My Non Fungible Journey in NFT Land (Part I)

Or how I went from WTF are NFTs to creating my own collection…

First of a 3 part series of articles.

PART I: Entering wonderland…

1.1 Observation

1.1.1 What are NFTs?

I first tried to understand what’s all this hype about NFTs, and what are they anyways?

After first reads, I understood they were simply titles of ownership registered in a global decentralized ledger. If you know already about Bitcoin, think of NFTs like Bitcoins, except each coin is different than the others and has a different market price. Instead of calling it a coin they call it a token. And because each token is unique and not equivalent to another, someone came up with the sophisticated phrasing Non Fungible.

They could have called them Collectible Tokens, or unique, special, artistic, ownership tokens, anything that can easily make sense, but NFT is the name someone important must have picked.

1.1.2 What are they for?

Artists can create collections of NFTs and put them in online markets where people use cryptocurrency to trade them.

Opensea is one of the major ones, so I started browsing it, and I was shocked by what I found:

Ranking page in opensea.io

In case you’re not familiar with Ethereum, the volume figures are denominated in Ether, a cryptocurrency that’s generally in the $3k to $4k range. (Yes, such huge volatility is normal in crypto)

So if you take the most popular collection, CryptoPunks, the last 7 days volume is 41 million $US, and it doesn’t have a floor price right now, because no owner is listing their precious CryptoPunk at a fixed price.

The column on the right indicates the number of items that exist in the collection: there are, and will always be, only 10 thousand CryptoPunks, and they are currently owned by 3,200 people.

So how those CryptoPunks look like?

I was definitely expecting to find something better looking than those pixel little punks, but hey, what the fuck do I know?

Ordering them by highest last sale, the most expensive transaction was for the CryptoPunk#3100 at 4,200 Ethers, that’s about 16.8 million $US.

So I clicked on holy CryptoPunk number 3100, and found that one of the reasons he is so expensive is because he is an alien and has a headband, very rare qualities indeed.

Other collections can represent club memberships, for example in the ranking screenshot above, Bored Ape Yacht Club is an exclusive group of 5,700 people and the floor price to buy one of those spots is 36 Ethers ($140k)

Their website says membership gives access to a whiteboard to make art together, but my guess is that a $140k membership must provide more.

Let’s look at one more:

Notice how all the pictures are the same in this one?

This is very typical in many NFT collections, they first create a group in a social application named Discord, build the hype around it, reach many thousands of users, and plan a “Drop Date”.

When this so long awaited drop date arrives, people rush to “mint” new NFTs from the collection. Again, instead of naming this process create or buy, they called it mint to re-use the financial jargon, where minting means printing new money.

Now what’s interesting is that buyers don’t see their NFT content right away after minting. They have to wait for the reveal!

Why is it interesting? Because I noticed something very predictable here: if the collection sells out before the reveal, there’s always an increase in price between mint and reveal.

If the collection doesn’t sell out, it’s kind of a flop, and people who bought in probably already lost money on their bet.

1.1.3 First impressions

At this point, I started understanding a bit of this phenomenon.

On one hand, it’s a new way of monetizing art and creative ideas. An artist can draw a collection of characters and give them properties; another one builds stories around them; another buys into different collections and makes a game, then resells the tokens for profit… Software engineers collaborate with artists in brand new ways… Maybe Disney or Netflix come in at the end and buy a whole bunch of ideas that already come with artwork and communities who are already familiar, and maybe attached to these intellectual properties… And cherry on the cake, all of this runs in a decentralized market that reflects popularity of those ideas with a well defined and public $$$ value.

I like these concepts and think it’s the nice half of the story about those crazy amounts of money flowing into NFTs. After all, modern art value is always subjective and the fact that there’s no simple explanation to it, is part of what makes it art.

The other half of the story? Bubble, money laundering, stupid apes hoping for easy money, smart wolves manipulating them, the NFT world is the paradise for scammers, money launderers, and all kind of gamblers.

With Corona, the blockchain nerds seized their opportunity to create a fantastic, much more sophisticated version of Las Vegas, 100% online, and selling much more magical dreams.

And honestly, I kind of liked it at this point.

1.2 Playing

1.2.1 First steps

So after a couple of days researching the subject, it was time to get my feet wet and enter the NFT casino.

I started looking for NFT opportunities in some twitter feeds, and trying to mint one at the drop date. I only targeted collections where mint price is under 0.05 Eth ($200) or free (yes, sometimes the owners are ok distributing the collection for free with other future plans to monetize, like royalty fees for instance.)

Very frustrating, when I found nice collections, I couldn’t mint one because they would sell out in 5 minutes, or while I was in a meeting or out of my timezone, or because of high transaction fees.

An important detail to mention here is that transaction fees are very expensive in Ethereum and can vary depending on the complexity of the NFT contract and network congestion. For minting a new NFT, it can vary between $20 and $200.

In one of those collections, I submitted the minting transaction but it got rejected because it sold out already, and fees get deducted in such cases.

After about one week in my NFT gambling career, here is what I achieved:

* Minted 3 Metamaps, which were free but still cost me 100$ in transaction fees. Their current value is now close to zero, but I kind of feel good owning some lands in the Ethereum network.

* I wanted to mint a Pythagorean Weapon, but the rule there was that you could only have guaranteed access if you owned a Pythagorean Mask. So I went ahead and bought the Mask for 100$ total cost, then minted the Weapon for 25$. But this whole pythagorean thing was terminated and these NFTs are kind of worthless. Maybe I can get 0.005 for both on opensea, bet let’s call it zero because it would take more transaction fees to recover those 20$.

Recap:

  • Total spending: $250 to get 3 Metamaps and 2 Pythagorean things.
  • Current value: close to $0.

But even though their market value is none, they mean something to me because they represent an experiment, a learning, and I bought some dream while working from home.

This feels like a very probable psychological driver for the thrive of those NFT projects. All important crypto companies are investing in NFT marketplaces, so my guess is there are millions of highly paid computer nerds out there, willing to pay hundreds of dollars to buy a bit of dream online.

1.2.2 First win

After my first NFTs, I realized the only way to make a good acquisition is to buy before the others, and be lucky enough that the collection sells out, and maybe get a rare item after the reveal. So I stopped looking for drop dates, and started looking for new discord groups where I could become whitelisted to buy in first. I also started following some “winners” accounts on twitter.

That lead me to land in a Discord group called The Evolving Forest.

The chat channels were full of bots, spams and random people invited in some kind of pyramid scheme where chatters get rewarded with whitelist spots for inviting more people. The roadmap was to create a collection of seeds, that will be revealed into 3D trees, and then a game will be created afterwards where those trees will have some value and will be able to generate fruits, other trees, and some kind of utility token used in the game.

Don’t worry if the above doesn’t make any sense to you, I think that out of the 50k people who ended up following its twitter account or part of the Discord group, 99% don’t have a clue of what that means. Everyone is just hoping to get a fantastic 3D tree!

Because I had seen so many projects where the concept didn’t make any sense, this one actually looked cool to me and I participated in the chat frenzy to pump the hype. Also had an incentive to do so because I was whitelisted now. An important element of the mechanics of NFTs, plain old Ponzi scheme situation.

When drop date came, I bought 8 Evolving Forest seeds for $3,500!

The collection luckily sold out after a few hours, and the price started increasing before the reveal moment as it often happens in the happy path. I did a good job at identifying the peaks and sold 5 of my seeds for 1.25 Eth after all kind of fees (ethereum transaction fees plus commissions and royalties that go to the authors.)

By the way, another key element to understand what was going on: the Evolving Forest team had just raised 0.12 Eth times 9663 seeds, totalling 1159 Eth, and that’s 4 million $US in their wallets. I thought these were very well paid lottery organizers. Hopefully they will use this money to create some value for this new community and keep the game going, but they could also choose to vanish. But who cares? I was pretty happy with my $875 profit, plus 3 free seeds that I kept.

After the reveal, one of my 3 seeds appeared to be top 20% rare, one in the middle, and one in the bottom 20%, fair enough distribution I thought.

Price wise, it seems like the hype cools down after the reveal, the lucky owners hold on to their maybe expensive NFTs, but the disappointed ones sell and accept losses. It’s interesting to observe the average price in the collection activity page in opensea, I like how this system is doing a pretty good job as a price discovery system for complex projects with very unclear future value.

Average price for Evolving Forest NFTs

Based on the current average price and floor price, if I had to guess a value for my 3 trees now, I would predict 0.2 Eth for the rare one, 0.15 for the middle one, and 0.1 for the bad one.

That was like $1500, but because it was winnings money, I was not in a hurry to cash them out, and decided to just hold on to those and see what will come up from the Evolving Forest team.

The Evolving Forest

Recap:

  • Bought 8 seeds for 0.12 + fees = 1 Eth = $3,500
  • Sold 5 seeds for 1.25 Eth net = $4,375
  • Profit: 3 seeds currently valued at $1500+ $875

1.2.3 Just Steak

In parallel with the evolving forest, I also joined the Discord server of another project called Just Steak

I wasn’t really sure of what would happen with Evolving Forest because the concept could be real, or just a “rug pull”, time would tell.

But with Just Steak, it was definitely a bullshit one, and the price just seemed crazy to me: 0.15 Eth, +$500 for an experimental piece of steak!

Just Steak

Even though I joined the discord server, it was harder to get whitelisted and could not make it. And when drop date came, there was a big mess in the website. Some people could mint before, without being whitelisted, there was a gas war to get transactions approved and “front-run” others, and such a high demand on those steaks that they sold out almost immediately.

I wanted to get in because there was such a hype, and the quick flip at peak before reveal seemed easy enough to try it again; so even if I could not mint one, I bought one on opensea right after they sold out for 0.4 Eth ($1400.)

I think I just got lucky because they kept increasing, and I sold it when it hit 0.6 Eth, making a quick $700 profit.

For this one, the authors cashed about $700k to deliver some crazy bullshit about Fast R-CNN Generative Algorithms. Being myself a data scientist and a machine learning engineer, this all seemed like it has nothing todo with technology nor art. It was all about marketing and creating a quick bubble where the latest to the party get ripped off.

1.2.4 First conclusions

All in all, over 3 weeks, after spending several hours like a degen in this NFT world, I made $1500 in cash plus 3 Evolving Forest trees that can hopefully grow in value, but learnt that it’s a crazy world 99% full of bullshit, money laundering schemes and gambling mafias, and wolves taking advantage of stupid apes.

I probably got lucky, and also got helped by knowledgeable people because I work in the crypto industry. I won’t recommend “investing” in it unless someone really likes a piece of art, wants to reward its authors, or are simply happy to own an NFT for a utility they can clearly understand.

Plus, it’s definitely not scalable as an investment means, you can make a profit by speculating and flipping, but only a few NFTs at a time won’t make anyone rich, except very few lottery winners.

My NFTs wall, to keep my desk funny
My daughter’s art wall, to keep my heart warm

1.3 Building

After these first visits to the NFT casino as a tourist, I decided it was time to actually build something to experiment and learn more, so I decided to start working on 2 things…

1.3.1 What can the data tell us?

One of the beauties of crypto in general, is that every transaction is public. And in NFT in particular, the level of traceability is almost perfect, because a NFT can not disappear in a pool of liquidity then re-appear somewhere else. This is maybe also one of the reasons that makes it appealing to collectors, they can always have perfect provenance records before acquiring a token.

For instance, this team here made a great job at using the blockchain data to detect NFT projects that were gamed by expert players, and how things can go wrong in collection launches.

For my part, as a data scientist, I am interested in using this fantastic playground to investigate and make data talk about where the money is coming from, where going to, and how predictable are those patterns…

Stay tuned for next posts for the results of my research on Evolving Forest and Just Steak projects as examples where I actually participated…

1.3.2 What if I built my own collection?

Honestly, this one is motivated by ego first, seeing the work done by Just Steak project, in AI and software engineering, I just thought I can do better on both those fronts, so why not?

Second, I wanted to learn more about the internals of the smart contracts that are used to implement these collections in the blockchain, and I generally like to build one of my own to make sure I understand the details properly.

And finally, I wanted to call out the bullshit going on in this space.

For these reasons, I built this!

The 23 Pieces of Shit

It’s a 100-limited collection where the user can compose their NFT online, apply some artificial intelligence that actually works, mint a new NFT and join an experimental group to take it from there…

You can check out the pieces already minted on opensea, create you own special one here, join our discord server or follow its twitter.

To be continued…

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