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11 June 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:37am

Anthony Weiner shows the downsides to the NFT meme boom

The ex-Congressman and convicted sex offender raises the question: can the commodification of shame really bring about ethical redemption?

By Sarah Manavis

It all started with a bit of bad luck. In 2012, an unflattering school yearbook photo of a teenager that was titled “Bad Luck Brian” went viral. The image became one of the most common memes of the 2010s, and its subject, Kyle Craven, the face of millions of jokes. But Craven’s photographic misfortune has now become a major financial gain – he and his friend, who uploaded the image, ended up selling the original meme for $36,000, as an NFT

The NFT meme boom is now in full swing, with the forgotten stars of the 2010s selling their infamy for sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. NFTs – non-fungible tokens – are certificates of ownership for digital items, verified through blockchain technology (essentially a digital ledger that tracks the finances attached to certain items). The woman featured in the Disaster Girl meme sold the original image for $473,000; the brothers who star in the “Charlie bit my finger” video sold the original clip for half a million pounds last week. Other subjects of derision from the late Noughties are starting to consider how much they could make if they converted the digital media that made them famous into NFTs. 

Now, one of the most unlikely internet icons of the 2010s has hinted that he’ll be joining them: in a recent interview in the New York Times, ex-Congressman and failed New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner said he was thinking of “cashing in” on his public failures by turning his digital mistakes into NFTs.

Weiner first came to international prominence in 2011, after accidentally tweeting an explicit picture of himself originally meant for a private message. Alongside this tweet, other digital relics of Weiner’s past include embarrassing texts sent to mistresses (referring to himself as “Carlos Danger”) and receipts of campaign donations, such as one from Donald Trump (Weiner’s wife at the time, Huma Abedin, was vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign). In 2017, Weiner was convicted for sending sexually explicit messages and images to an underage girl, and spent 18 months in prison. 

[See also: Why we shouldn’t rush to celebrate Ollie Robinson’s suspension]

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Yet despite his seedy criminal record, Weiner’s digitally-recorded mishaps could make him thousands on the NFT market – which begs the question: should they? Should it be possible to monetise your downfall, no matter what the moral and ethical implications were to it?

Weiner’s NYT interviewer, Ben Smith, doesn’t see the issue, arguing: “Why not? It’s not really clear what else Anthony Weiner can do. We don’t live in a moment with much room for redemption — even if, like Mr. Weiner, you’ve served hard time for your sins. It’s hard to know what society wants from someone like him.” 

I’m not so sure. There’s something unnerving about Weiner – a convicted sex offender – making big money from pictures of his dick, or cashing in on a controversial Trump campaign donation. Yes, Weiner could offer hope to those who’ve been hounded out of society for minor online mistakes (think any non-famous person cited in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed), but he also presents a new opportunity for those existing in a moral grey area to circumvent the experience of true consequences – finding a way to publicly perform some version of shame and remorse while quietly benefitting from financial gains that outweigh it. 

If Weiner does succeed in the NFT market, he would also usher in new incentives for what could be described as “behaving badly”, by showing how that bad behaviour can be commodified. Now, there’s money to be made by posting deranged tweets or offensive pictures (they would, however, need to go viral). The NFT meme boom is likely a bubble, similar to the NFT market more broadly, but alongside the lack of space for redemption Smith wrote about, we are also living through an era of decreasing need for accountability. NFTs like Weiner’s would serve to exacerbate this. Being “cancelled” can already become a career path – this would draw an even more direct line between public shame and monetary gain.

[See also: The trouble with Instagram infographics as political discourse]

The issues around NFTs in general go well beyond Anthony Weiner. The market is fuelled by cryptocurrencies, which leaves these token’s true value in a constant state of flux and in some cases makes them impossible to cash out, meaning investors play with their hypothetical money in the art world. They are damaging to the environment (one ten-second auction can equate to several megawatt-hours of energy). And one of the creators of NFTs, Anil Dash, has also explained why they are bad for artists: “The current NFT market is drawing an extraordinary range of grifters and spammers. People are creating NFTs of artists’ works without asking permission or even letting the artists know… And in this art market, no one is obligated to have any taste or judgment about art itself.”

But even with the precarious nature of NFTs as a baseline, this latest development is worrying. There’s no way to police whose shame is worthy of profit: we can’t stop someone paying Weiner tens of thousands of dollars for explicit tweets or campaign donations. And if you’re willing to turn a major profit off the back of your worst digital transgressions, are you really experiencing shame? 

Ultimately, there is no feasible way to keep private owners from selling to private sellers, nor to draw an ethical line where someone’s shame is too deserving to warrant financial gain. Like so many online trends, the NFT meme boom is empowering to those like Bad Luck Brian whose identities have become a punchline, but can by hijacked by those who’ve been rightfully maligned.  

[See also: Are you “cheugy”? How a Gen-Z vs. millennials war has been manufactured]

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web