Dieter Shirley, NFT pioneer, talks about his creation’s past and future
Notes from the Dapper Labs-hosted International NFT Day event.
It’s golden hour in Vancouver, and English Bay is bustling. Nothing looks out of the ordinary at the Seawall. What does seem out of place is the line of people spilling out of CRAFT Beer Market on the east side of Beach Avenue.
They are not queuing for a show or a comedian or a concert or even a local DJ. No, they’re here to pay tribute to a different acronym, one that didn’t even exist five years ago, but, in 2021, became Collins Dictionary’s word of the year: the NFT.
Inside CRAFT, strangers made small talk as they scaled the stairs to the restaurant’s upper level. “What brought you out tonight?” asked an engineer to a couple a step above him. “My wife,” was the response that was shared, followed by a collection of laughs. However, this gentleman’s answer was not reflective of most other attendees. The people I spoke with were not dragged along with their significant other. They came willingly to mark what they believed to be a significant occasion.
On Wednesday, September 20, 2017, Dapper Labs' chief technical officer, Dieter Shirley, published what’s referred to now as ERC-721. It’s the standard from which NFTs are built. In his proposal, the term “non-fungible token” was first coined. Since then, NFTs have kickstarted a new era of digital ownership and innovative ideas. On Tuesday, September 20, 2022, the first official International NFT Day, enthusiasts around the world celebrated the novel technology's fifth birthday.
So why did Dieter do it? In an interview with Joanna Tran, a Dapper communications lead, in front of the sold-out captive audience, Shirley outlined his original thinking. Seated in front of an NFT Day-branded backdrop, he recalled the team exploring blockchain technology at product studio AxiomZen, and how they landed on cats as a way to bring the technology to consumers. The resulting project, CryptoKitties, is well-known, and famously “broke” the Ethereum blockchain.
When creating the cats, Shirley reflected on the idea that “every cat would be individual, and the cats themselves would have personality, and the cat that you chose would say something about your personality – it was really important that those things were individual.” But at the same time, his team recognized that an important factor in the new world of digital ownership would be the power to collaborate and build a community around projects. In other words, creators needed to be building using the same manual.
“Interoperability is cool, right,” Shirley posited. “One project doing one thing is awesome. But when a bunch of projects can all work together, and somebody new can create something without having to recreate all the infrastructure around it, that's even better.” So ERC-721 was his proposal to the Ethereum community that there should be an interoperable standard for things on a blockchain that weren't fungible.
“That spoke to a lot of people who had never been interested in blockchain technology before,” Shirley reminisced. Later on, he added that it “was really gratifying to see a bunch of people, creative people, artistic people, people who wanted to build communities, and not just a portfolio, getting involved in this technology. And so, that's what it is today.”
What “it” is today is an NFT-driven multi-billion dollar market of products, communities, marketplaces, and tools. As Decrypto once declared, “ERC-721 has grown to become a pillar of the Ethereum ecosystem, underpinning billions of dollars worth of NFTs.”
Though Shirley’s company Dapper Labs is now focused on its own Flow blockchain, there’s an argument to be made that they’ve done almost more than any other company to bring awareness to the world of digital collectibles – and welcome new users.
The NFT Company
Spun out of Axiom Zen in 2021, Dapper’s purpose reflects the bold vision it has for blockchain’s place in society. “Blockchain is the biggest thing to happen to the internet since the iPhone,” its website reads. “It will reshape how we use and interact with digital worlds. But for this technology to realize its real-world potential, it needs to, y’know, be used. By people. Real people, in the real world—not just industry insiders and early adopters.”
To that end, not only did Dapper build its own blockchain, but it’s developed – at a staggering pace – a slate of popular NFT communities that includes collaborations with the NBA, NFL, UFC and Spanish football league, La Liga. It also created its own crypto wallet called – you guessed it – Dapper. And it’s caught on quickly with 2 million global users that have completed 20 million transactions valued at over $1 billion, according to its website.
As part of the live conversation, Tran, the Dapper communications lead, asked the audience, “Who here bought an NBA Top Shot moment as your first NFT?” Many hands went up, including mine. An NBA Top Shot moment was my first-ever NFT purchase, as I explored the space last year. But why that NFT? The simple answer for me is that I’m a sports fan, and it turns out, I’m not special.
Today NBA Top Shot has 1.5 million users and has processed 20 million marketplace transactions worth over $1 billion. A lot of those owners are people like me, sports fans, according to Shirley. He says there were people already in the Web3 community who thought that Top Shot was cool because it brought in new people to Web3. There were people already into Web3 “because it’s hard” and “normies don’t get it” – and they were not as enthusiastic about Top Shot’s arrival. And there were the general NBA fans who Shirley said became “the strongest cohort in our community.” They were “people who were true fans of the sport, were collectors of physical collectibles, and realized that there was now a legitimate digital collectible that had durability, support, verifiable scarcity, and verifiable authenticity. They were definitely the biggest part of our fan base.”
From that perspective, Dapper’s mission to bring blockchain technology to the masses, “not just industry insiders and early adopters,” is not fulfilled. But, it’s clearly headed in the right direction.
The future of NFTs
Now the question is, will this momentum continue? Or, as Tran put it to Shirley, against a market backdrop of declining NFT trading volumes, “What do you say to someone who says NFTs are a fad?”
Shirley’s response was both direct and contemplative. “I think NFTs are too big and too broad to be a fad. I think the yoyo was a fad. I think the hula hoop was a fad. I don't think toys are a fad.” In his view, there may be certain projects or flavours of NFTs that go out of style, but not the whole category. “I don't think the idea of a digital, individually trackable, verifiable piece of property will go away – that's just too broad of an idea,” he added.
He went on further to say that anyone who thinks they know where the industry is going should buy some lottery tickets. He suggested they must have a crystal ball better than anybody else. “Human creativity is boundless,” he continued, “and I think the most important thing we did when we finalized the ERC-721 was to make sure that we kept it simple. We didn't attach anything to it other than the absolute minimum to allow for interoperability so that we could maximize the amount of creativity that people could bring to it.”
“I think there's a whole group of people who haven't really tried their hand in this way of expression,” Shirley said, a nod to the billions of people who have yet to experience NFTs and to that passage on his own company's site: "Real people, in the real world.” Concluding on a bullish final note, he said, “Once they get into it, they are going to teach us a thing or two about what's possible.”
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