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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

We’re sorry to report that NFTs are coming to Instagram

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Earlier this week, Meta—Facebook’s new parent company—announced that it is testing NFT-support on Instagram. At first, the feature will enable just a select few creators and collectors to show off their digital collectibles in posts and stories, and through DMs. 

But if terms like “NFT” make your head hurt, that’s ok. Here’s what it all means, and how it will all work. 

Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are one of the buzziest Web3 technologies. We’ve got a full NFT explainer you can check out if you’re totally new to the wild world of crypto, but in brief: Something that’s “fungible” is something in which each individual item is mutually interchangeable. A dollar bill is fungible. It doesn’t matter which one of the 11.7 billion or so bills you have—it can be swapped for any other and you still have a dollar. Most cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are based on fungible but individual tokens. Although the Blockchain immutably lists who holds which coins (or fractions of coins), it doesn’t really matter in real terms for more than record keeping (and busting criminals). 

Something that’s non-fungible is the opposite—it isn’t mutually interchangeable. Our houses are non-fungible: a straight swap would likely leave both parties in distress. In terms of dollars, an autographed bill (say, by a celebrity) is also non-fungible. While still a dollar, the signature and the circumstances around it make it distinct from every other dollar bill in existence. 

Want another example? Gold ingots are fungible. Banks don’t care which particular 27-pound bar of gold they have, they just want it locked in a vault. A gold wedding ring that’s a family heirloom, however, is decidedly non-fungible. 

In crypto, NFTs are unique tokens on a blockchain—most often Ethereum, but also on others like Polygon and Solana. While they have a wide variety of possible uses, they’re generally associated with digital art, like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, and collectibles, like NBA Top Shot. They allow for an element of digital scarcity. The Bored Ape Yacht Club is a collection of 10,000 algorithmically-generated apes—while anyone can check out the images, only one person can own each individual NFT. 

That brings us to Meta. The feature that Instagram is testing will allow a group of creators and collectors to share their NFTs on Instagram in a way that shows that they aren’t just regular images or videos, but are instead unique and different images or videos. It goes a lot further than Twitter, which has allowed people to use an NFT as their profile picture for a few months. 

Each post on Instagram will display a “shimmer effect,” have a small “digital collectible” icon, automatically tag the creator and the owner (if privacy settings allow), and display information about the specific NFT and the collection its part of. To verify all this, users will have to connect the crypto wallet containing their NFT to Instagram (though having a web-connected wallet comes with risks).

[Hed: A crypto group named a new frog species, and people aren’t thrilled]

To start, just 16 accounts will have the ability to share NFTs in this special way, and they are, as Meta lists them: “@adambombsquad, @bluethegreat, @bossbeautiesnft, @c.syresmith, @cynthiaerivo, @garyvee, @jenstark, @justmaiko, @maliha_z_art, @misshattan, @nopattern, @oseanworld, @paigebueckers, @phiawilson, @swopes and @yungjake.” For the time being, the rest of us commoners will only be able to view them, though if it proves successful, it will presumably roll out to more users. 

In a video posted to the social network, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, framed this initiative as driven by a desire to offer creators more ways to monetize their work. He explained that the test is starting small so that Instagram can learn from the community, and attempted to head off reflexive skepticism, saying, “I want to acknowledge upfront that NFTs and blockchain technologies and Web3 more broadly are all about distributing trust, [and] distributing power. But Instagram is fundamentally a centralized platform, so there’s a tension there.” He continued, saying that Instagram has the power to make NFTs available to a much wider range of people—which is certainly true, although not necessarily without potential issues. 

In a similar video on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the same sort of functionality would come to the Facebook platform soon, and then potentially to the company’s other apps. He also said the company is working on “augmented reality NFTs” that would allow for digital art to be projected into both digital and physical spaces.

Unfortunately for Meta, this announcement comes at a bad time for NFTs and cryptocurrencies more generally. Whether this move from Meta is enough to generate some interest among digital collectors remains to be seen.

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