$GENERALIST: Modern Value

Mario Gabriele 🦊
Mario Gabriele 🦊
0xADbd
March 15th, 2021

TL;DR

The Generalist is trying something new. In collaboration with Jack Butcher of Visualize Value, we're turning our coverage of Coinbase into a non-fungible token (NFT). To make that happen, we’re using Mirror. If you’d like to contribute, just click the crowdfunding modal below.

This means anyone with an Ethereum address can own a piece of our analysis and Jack's corresponding artwork. I think it's an exciting experiment both in this particular case and because of what it portends. I’ll unpack that below.

What are the details of this project?

We are raising 20 ETH, with contributions capped at 0.25 ETH. That ensures a reasonable number of people are able to participate. Allocations are made on a first come, first serve basis. If you don’t have an Ethereum wallet, I recommend downloading Rainbow’s mobile app (iOS only). Metamask is a good alternative.

Contributors will receive a stake in $GENERALIST, our token.

What do $GENERALIST holders get?

By backing the crowdfund, supporters receive three primary benefits.

  1. Proportional stakes in our Coinbase S-1 Club briefing and Jack’s cover art. This will be minted as an NFT.
  2. Proportional stakes in two additional pieces of art by Jack, inspired by Coinbase. These will also be minted as NFTs.
  3. A place in the underlying data of the NFT — embedded in code as original supporters.

Above all, you’ll be entering into the process of creating with us.

What happens after I back this crowdfund?

First, we create our Coinbase S-1 briefing and artwork. Then, we mint them as NFTs, listing them on Zora using a reserve auction. If the reserve price is hit, an auction kicks off, automatically selling the NFT to the highest bidder before the clock runs out. As a holder of $GENERALIST, you can choose to redeem your share of the sale price, or hold. By holding, you’ll receive a portion of future sales.

To understand why I'm doing this, keep reading. You'll learn...

  • Why I think NFTs are the future
  • The thought process behind $GENERALIST
  • What might come next

Why NFTs are the future

What gives an asset its value?
The founder points to the product, the venture capitalist gestures at a sloping graph, the banker underlines figures on a balance sheet.

What about the artist or the writer?

Historically, creative works have been priced according to scarcity. We give value to objects based, to a large extent, on their rarity.

Aesthetically, what is the difference between looking at a replica of Da Vinci's gorgeously slinky Salvator Mundi and the real thing? Most viewers could not choose between them. What makes the original worth $450.3 million, a replica a few thousand, and a high-quality online version free?

The original Salvator Mundi is worth nearly half a billion dollars because of its provable authorship, and scarcity. It is the product of one of the greatest minds of all time, and there is — can only ever be — one.

The same dynamics exist with the written word. You can buy a copy of a Harry Potter book for $9.99 via Amazon (or $0.00 for Prime Members) or pay $6,500 for a first edition copy. The words are the same, the story is the same; in short, the art has not changed. The difference is the degree of scarcity.

The problem of abundance

While the variable of scarcity has been useful for traditional artists, it has been of little use to those that create and share pieces online.

As Kevin Kelley explained, the internet is fundamentally a "copy machine." It is effectively free and easy to create multiple versions of the same product. Death to scarcity; the internet made abundance the norm. In Scarcity as an API, I argued that the best consumer startups would find ways to introduce scarcity programmatically, creating value and status for users.

As tech and culture further co-mingle, we should expect more startups to follow MSCHF's lead, using drops to win attention. In the process, programmatic methods may rise to contrive scarcity reliably, at scale, online.

We may live in an age of abundance, but with our sense of self tied to the proprietorship of rivalrous assets, scarcity will need to exist. Even if we must code it ourselves.

In what feels like a remarkable oversight, I didn't talk about NFTs once. My rationale at the time was that the crypto world required its own, more nuanced treatise. But the omission is glaring because this is precisely what NFTs solve: the problem of abundance.

In introducing scarcity, NFTs alter the relationship between audience and art in two fundamental ways. The first is by shifting from access to ownership.

Access vs. Ownership

In a matter of clicks, anyone with an internet connection can view the world's greatest pieces of art. We can browse the Louvre or British Museum collections and, with a reasonable degree of fidelity, appreciate humanity's most significant cultural accomplishments.

Our relationship to these objects is one of access. Even if paywalled, we do not own anything; we merely have a ticket to look around for a bit.

(Yes, you can buy digital art without blockchain infrastructure. But how can you be sure you're purchasing what you think you are? How do you know it was made by who you think it was, that it isn't a copy, or a copy of a copy? How do you value something given that uncertainty? Ownership has been possible, but it is far from the norm and beset with cumbersome certification and doubt.)

NFTs open up the path for actual ownership. Questions of provenance, authenticity, and scarcity are solved by using the blockchain which is transparent and verifiable. By making the construction of scarcity simple and safe, NFTs have unleashed a new generation of appreciators and investors in art.

That is not the only relationship NFTs change. Just as significantly, they blur the boundaries between artist and audience.

Blurring boundaries

Last year, I explored creator monetization in a two-part series called Audience and Wealth. I argued that creators would succeed by muddying the boundaries between themselves, their work, and those that consume it.

In this period of dynamism, this dance of frameworks, creators must decide what they want to achieve. Those that learn to share — to distribute effort, attention, money, and ownership — have the chance to build deeper relationships with their audience and eventually subvert the concept of an audience in and of itself. In the end, the goal is not to be one thing or another, to be some half of a circle, light or dark. It is to be in the arena, to bring others in, and together, to build something greater than ourselves.

NFTs are one solution, allowing audience members to partake in the creation of the work. This might involve supporting a project upfront in exchange for ownership and voting power over the direction of an artistic endeavor.

Rather than an artist making art to show and sell to an audience, NFTs allow for an iterative, imbricated process. The audience might fund an artist to create a piece, then offer feedback on improving it, all powered and enabled through the blockchain. While numerous configurations are possible, the tangible result is a disruption of the traditional cycle. Co-creation and co-play become the new norm.

Fad and reality

On Thursday, the artist Beeple sold his piece "Everydays — The First 5000 Days" for $69 million. There was no canvas for the purchaser to take away, no marble sculpture, no formaldehyde shark. "Everydays" is wholly, completely digital.

This is the knock on NFTs. What do you get? A JPEG? A PNG? Who would pay that kind of money for something so thin, so intangible? The implicit argument here is that artistic value, scarcity, doesn't translate to the digital world.

I think this position misunderstands internet culture and dynamics. Increasingly, the internet is where we generate and exercise status. Our most significant accomplishments, wittiest thoughts, and lustrous photos are all shared online to reflect and create prestige. This might be aimed at a small or large audience, but the core desire to demonstrate value and enhance social rank is the same.

NFTs are built for this new world. Not only are they scarce by design, ensuring status, but they are made to show off in front of an infinite audience. Owners of rare assets can flex in front of a crowd of billions with little more than a photo or a tweet. Flaunting modern wealth will only become easier and more vivid over time.

What status would someone earn for purchasing a Banksy NFT? Or Jack Dorsey's first tweet? What myriad ways could Beeple's latest buyer showcase their newest curiosity?

Art reflects the society in which it is created. In their intangibility and innate onlineness, NFTs represent internet-native art.

$GENERALIST

You can see where this is going. I'm excited to take the wraps off of $GENERALIST, an NFT collaboration between me and Jack Butcher, built on Mirror.

It all started with a tweet. On February 25, I asked:

I'd watched several interesting projects emerge over the previous few weeks, and in Coinbase, I felt there was a potentially ideal fit. How delightfully meta would it be to write a briefing on a crypto company funded by a crypto instrument?

In Mirror and Jack Butcher, I found the ideal partners.

Mirror

Thanks to responses to that tweet, I discovered there are a lot of ways to create an NFT. But there is only one I know of that is custom-built for writers: Mirror.

Founded by Denis Nazarov, the former founder of Mediachain and partner at a16z Crypto, Mirror is a blockchain-based publishing platform. Right now, that involves giving writers the tools to crowdfund a future piece with a crypto twist. In that respect, it's not dissimilar to traditional platforms like Kickstarter, aimed at the essayist. Rather than chipping $50 to aid the creation of a new mobile phone case, contributors receive a token in return for supporting a project with Ether (ETH): the native currency of the Ethereum network.

Already, it's proven compelling. As you might have seen, Mirror's first crowdfund with John Palmer netted the writer 10 ETH, ~$17K at the time of writing. Contributors received $ESSAY tokens, getting an economic stake in John's eventual written work in the process.

Like shareholders, these contributors receive funds when a sale occurs. After he'd written "Scissor Labels" John sold an NFT representing the piece, giving backers the chance to redeem part of their contribution. Those that hold onto $ESSAY receive a portion of the sale amount.

This can be confusing stuff (don't worry, I'll outline exactly what we're doing in a moment), but it was clear in speaking with the Mirror team that they're creating a powerful third mechanism for writers to monetize.

I'd found the right platform to run this experiment on. But to take a Generalist NFT to the next level, I wanted to work with an artist. Someone that could bring our research, bring Coinbase, to life. Maybe, I dreamt, I could work with Jack Butcher.

Jack Butcher

I don't think there's a better visual interpreter of modern value than Jack. You have probably seen his images and videos online, characterized by an arresting black and white palette and clean lines. But what I love most about Jack's work is that they tell a story. Each of his works functions as a kind of aphorism, a pictorial encapsulation of wisdom.

Look, for example, at this recent piece, captioned "Truth."

It distills a complex idea — notions of objectivity, truth, and bias — directly and elegantly. Something about those characteristics feels particularly apt when thinking about the blockchain and its embodiment in Coinbase. The world the company operates in is endlessly intricate, often hard to grasp. But there is beauty and sophistication in the architecture of cryptocurrency.

Better yet, Jack clearly understood this new medium. Last Sunday, he sold "Chisel," an NFT for almost 34 ETH, roughly ~$60K. I decided to give it a shot.

On Monday night, I asked my friend Tom Osman if he could gauge Jack's interest.

Of course, Tom delivered. And in a series of rapid-fire DMs over the past few days, Jack and I came up with a plan.

Mechanics

The Generalist is raising 20 ETH to power our coverage of Coinbase's IPO. You can see from the screenshot above, we considered different amounts, ranging from 10 to 100 ETH. We think 20 ETH represents a figure that allows a good number of supporters to get involved.

Those funds, roughly $34K at the time of writing, will be split among three parties. As follows:

  • 50% goes to Jack. He will create three pieces of art: a cover for our essay and two additional Coinbase-themed NFTs.
  • 25% goes to analysts. The S-1 Club is fundamentally a collaborative project — this rewards those that bring their effort and expertise to the table.
  • 25% goes to The Generalist. This helps me continue to grow and improve The Generalist.
  • An additional 10% is minted after the crowdfund and distributed to Generalist members.

Bringing in a sponsor for this S-1 Club would likely have contributed more to The Generalist's bottom-line. But my primary goals here are not financial. Instead, they're to bring you, the reader, into this equation.

On that subject, here's what supporters receive:

  • $GENERALIST tokens.
  • Proportional stakes in our briefing and cover art. (All work is part of the same project).
  • Proportional stakes in Jack's two additional pieces of art.
  • A place in the underlying data of the NFT — embedded in code as original supporters.

As alluded to earlier, buying $GENERALIST is part-patronage, part-economic involvement. As Jesse Walden described it, selling a token like this is effectively "Patronage+." Buyers support the creation of the artwork while also opening up the possibility for upside.

A few critical points to consider:

  • The crowdfund will take place at 9 pm ET on this page.
  • Allocation is first-come, first serve. I recommend setting an alarm, if you’re interested in contributing.
  • The total raise is 20 ETH, as mentioned.

The maximum contribution is 0.25 ETH. This is to ensure at least 80 supporters have the chance to participate.

  • You will need an Ethereum wallet to participate. If you don’t have one, I recommend Rainbow’s mobile app for those on iOS. Metamask is another good option and is available on iOS, Android, and web.

  • The conversion rate is 1 ETH = 1,000 $GENERALIST. That means if someone contributes at the 0.25 cap, they will receive 250 $GENERALIST tokens.

  • Once we've published the piece, it will be minted as an NFT and posted on Zora, along with Jack's additional artwork. In total, three NFTs will be created.

  • Once on Zora, all pieces will be open for bidding in ETH.

  • If a reasonable bid is placed, I have the power to accept it on behalf of token holders. However, token holders can choose not to redeem their $GENERALIST for ETH, holding on instead.

  • If any of our NFTs sell in the future, holders of $GENERALIST will receive a portion of the proceeds.

Especially for those new to NFTs or cryptocurrency, this can be rather head-spinning. To simplify the matter, I've done my best to outline a customer journey, step-by-step.

I should say at this point: NFTs are highly speculative. If your primary goal is to grow your wealth, I encourage getting involved with more time-tested assets. Think of this as a Kickstarter, first: you are supporting the creation of an S-1 analysis by world-class experts in their field that can be freely read by anyone in the world. If you are motivated by the opportunity to take part in something novel, experimental, at the fringes, this could be a good fit.

Beyond this particular project, I'm incredibly excited by what NFT projects like this might foretell. I hope the future of The Generalist will involve further collaboration and co-creation.

Where Next

I don't know. But I do have a few ideas. During my discussions with Denis and Patrick on the Mirror team, we outlined some far-out concepts.

To date, the crowdfunds on Mirror have ranged between 1 - 10 ETH. What could you do if you raised 100 ETH instead?

Version 1 and 2 are, I think, exciting because of how they extend the economic relationship between creator and audience and blur the boundaries in the way discussed earlier.

What would an angel fund look like powered by a $GENERALIST token? In addition to opening up investor access, it could also seamlessly reward contributions from holders. Those that source an investment could receive $GENERALIST for their work, in addition to weighing in on strategic decisions. Founders, for their part, would be accepting capital from a legion of tech-savvy participants invested in the company's growth.

While this opens up lots of regulatory questions around community-based capital formation combined with funding traditional startups, there are exciting possibilities for experimentation in the crypto-native sphere.

A grant program could provide similar benefits. Though holders wouldn't have the potential to return an investment in $GENERALIST, they would guide disbursements and ensure the best community projects received support. There's something rather magical about this: the community elevates and supports itself.


The writer Robert Musil once said, "To love something as an artist...means to be shaken not by its ultimate value or lack of value, but by a side of it that suddenly opens up."

Perhaps more than any other medium, NFTs fit this description. In their unique cluster of characteristics — the cocktail of scarcity, authenticity, and scalability — the internet's artform opens up new dimensions.

For $GENERALIST, I hope this is just the start.

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