My Reddit avatar could not look like me if it tried. None of the hair options available can really match my receding hairline that combines a widow’s peak and an ebbing ocean tide. I’m just one of those internet users who doesn’t much care how I present on an internet forum.
Other users care much more, of course. Some care so much about how they appear online that they will literally pay for it. Reddit recently introduced its own set of NFTs, available for purchase, all while trying to not use the term “NFT” anywhere in its original announcement. The company would later admit that these new avatars were indeed tokens of the non-fungible variety, which opens up a whole can of worms on why the company’s opted for this and if users are fully prepared for what they’re getting here.
Reddit tried to make its set of NFT Collectible Avatars, as “simple” as it could, also making it easy to connect their “MetaMask” wallet registration to a user’s account. The NFT avatars are linked to the Polygon scaling network tied to the Ethereum blockchain and can be sold on the OpenSea NFT marketplace, which the forum company called “one of the top NFT auction platforms around.” Reddit takes a 5% cut of each sale, of course.
Earlier this month, Reddit opened up a new promotion to try to get its users to create a crypto wallet by handing out free NFTs to about 50,000 prolific users of the platform. The company eventually wants to hand out free avatars to 10 million users. It’s hard to gauge the overall opinion of hundreds of millions of active users, but Redditors haven’t organized blowback to the move on the scale of other communities like video gamers or tabletop roleplayers.
Perhaps some of that is due to Reddit’s messaging. In an interview with The Verge, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman said he’s against even using crypto terminology in any of these announcements. He said “it just confuses people.” Blockchain tech is opaque at the best of times. It combines terminology of finance and technology, two industries well-known for their complexity of language.
Based on the interview, Huffman is well aware of the problems in the crypto scene. He called much of the crypto stuff “extremely distasteful and counter-productive… parasitic and delusional.” He added that Reddit’s business model is not “let’s sell NFTs to crypto people to make a bunch of money” but instead to “to put identity and reputation into a third-party database.”
In response to Gizmodo’s inquiry about what resources Reddit provides to let users understand this push into blockchain, the company said “We’ve been very open and public about the project, and have explained the technology along with our plans here and here. We’ve been transparently communicating with users (here) about hosting and security.”
Still, in none of these promotional posts are these avatars ever even referred to as NFTs. They do refer to the avatars being “on the blockchain,” which requires a wallet. The company said “Having Collectible Avatars on the blockchain gives you - the purchaser - ownership over your Avatar, no matter where you want to take it, on or off Reddit.” However, this explanation does not reveal the true, complicated ins and outs of ownership related to NFTs. These non-fungible tokens act more as a digital receipt, not ownership of the file itself. The complicated issues of trademark and copyright related to NFTs are still being explored.
Avoiding precise language in an effort to clear up confusion, or perhaps due to the stigma Huffman admitted NFTs have, might end up being counterproductive in the longrun, as users end up buying avatars without knowing what they’re getting or how to securely maintain a crypto wallet.
The CEO said that one-third of active Reddit users have created their own avatars after the company released its avatar builder for the platform. The company has done other avatar promotions with big-name IPs as well, but the CEO said this emphasis on user-created content—with this new focus on NFTs—is more in-line with what it envisions for the forum. Huffman said this focus on identity lets users “reveal your hobby without revealing your race… reveal some of your style without revealing your age or your gender.”
So, why are NFTs and blockchain tech necessary for this? Well, Huffman likes the idea of artists, especially active Reddit users, selling avatars, letting them earn money from other users. He calls NFTs “closer to actual ownership” than other digital goods, since they are not beholden to any one company. Mind you, such non-fungible tokens are very much beholden to the blockchain platform itself and the centralized website where such tokens are listed.
This can prove to be an issue for Huffman’s proposed utopia. Former OpenSea staff has been charged with insider trading, all while the platform has routinely struggled to deal with what is effectively NFT plagiarism and fraud. Not to mention, there have been major heists on OpenSea through phishing attacks, allowing hackers to walk away with $1.7 million in digital goods.
Meanwhile, the Polygon blockchain ecosystem has become a major source of apps of all stripes across both the De-Fi scene and centralized blockchain ventures. It claims to be less environmentally harmful than other blockchains, though there are many holes in that argument. Digiconomist wrote back in February that Polygon’s contracts on the Ethereum network do increase the overall carbon footprint for the blockchain.
Based on the interview, Huffman is very critical about how blockchain technology has been used so far, and he doesn’t want to make any kind of overt claim to be reinventing the wheel.
Reddit’s not the only social platform to squeeze NFT avatars into their existing systems. Twitter and Instagram allow for NFT avatars, which of course costs a bit extra to display. Snapchat is considering letting users turn NFTs into filters. Twitter product lead Esther Crawford told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year “We want to support this growing interest among creators to use decentralized apps to manage virtual goods and currencies,” which is of course a load of jargon and nonsense.
Compared to other social platforms, Reddit is trying to emphasize the user side of the equation with its focus on artists active on its forums. However, the problem with deemphasizing jargon in efforts to increase usability is that it has the potential to mask the issues with systems like OpenSea that facilitate these trades. It’s incredibly difficult to explain blockchain technology in any concise, and comprehensive way, but leaving out the specifics of this tech when introducing it to users might not be the answer either.