What Are NFTs Anyway?

In March 2021, digital artist Beeple sold a JPG of Everydays: The First 5000 Days for a record-setting $69.3 million.
In March 2021, digital artist Beeple sold a JPG of Everydays: The First 5000 Days for a record-setting $69.3 million. / Beeple courtesy of Christie's

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who know what an NFT is, those who don't, and those who don't care. By the time you're done reading this winding adventure through art, technology, and cryptocurrency, you'll hopefully have a better understanding of NFTs—and maybe even a desire to create, or buy, your own.

What is an NFT?

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are hot right now because they give artists and creators a way to better control and manage the distribution and ownership of their work. An NFT is essentially a digital asset that's built on the Ethereum blockchain, which means that it's a kind of cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin. But unlike Bitcoin, each NFT is unique and therefore not interchangeable, a.k.a. non-fungible. However, in order to fully understand the NFT concept, there's an even bigger question you should be asking ...

Where do NFTs exist?

You can’t find NFTs in a museum or with a map. An NFT is like Neo in The Matrix: completely digital. (Coincidentally, SNL's Chris Redd played The Matrix's Morpheus to help explain NFTs, which was a missed opportunity, really; they should've brought in The One, Keanu Reeves.) Art can also be digitally “minted” as an NFT, which is something the artist Beeple has begun doing.

Who are NFTs for?

Skeptics may say that NFTs are just another way for an artist or collector to make even more money, but artist Shantell Martin frowns at that description. “We encourage art in young people, we fight to have it in schools, we are disappointed when art is pulled from budgets, but then we don't want artists to be able to pay their rent," Martin tells Mental Floss. "Would it not be great if artists made money from their craft?”

Artists like Martin, who work in both digital and physical spaces, stand to benefit from NFTs—especially when it comes to archiving pieces and creating new work. They're a boon to digital artists, too, like the aforementioned Beeple, whose "Everydays: The First 5000 Days" sold for $69.3 million at Christie's in March—a record-breaking amount for a piece of digital art (it exists only as a JPG file). Did Beeple's work fetch that price because it’s great art or because it's made and minted on the blockchain? It's hard to say. While NFTs themselves could be history in a few years, they’re currently helping to put tens of thousands (and even tens of millions) of dollars directly into the hands of artists—and that’s making history.

What makes an NFT special?

Not only have art and collectibles historically been easy to alter or destroy, but proof of ownership can be open to dispute or attack. If your older brother takes your Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman baseball card, for example, it’s no longer yours. If he then throws it into a blazing fire, it’s gone. Those are tangible things that are here today and could possibly be gone tomorrow; the same goes for proof of ownership or a digital work of art. But on the blockchain, they're secure, as an NFT has additional storage space that states ownership and other metadata and binds the asset to its rightful owner.

Can NFTs be stolen?

David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) said it best in WarGames: “I don't believe that any system is totally secure.” While an NFT cannot be copied, it is not entirely theft-proof. An NFT can move from one owner to another, though not by plane, train, truck, or boat, but by hacking. Even worse? Somebody could take any work of art and stake ownership of it through an NFT without you knowing about it. Which is another reason to keep personal art and collectibles safe and sound—and out of the (virtual) hands of hackers. Feeling paranoid? Put your kid's art on the blockchain now.

Are NFTs only for art?

If you have digital art, photographs, games, or even TikTok videos, you could mint any one of them as an NFT. Super-special limited-edition sports cards like the one that golfer Bryson DeChambeau released are making waves in the NFT world, too. Sneakers, fashion, in-game items, essays, and tickets are a few other examples of NFTs. Even Lindsay Lohan is getting in on the action; she recently released a song as an NFT. In time, anything of value could exist as an NFT, even your dog license.

Will NFTs increase in value?

Some art collectors and buyers see NFTs as a fad—and a risky one at that. So why take the plunge? Rudy Franchi, a former Antiques Roadshow appraiser and movie poster expert, calls the NFT marketplace “a fascinating place to play in.” Franchi spent some time with Andy Warhol during his Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup printmaking days. So what does he think Warhol would make of the current NFT craze? “Andy would be creating for it," Franchi tells Mental Floss. "He would’ve jumped on it and he would’ve loved it.”

While it's impossible to determine whether NFTs will increase in value, we do know that—like Warhol—they’re making history.