DESENSITIZED WEB: A SURVEY OF CRYPTOLITERATURE
Posted by <Mitch Anzuoni> on 2022-02-15
It is a new morning for content creators.
No longer are the fortunes of online writers shackled to the capricious whims of monolithic feeds or the duplicities of ad impressions. The imperium of the corporatized platform has been shattered. The slate has been cleared for a fresh form of writing (and funding) to arrive, whose notions are unencumbered by centralized thought.
This is the promise of the web3 publishing company Mirror, which bills itself as “the next big change in the long history of symbolic communication.” The technology behind Mirror and other so-called web3 sites is heralded as a grand decentralized evolution of the internet, a bleeding-edge medium for commerce and communication powered by the massive innovative potential of blockchain research. Materially, though, it is just a collection of interoperable browser plugins, service providers, and standalone apps that let you trade cryptocurrency via your phone or web browser.
Thus Mirror acts much like Substack or Squarespace with its rich text editor and dedicated landing zone for your piece, but with a crucial difference: rather than your content living on some company’s proprietary server in a concrete tomb in Virginia, Mirror taps into web3 services to etch your words upon the distributed node-based ledger known as the Ethereum mainnet, thereby transforming your writing from mere textual content to inchoate cryptofinancial instrument.
Instead of ads and grant money subsidizing the written word, Mirror’s model for monetization is market speculation. For when you publish with Mirror, you are confronted with the brute transcendentalism of the blockchain. Your post is no longer just a post. You have the option to mint a limited “edition” of your writing as a digital asset which can then be put up for auction on Mirror or one of myriad other web3-connected crypto marketplaces. You can also use your post to launch a crowdfunding campaign for e.g. your novel, replete with a unique token given to backers that one day may be traded at a higher value when your novel is “published” as a digital asset and put up for, yes, auction.
In adopting this crypto-Sotheby’s approach to writing, Mirror positions itself as the harbinger of the next echelon of textual merchandising: your readers are now your investors. Rather than receiving just a book or text in exchange for their money, your readership can get a stake, some points, a piece of the action. It is not simply like Patreon where there is a fixed price given for a schedule of content; each Mirror post has the opportunity to be a heady monetary vehicle propelled by your audience.
Mirror received some early hype in April of last year as the launchpad for Emily Siegel’s novel Burn Alpha, which raised 24 ETH or approximately $76,000 (as of this article’s date), an amount that rivals a “very nice deal” from a publishing house according to Publisher’s Marketplace and from which Siegel can freely withdraw in order to subsidize her writing. In exchange for their support, each backer is prorated an amount of $NOVEL tokens, representing a fractional ownership of Siegel’s cryptonovel. John Palmer took a similar approach with his Mirror campaign, except rather than a novel, his funders invested in an essay called “Scissor Labels” and received their share of $ESSAY tokens.
Siegel’s novel is still in the early stages of writing and will be revealed on a limited preview basis to backers, so Burn Alpha’s fiduciary fate has yet to be decided by the decentralized hand. Palmer’s essay, meanwhile, has been minted and made available for consumption. “Scissor Labels”, an interrogation of hyperpop and the semantic perils of aesthetic labels, initially received 10.49 ETH or ~$33,000 in investment. When published, that is to say made available to purchase at auction, it sold for 3.5 WETH or around $11,000, leaving $ESSAY investors hodling the bag. The secondary market for turgid analysis of Twitter spats over musical subgenres couched in Scott Alexander quotes seems to be not as bullish as one may hope.
Yet even in the case of a financial misadventure such as “Scissor Labels”, Palmer himself banked tens of thousands of dollars for his essay at a rate of $12/per word, a tidy sum. Dena Yago, Siegel’s K-Hole co-conspirator, raised over $30,000 for her essay series “Blurred Vibrations” in March last year. Since then she has written an interminably long essay on Billie Ellish interspersed with links to, yes, cryptoart auctions in addition to one follow-up post in the “essay series” consisting solely of links to, yes, cryptoart auctions.
It is true these creators made real money on Mirror, but Palmer, Siegel, and Yago all had existing audiences and connections to draw from, given their respective experiences in the art and technology sectors. VCs from Andressen Horowitz, a firm Siegel “shredded” in her first book Mercury Retrograde, have invested in her latest novel. As Siegel related to Decrypt, “People in the poetry world fight over crumbs...It means that incredible work goes unfunded. And I really would love to participate in changing that.” But to what extent is Mirror a viable publishing alternative for those without institutional backing already, for those sparring for scraps? Are there even poets on Mirror?
Mirror has limited discovery capabilities and no real internal search engine. The process of finding literature on Mirror outside of what is boosted on the front page is entirely mediated by Twitter and Discord, two decidedly centralized platforms: to browse web3 writing one ends up having to descend into the morass of retrograde web2 social media.
The Dead Internet Theory, which postulates that the vast majority of online content is the product of bots or sockpuppets in a recursive hell of circular shilling, is perhaps best exemplified by cryptolit twitter. There is little distinction between the official Mirror account and just searching for latest mirror.xyz links, as it is all an endless slurry of “stories” accompanying auction embeds, essentially narrative ad copy masquerading as the biography of some collectible avatar or the “lore” behind an NFT artist’s oeuvre that is conveniently linked below and above. Much of the content reads as though it were machine generated or otherwise templated. Regardless of origin, there is little distinctive substance which has actually surfaced.
In spite of their incoherency, a few of these writeups and loredumps have themselves been minted as assets and sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars. This would ostensibly be the victory for content creators Mirror boasts of. But there is a sinister tension at play here, wherein one must decide if this is a community of readers or a community of speculators. Is the purchase of “YODA: A book of stories about DAOs - Story #1” for $242 patronage for the arts or a bet on a greater fool? The same question can be raised for the works of early Mirror adopters like Palmer and Yago, whose cultural critiques tapered off after their initial token frenzies proved to be fizzles. This is not to say that writers shouldn’t be netting $10+/word or have the opportunity to independently raise funds, but the economics of Mirror seem more oriented towards an inflation-driven search for high-yield alternative assets rather than any untapped literary interest and long-term practice. Perhaps this is why Mirror has recently pivoted from a text-first identity and to a more generous application of that useful term “publishing,” rebranding itself in January of 2022 as a web3 toolkit for any content.
The financialization of digital media by means of web3 crypto tech has resulted in a creative ecosystem where the work matters less than ever. In the alchemical snare of web3, all can be captured in smart contracts and the underlying creation is a sacrifice for its ascended life on the blockchain. What sort of art could possibly flourish in this tokenized environment? With Mirror, what you actually write is inconsequential compared to your ability to hype your $LITERATURE token. When cultural artifacts can be turned into stores of value, their new function as vessels inevitably eclipses all else. This is at the heart of the hollowness which pervades the contemporary creative landscape. Perverse incentives are inculcated and nourished, heaps of bullshit shoveled on to help the tulips grow. The long history of symbolic communication apparently leads down a teleological path in which actual communication is attenuated and where expression is compressed into stock ticker symbols.
As publishers consolidate and media conglomerates merge, there is a desperate need for the autonomous literary venue Mirror once claimed to be. Online writing has been adrift for years as independent sites and magazines such as Mask and Entropy wither and fade. Yet Mirror’s cryptographically-powered financial devices and pseudo-regulated libre markets are not an alternative. Rather, they are a reflection of the problem. Creation deserves to exist outside of capital, as a separate endeavor to defy economics and confound finance. The profit motive must be sublimated into artistic dépense. Otherwise, there is no vision which can reach beyond the horizon of the market and we wander the barren plateau of a local minima, desperately hashing anything within reach to see if there is some value to be wrung out like honey from a stone.