken for commercial use, without attribution,” he says.

Happily for Torres, he is managed by Ben Lashes, 42, a former indie musician from southern California who represents creators of other memes including Disaster Girl and McCurry. “I’ve been deep in the meme world since 2009 … I’ve always wanted to represent what I see as the best memes in the world,” Lashes tells me. “Like the Avengers of the meme world.”

Growing up, Lashes was fascinated by the intersection between entertainment and commerce. “I would go to Disneyland and study the map,” says Lashes, “and think about how the merchandising worked. Or I’d read books about how Star Wars was made and the toy deals happened.”

I never gave my permission for this to happen in the first place

Zoë Roth, AKA Disaster Girl

Lashes became a meme manager by accident. His father was friends with Charlie Schmidt, the creator of Keyboard Cat, one of the earliest viral videos. “Charlie called me up in 2009 and said: ‘I’ve made this video, everyone is stealing it and no one wants to pay anything for it.’ I replied: ‘This is the future of intellectual property. The next Mickey Mouse is going to come out of the internet.’” Schmidt became Lashes’ first client.

For years, Lashes’ main priority was arranging brand partnerships and helping his clients protect their intellectual property. But in January, Torres expressed an interest in selling Nyan Cat as an NFT, and they decided to give it a shot. The punt paid off, handsomely: in February, an NFT of the original Nyan Cat animation sold for £416,000, kickstarting the wave of meme sales that is still going on to this day.

“When Nyan Cat the NFT was sold, I got messages from so many other meme creators,” says Torres. “They all had the same story. They created something and put it out there not knowing what would happen. The internet took over and they lost control … these people were looking to me for help in getting a little bit of control.” Now, Torres puts them in touch with his manager.

NFT meme sales can sometimes compensate creators for the harm occasioned by going viral without their consent. “Sometimes it can be a little confusing to grasp that: hey, this is my actual thing, because the whole world has it and is doing what they want with it,” says Lashes. “I’ve heard from my clients that being able to establish ownership over it has been empowering.”

It certainly feels that way to Zoë Roth. In 2007, Roth’s father took a picture of her, then four, smirking roguishly in front of a burning building (the fire was a controlled blaze with firefighters allowing local kids to take turns hosing it down). Roth subsequently became Disaster Girl, one of the internet’s earliest memes. It was overlaid with captions that read: “Old McDonald had a farm … HAD”, and “There was a spider … it’s gone now”.

Roth, who is now 21 and lives in North Carolina, explains what it feels like to go viral as a child. “It’s kind of like there’s this meme, this picture of you that will always be living this life on the internet. Any time anyone looks up your name, that is what is going to show up,” she says. “So it feels as if you’re always being reduced to something. It’s kind of frustrating because I’m a dynamic person who has a lot of other things going on. One picture can never define someone fully for their life.”

Because Roth knew that she couldn’t control Disaster Girl, she tried not to let it bother her. “I knew that, even if I did feel frustrated, it would still be out there, doing its own thing.” The worst thing was when people she disagreed with used it. “Donald Trump’s son used it once,” says Roth, “and I was like: urgh, that’s gross.”

In April, Roth sold Disaster Girl for £341,000. She plans to use the money to clear her student debts. The NFT sale feels like a form of redress. “It was nice to have some sort of control over what was happening to it, for once. It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. Maybe agency is the right word. I finally had some say in what happened with it.”

Roth pauses. “You know, I never gave my permission for this to happen in the first place.”

The people operating within the meme economy space tend to speak with the grandiose confidence of the visionary savant – or the self-deluded fool.

“One thing I would just share with you,” says Kayvon Tehranian, the CEO of Foundation, the platform on which most NFTs are sold, “is that Nyan Cat was worth almost a million dollars when it was auctioned. But I can tell you right now, if you auctioned it again, it would be worth more than that.” Foundation provides the infrastructure for listing an NFT: minting it (ie, uploading it to the ethereum blockchain) and verifying its provenance – it’s a bit like eBay, but for NFTs. In exchange, Foundation takes a 15% commission.

Tehranian sees the market for NFT memes as being no different from the established art market. “Can you call the Mona Lisa a meme?” he says. “I would argue: yes. It’s a piece of art that everyone knows; it becomes a cultural reference point. The Mona Lisa is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Why is someone who creates something of perhaps more cultural impact not able to receive that level of compensation?”

In other words, Leonardo da Vinci walked so that Nyan Cat could fly. I can’t tell whether I’m listening to a multilevel marketing scheme or the next Steve Jobs. Either way, I’m intrigued. “I think it’s beautiful that the people who create culture don’t have to resort to silly sponsorships,” Tehranian says, “or printing T-shirts.”

I think they are decent investments … some of the most collectible assets will be the things that our culture values

Harry Jones, NFT collector

There is a Samsung Frame TV in Harry Jones’s New York apartment displaying a slideshow of the memes he has bought, including Bad Luck Brian, Success Kid, Ermahgerd Girl and Tips Fedora. The 21-year-old cryptocurrency developer and investor, originally from Worthing, West Sussex, estimates that he’s spent about £70,000 on these NFT memes. “It’s about rewarding meme creators,” Jones says. “These are culturally significant things, for my generation at least … and the people who provided these cool, culturally significant things years ago got no money for it.”

After the sale of Bad Luck Brian, a celebrated meme of a dweeby college student in a sweater-vest, Brian (real name Kyle Craven) and Jones became friends. “Bad Luck Brian is a legend,” says Jones. “He’s one of the original memes … I could never imagine that I would be friends with all these famous memes.”

In addition to compensating creators, Jones believes that his meme NFT collection will appreciate in value. “I honestly think they are decent investments … as we get older, some of the most collectible assets will be the things that our culture values,” he says. “And that is memes.”

So sincere is Jones in his belief that memes will one day be as valuable as gold bullion or diamond mines, he is funding a project called Dank Bank, which will be the world’s first stock exchange for memes. “The idea is to fractionalise all these memes,” he says, “and turn them into tiny, tradable pieces.”

Leaving aside the question of whether we should be applying free-market capitalism to memes – the only truly good thing on the internet – what becomes apparent from talking to Jones is that, as with any other collectors’ market, there’s a degree of brinkmanship and bravado at work. “As with most things collectible,” says Jones, “it’s just about the bragging rights.”

When a major piece such as the Harambe NFT goes on the market, the bidding can get ferocious. “There’s a lot of bruised ego in these bidding wars,” Jones says. “Like the 3F Music guy.” Jones is referring to the enigmatic Emirati music producer who bought Disaster Girl for £341,000. “This guy refuses to lose auctions. If you end up in an auction with him, you know it will go to half a million dollars.”

Jones is prepared for the possibility that he has spent tens of thousands of pounds on a junk investment. “If the memes become worthless,” he says, “I won’t be financially ruined by it. I’ll be annoyed. But you can’t go into anything this ridiculously weird and speculative without being prepared for it to be a zero.”

Then again, maybe Jones really is on to something. “Three weeks after I bought Bad Luck Brian,” he says, “I was getting messages from well-known venture capitalists asking: ‘Hey, are you selling?’”

Is Jones a savvy investor or an unwitting dupe? Even the experts don’t seem to know. What’s clear is that, buoyed up by the incredible rise of cryptocurrencies – bitcoin is up 230% since October 2020 – a new breed of tech entrepreneurs, newly rich through crypto speculation, are entering the art market for the first time and buying up NFTs.

MetaKovan, The buyer of Everydays: The First 5000 Days, with his £48m artwork.
MetaKovan, The buyer of Everydays: The First 5000 Days, with his £48m artwork. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

“The art world has been trying to crack the problem of how to get tech people to invest in art for a long time,” says the art critic Ben Davis, author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. “It hasn’t happened because one reason rich people collect art is social capital or because they’ve earned money in unsavoury ways and want respect. But tech people don’t need that. They’re treated like artists themselves.”

In March, though, a work by the digital artist Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann, sold at Christie’s for £48m, the third-highest price ever achieved by a living artist. Everydays: The First 5000 Days was a composite of the digital pictures Beeple has been posting online every single day since May 2007. “It’s madness,” says Davis. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. An entire new category of art appeared with new names and new stars in a matter of months.” Auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have blockbuster NFT sales coming up.

Sotheby’s Max Moore led the digital artist Pak, who specialises in abstract spherical and cuboid shapes, to an £11m NFT sale in April this year. “It’s a movement in and of itself,” says Moore of NFT art, “such as conceptual art or cubism. It’s a reflection in response to the changing times.” But even Moore acknowledges that the £48m fetched by Beeple is indicative of an overheated market. “It’s been like a tech startup for the first four months,” says Moore, “but I think now we’ll see it converted into a more organic, traditional market, that grows at a much healthier pace.”

“The word bubble is bandied around too easily,” says Prof John Turner of Queen’s University Belfast, author of Boom and Bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles. “We don’t know if we’ve had a bubble until it bursts. Prices keep going up. But it’s only when they collapse that we can truly say.” Turner traces a parallel between technology-fuelled bubbles of the past, including the dotcom bubble of the 1990s, and the 1929 Wall Street crash (which was driven in part by investment in electrification technology). In the 1890s, the invention of the bicycle led to the formation of hundreds of new companies, which traded on the stock exchange before collapsing in the early 20th century. “Bitcoin is of that ilk,” says Turner. “The new technology is the blockchain.”

What is important and interesting about memes from a critical perspective is that they don’t belong to anybody

Art critic Ben Davis

These bubbles all burst in the same way. “Amateur investors come into the market for the first time,” says Turner. “They add momentum to prices … then one trade goes wrong and the amateurs are spooked, and flood out of the market.” Although collectibles do not form bubbles in the same way – like couture or stamps, their value isn’t predictable, being subject to the whims of wealthy collectors – Turner believes that the cryptocurrency market is a bubble, and one on the verge of imminent collapse. “Prices around the world are going to come down,” he says, explaining that governments can intervene to block cryptocurrency exchanges: “China has already done that,” he says.

If cryptocurrency crashes, speculators will no longer have piles of money to splurge on the blockchain, buying viral NFTs. But for now, curators have cartoon dollar signs in their eyes. Moore is even open to the idea of Sotheby’s one day auctioning memes. “Individuals value buying a piece of history,” he says. “It comes back to human nature and the desire to own.” He points to individuals who don’t own any physical assets, but are “exclusively engaged in building their own profiles in the metaverse”, or the virtual shared space. “Ownership of something that is a part of pop culture is quite appealing for them.”

***

Despite these high-profile supporters, already the backlash has begun. “The NFT market is incomprehensibly absurd and wasteful,” the long-running music and entertainment publication Paste magazine recently declared. Anil Dash, who co-created NFTs along with the artist Kevin McCoy at a New York City conference in May 2014, recently disavowed his creation in an essay for the Atlantic. “Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype,” Dash wrote.

This backlash is largely driven by growing awareness of the ruinous environmental impact of bitcoin, usually mined by banks of computers powered by fossil fuels. Detractors point out that at least you can do practical things with cryptocurrency, even if only buying drugs. But melting the ice caps to mint a gif of a flying cat on the blockchain? That’s harder to justify. At least there are some NFT exchanges that offset carbon emissions.

NFTs have been positioned as a solution to copyright theft. Instead of prising great chunks out of the meme Parthenon, collectors can own internet antiquities ethically. “There’s no connection inherent between an NFT and a copyrighted work or person’s image,” says Prof Rebecca Tushnet, an expert in intellectual property at Harvard. She argues that existing laws already do a decent job of protecting people’s intellectual property. “There’s never been more licensed use of photography,” she says, and the reason artists and photographers are paid poorly is not because people are stealing their work: “It’s because prices are being driven down by lots of competition.”

NFT purchasers don’t really own anything at all, other than a URL and some bragging rights. Creators almost always reserve their copyright, meaning that the NFT cannot be licensed for commercial use. “They are purchasing a certificate,” Tushnet says.

While Tushnet thinks that existing copyright laws are perfectly adequate when it comes to protecting meme creators, Tehranian argues that, in practice, individuals can fall through the cracks. “Copyright is not global,” he says. “The internet is global. It’s not jurisdictional. This is something much larger. We have artists in Ghana, Thailand, Australia. All share the same blockchain. In the future, if there’s a dispute about the origin of something, we’ll reference the blockchain – and we’ll see copyright and royalty systems built on top of that.”

Unlike Beeple, the majority of artists do not get rich from NFTs. According to research published on Medium by the Canadian artist Kimberly Parker, most artworks go for less than $100. Even the big-name meme NFTs aren’t guaranteed to do well. Some sell for six figures; others for small change.

In 2009, David Devore Sr took his seven-year-old son, David Jr, to the dentist for a tooth extraction. He recorded his son on the drive home, tripping on anesthesia, asking existential questions about the meaning of life. Devore Sr uploaded the footage on to Facebook; within days, it entered the pantheon of early viral videos. In May, the NFT of David After Dentist sold for £8,142. Three weeks later, Charlie Bit My Finger sold for £538,000.

“We were happy with the sale,” says David Sr, unconvincingly. “It sounds like we are being ungrateful. But we were surprised by how low it went compared with the others.” It is easy to understand his frustration. Both videos feature winsome children being adorable in low-resolution footage – how to explain the enormous price differential?

“I think we’ve narrowed it down to two things,” says Devore Sr. He points to fluctuations in the cryptocurrency used for NFT purchases: “It didn’t help that ethereum was at an all-time high that week. Also, there are very few people who are interested in buying these types of items – maybe fewer than 20 people. Maybe they were busy. It could come down to timing.”

The disparity between Charlie Bit My Finger and David After Dentist goes to the heart of what makes NFTs an impossible-to-predict asset. There is no internal logic behind why some viral NFTs do well and others fail. It’s pure speculation. The NFT has no inherent value beyond the whim of what a millionaire will pay for it on any given day. Whoever loses the game of musical chairs is left holding something worthless.

Over the following days, I keep an eye on Harambe’s auction page. It doesn’t seem to be going well. Five days after the listing went live, the reserve price of £10,145 has not been met.

I check back in with a bewildered McCurry. He’s trying to stay upbeat. “The way I’m choosing to look at it,” he says, “is that everyone’s sitting at the start line, going: you first!

To a certain extent, it’s hard to have much sympathy for McCurry: he is trying to monetise a photograph of a captive, dead gorilla, and seems to be failing. But McCurry doesn’t see the sale as distasteful. “Harambe was my friend,” he says. “If anyone would know if this was inappropriate, it would be me. I think Harambe would say, ‘Go for it. I don’t think you’re disrespecting me at all.’”

Already it looks like the overheated NFT market may be collapsing. Prices are closely linked to the performance of cryptocurrencies, and since China cracked down on bitcoin in May, investors are skittish. McCurry is sanguine about the possibility that Harambe might not sell. “I’m hoping for the best,” he tells me. “But if the worst happens, I’ll still have Harambe.”

***

There is one big problem at the heart of meme NFTs. Whatever their advocates argue, in themselves they have no inherent value, being fundamentally non-monetisable at their core. The meme only assumes cultural capital through mass transmission, and mass transmission only takes place when the meme is free to share. You’d never pay to send a meme, any more than you’d pay to tell a joke, or send a nude. The meme is a gift from one person to another, spontaneously, voluntarily, without any expectation of financial reward. Memes belong to everybody and nobody. You can’t apply the principles of free-market capitalism to a meme because, by its very nature, a meme is not an asset class but a living organism.

“What is important and interesting about memes from a critical perspective is that they don’t belong to anybody,” says art critic Davis. “They are distributed among people, but it’s what thousands of people did with it – that’s the meme. And when you take a meme and treat it like a conventional art object by saying: ‘Here is the unique thing, you own it,’ it creates confusion about what is valuable about the meme. It’s not the image itself that is valuable. The image was just a container for a huge number of jokes.”

This is not to say that memes are not worth studying or preserving. “These are important forms of culture,” says Davis. “They are images that shape people’s lives.” He would welcome the opening of a museum of memes. “There could be exhibits that show you how the meme affected culture in different ways,” Davis says, “and the way the image flowed through a community. But an NFT doesn’t do that. It does the opposite. It points you back to this unique, original thing.”

Owning an NFT of your favourite meme is a lot like owning a slice of land on the moon, or a star in the Milky Way. It does not mean anything, but is just kind of neat, particularly if you have cryptocurrency to burn. Thankfully for McCurry, the NFT bandwagon is accepting new passengers, at least for now. On 3 June, a week after the auction went live, Harambe sold for £57,000.

“This is just nuts,” McCurry tells me with a delighted chuckle when I call to congratulate him. He is planning to move to Hawaii. “I’m going to clear my things here and buy a nice condo there,” he says. “I’m set!”

After we hang up, I reflect that, even if these NFT memes feel like a scam, as grifts go, they are pretty innocuous. Investors get their bragging rights, Tehranian gets his cut, McCurry his condo, and Harambe, up there in heaven, knows exactly what he’s worth. McCurry thinks his old friend would be delighted.

“Harambe would be thrilled,” McCurry says. “He would be so happy. He wanted me to succeed.”

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