Times Square has been worse than usual this week. Since Tuesday, the standard hordes of theater attendees and people in Tin Man costumes have been joined by thousands of NFT lovers in lanyards, descending upon New York’s most-lit neighborhood for three days of panels about NFTs for the “leading annual NFT event,” NFT.NYC.
By now you’ve likely heard the spiel on what NFTs are (“It’s a receipt of digital ownership for a jpeg that looks like shit,” someone has maybe told you in a bar). But the broader project of NFT culture is, reductively, to turn every aspect of human interaction into a commodity. There are NFTs for drinking coffee, playing football, skating and buying streetwear, doing feminism, joining private clubs, going to conferences, and, I assure you, much more. Fortunately, this isn’t going well. NFTs, as you may know, are down bad. Per the Wall Street Journal, they are “flatlining;” in May, daily sales had fallen 92 percent from their peak last September. That makes it a very funny time to host what Insider called the “Coachella of NFTs” (in perhaps a tidy illustration of his poor marketing instincts, the conference’s founder prefers the clunkier epithet, “the South by Southwest of NYC”).
Perhaps because the money-making side of NFTs isn’t making that much money, the word on everyone’s lips at NFT.NYC was “community.” The conference’s Twitter bio reads: “NFT.NYC brings the NFT community together in NYC.” There were countless talks on topics like “The Power of NFT Investment Through Community,” “NFT Branding and Community Building,” “How to Build an NFT Market and Community,” “Security Measures for Community Building,” “7 Ways To Optimize NFTs for Community,” and the ominous, “NFT Community Service Hour.” As one Miami real estate developer told me: “I don’t see NFTs as an investment. I believe in the technology, and the community.” Right on.
Wednesday night, I tried to get a sense for what that community is like. Specifically, my boss wanted me to do an “NFT party report,” so I took a look at the conference’s list of “satellite and community events” (which, for an expo boasting over 1,000 speakers, was relatively short), and found the Eventbrite of something called the “Flyfish Club Cocktail Party.” Flyfish Club, as I learned from a fast Google, is the “world’s first NFT restaurant.” Technically, it’s not a restaurant yet. They don’t have a storefront. But early next year, they plan to open an international “seafood-focused” dining venue somewhere in New York, where only the owners of their proprietary NFT, or others who lease those NFTs for a night, can eat. For now, the party would be at Scampi, an Italian spot in Flatiron.
Much like the hypothetical blockchain-enabled restaurant, the party was invite only. But thanks to a very kind doorman, a possibly-related high ratio of men to women in attendance, and the only name that came to mind when asked if I knew someone inside (“Andrew Sullivan”), the community let an NFTless loafer into their temporary home. I have to say I thought the community was nice, mostly the part involving an open bar, a spread of high-end crudité, and servers milling around offering some kind of tartar on a razor clam shell. The conversations were also better than I was expecting. I had precisely three of them, excluding the sweet doorman who checked in periodically to see if “Andrew Sullivan” had made it.
The first guy, who I met while trying to eat giant slices of hard salami in a minimally disgusting way, had also come alone. He was not a member of the club either, but a nice restaurateur who popped in to scope out the business model. He works for a restaurant company that owns a sushi place in New York and San Francisco, the latter of which has still not reopened after the pandemic. They were mulling the pivot to NFTs. I asked him how much money he had lost in crypto, and he said “It’s not great right now.” We exchanged LinkedIns.
Back at the salami station, I met a Miami real estate developer who goes by “Chichi,” though it is not his real name. He came wearing a Moonbirds hat, so this was not his first blockchain-based private club rodeo. He had joined Flyfish Club at the behest of Resy co-founder Gary Vaynerchuk, or Gary Vee. “I follow everything Gary Vee says,” Chichi said. He had also lost a lot on crypto and NFTs. But as noted earlier, he does not think of them as an investment, so much as a community. He didn’t plan to participate much in this particular community, being based in Miami. Instead he mostly planned to generate passive income by leasing his Flyfish Club membership to interested, but less committed community members. We also exchanged LinkedIns.
The grand finale was a 20-minute chat with a man wearing a Riddler jacket, a Hawaiian shirt, and a necklace of large titanium rings. He also had a glowing, neon-green, LED backpack, but he wasn’t wearing it. The Riddler had come to promote his “bio-authentication hospitality tech business.” The gist, if I’m remembering right, is that this tech would simplify the dining experience, by scanning your face at check-in to automatically find your reservation. The ordering and eating experience would proceed normally, but instead of paying at the end you could just leave. The face-scan would charge your card. He said they had a patent pending, and that Oracle was involved in some way.
Crucially, the Riddler wasn’t always into face-scanning. He claimed he used to be a spy in Hawaii. I have no idea if this is true, but for approximately 10 minutes he detailed how, after joining the army, he had worked as a satellite imagery analyst for American intelligence. Specifically, he claimed to have worked on PRISM, the NSA data collection program from which Edward Snowden leaked classified documents in 2013. The Riddler had mixed feelings about his high-profile, alleged former colleague. “I’m concerned about the intelligence assets in Bulgaria, who had families,” he said, “but I do think the American public had a right to know what was going on.”
The spy life sounded great — he worked only six months of the year in Hawaii — but eventually he had to go his own way. After working for a novelty political party, that I won’t identify to protect his identity, he started an acne-preventing pillowcase company. He claims they pioneered the pillowcase technology, but that the business cratered when his partner embezzled all their money. I could not find more information about this online. But these days, he’s in face-scan services. “I think it’s going to change the world,” he said. At the end, we exchanged LinkedIns.
All told, I did find a fairly pleasant community, if one that primarily took place on LinkedIn. At about 9:30, I slipped out the door sans Andrew Sullivan, and went downtown. Unfortunately, some of my real life friends were having their own NFT party. I guess the community was coming from inside the house.