Why Instagram will introduce NFTs to the gig economy in a big way
Photo: Luke Chesser
In a conversation at SXSW, Mark Zuckerberg dropped that Instagram was going to be incorporating NFTs in the ‘near term’, pending some technological tweaks. While he was sparse on the detail, initial stages would likely allow users to bring their existing NFTs on the platform, and later on, potentially it would become possible to mint NFTs on the platform itself.
Becoming a direct-to-consumer, easily accessible tool for users to mint NFTs would be a pivot for Instagram – one that harkens back to its roots. When first launched, Instagram revolutionised the art of everyday photography. Users could suddenly upload, edit, share, and appreciate one another’s photos of their everyday lives. This quickly took off into influencer culture, overtaking the traditional celebrity photo shoots in gossip magazines; Instagram become the only cultural middleman required, and everyone became a photographer, critic, fan, and reporter.
Enter Meta’s new metaverse aspiration, and the inclusion of NFTs. As key features of Web 3.0, it seems that Meta’s big bet is to become infrastructurally integral to the future of digital life. If Instagram can take the minting of NFTs from the hands of the digital aficionados into the mainstream, much as it took photography from a difficult-to-enter profession to a universal pastime, it is guaranteed to be the earliest, biggest base of this transition into the everyday digital experience.
However, what NFTs are and what they can do is still a little unclear. They have the potential to attribute digital art to its creator, or to allow the everyman to invest in small projects. Yet this inspirational potential impacts every conversation about them, much the same way as the tech industry often talks about its new innovations. The single-minded intensity of “This is the solution! Our product is everything!” is a marketing gambit and a cultural staple of Silicon Valley. It is also now permeating into the broader entertainment industry, which is growing ever-more tech-focused.
What really are NFTs, if not just another collector item for an in-group? Take ‘sneaker culture’, for example. A cultural cross-section of basketball and hip hop fans, trainers (or sneakers, for the Americans) can go for hundreds of pounds (or dollars) on wholesale, and their value can reach well into the thousands on resale within the fan community. Wearing a pair on the street earns nods from those in the know. The true fans will know the name, price, model, and scarcity of any pair they see. Yet, to anyone else who is not in this cultural in-group, they are just another pair of shoes. The same can be said of watches, band t-shirts, tattoos; the in-group knows, and will pay for that social signal – and to anyone else, the price tag appears absurd.
Thus, the conceptual backing for NFTs has precedent. Yet this is not without its pitfalls. To start with, knock-offs of branded collector items have their own, highly lucrative market – but the tell is in the stitching, the brand logo, the quality of the leather band of the watch. In the digital world, the tell is in the code behind the image – yet there is nothing to give it away from looking at the image itself. Perfect copies are easy to make and to propagate, and similar-but-not-quite images can also be minted. This has the potential to depreciate the value, even among the in-group, by blocking out the ‘social signal’ with static.
This mainstreaming process will have a greater knock-on effect as well. NFTs are ‘cool’ and highly valuable now purely because NFTs themselves are prized among an in-group. Their niche status is the source of their value. Yet when anyone can make anything an NFT, this value scatters into the various splintered in-groups that make use of NFTs but are no longer defined by them.
If NFTs can still retain value as investments, this raises a larger issue: the monetisation of genuinely anything in a gig economy which has now expanded into the digital-only world. The implications of this trend are already visible in the creator economy which is thriving on TikTok, GoFundMe and Patreon. Facing intense competition in the job market and raised in a culture which praises the ‘hustle’, digital natives are hedging their bets and trying to make their own way in the world funded by micro-monetisation across social content platforms (with perhaps the aim of sponsorship). The NFT is just one more tool to add to their kit. The challenges and risks of the gig economy predate NFTs. But make no mistake; NFTs are just one more gig for these digital natives to get into, and Instagram incorporating them will be what drives that point home.