Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia, is selling a non-fungible token (or NFT) based on his first edit. Christie’s will auction the token from December 3rd to 15th, with the Strawberry iMac Wales was using at the time of Wikipedia’s inception. The money will be used to support charities and WT.Social, a donation-based social network that Wales launched in 2019.
Wales’ NFT is essentially the keys to an early version of Wikipedia, which first appeared in January 2001. He told the website, “What you see shown is what Wikipedia looked like at the time I put up the programme.”
The single page will be made public on the internet, and anybody will be able to see and amend it, just like Wikipedia itself. However, after five minutes, all modifications will be undone, returning it to its original state: a single edit reading “Hello, World!” in keeping with programming tradition.
The NFT is a smart contract that gives its buyer ownership over a website and is published to the Ethereum blockchain. The customer has the option of changing the window for reversing modifications, as well as turning off editing or shutting down the page if they so want. They can also adopt a hands-off attitude and delegate page management to Wales.
The initiative is essentially comparable to Sir Tim Berners-earlier Lee’s sale of the source code for the original web browser, which he tokenized and donated the money from to charity. Wales could have easily sold the website without utilising blockchain technology, but he claims that the notion of publicly documented and verifiable ownership motivated him. “I believe what’s really intriguing is that for the first time, we have a publicly distributed, immutable database,” he explains. It also doesn’t hurt that NFTs are a hot commodity that may fetch astronomical prices at auction – Berners-source Lee’s code token brought in $5.4 million.
Wales’ WT.social platform is a paid social networking experiment, but it’s not in the vein of Friends With Benefits, which limits access with high-priced cryptocurrency tokens. It’s free to join, but members are encouraged to pay for a membership, similar to Wikipedia’s patronage model — a tactic aimed at eliminating the negative incentives that ad-supported services may create online.
Wales has a tumultuous connection with blockchain technology in general. While the Wikimedia Foundation welcomes Bitcoin donations, he claims that the amount generated so far “hasn’t been tremendous.” Many of the planned uses of the technology to Wikipedia, he believes, are inappropriate, such as allowing users to pay editors in bitcoin for the “best” contributions. Wales adds, “I’m thinking, yes, it seems like a perfect method to let Exxon decide what the page says about Exxon.” Permanent blockchain storage, meanwhile, might make it extremely difficult to censor Wikipedia, but it would also make erasing nasty, libellous, or privacy-invading updates a nightmare.
However, Wales believes that NFTs have the potential to augment traditional ways for artists to generate money, particularly in the context of online culture. He cites examples of meme photographs being sold as NFTs, which has no effect on their availability but allows people to gain from online popularity in a way that intellectual property law hasn’t allowed them to do so thus far. “People just spread [memes],” he adds, “usually in ignorance of or in violation of any intellectual property rights – someone posted a great picture, and it got viral, and now it’s everywhere.” “It’s all quite difficult to enforce.”
“We’re still very, very far from mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies”
Wales also draws comparisons with the dot-com boom and collapse of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period in which some businesses failed due to a hype-fueled bubble, while others just debuted with business plans that were not technologically possible at the time. “We’re still a long way from popular use of cryptocurrencies,” Wales argues, citing the inconvenient nature of the technology as well as its negative environmental consequences. He points out that, while Ethereum is now quite energy-intensive, it is expected to transition to a more environmentally friendly and perhaps more user-friendly system in the future. “I believe that as we progress in that direction, a lot of use cases that people aren’t really contemplating will suddenly become more intriguing,” he adds.
For the time being, this NFT is intended to provide a glimpse into the debut of Wales’ own internet-changing endeavour. “The aesthetic aim is to transport people back to the time when I was setting up the website and realised, ‘Wow, this is incredibly vulnerable.'” Editing is something that anybody can do. He says, “It may just demolish the whole thing, and I’ll be overrun by trolls in five minutes.”
“The artistic concept is to take people back to the moment when I set up the website,” says the artist.
At last month’s NFT.NYC event, Wales recalled exactly that scenario, joking about how someone might create an early version of the homepage that was destroyed by trolls. Which begs the question: might someone offer an NFT based on Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia whose material is entirely openly licenced for reuse?
“Because this is a personal kind of art project of mine that I’ve been noodling over, I specifically chose a moment in time before anybody else had ever touched Wikipedia because I didn’t want to have a feeling I was exploiting something,” Wales says. And if you implied an NFT was an official Wikimedia Foundation project, you could run afoul of trademark law. But otherwise, “with everything on Wikipedia, it’s freely licensed,” says Wales. “So if you want to do anything, you pretty much can.”