Alienated Nerds

NFTs as gentrified fandom and the destruction of cultural autonomy in the digital age


OK Fox is a self-described "old head scene queen" who's been programming shows and organizing cultural workers since teendom. In addition to co-hosting the Art and Labor podcast, he often does drag as Josh Gr0ban Gilgamesh. In light of NFTs finally going bust, Fox sat down with TNI managing editor Charlie Markbreiter to discuss horny Sonic DeviantArt, the impact of online payment processors on fandom, and the attempted anti-trans era.


OK: Maybe we should start with TCAF, or the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which took place in April. Lemme start by saying TCAF was widely regarded as the best larger scale independent art festival in US/Canada. It took place in the largest, most accessible, and all around most functional library I've ever been to. They were able to fly in artists I love from Japan like Usamaru Furuya, Gengoroh Tagame, Inio Asano, and Junji Ito. They also provided a section of free tables curated by the local Toronto DIY scene. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, all of that changed. For their first in person show (after 2020 was obviously canceled), they announced a totally unknown NFT artist as one of the featured guests. If you go from a legend like Inio Asano to a transphobe who traces Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz Guy), you're done, I'm sorry to say it! The fest also ended their relationship with Wowee Zonk, the local free table section. 

CM: So that’s how an esoteric Canadian comics festival/fandom meet-up becomes an NFT launching pad. This move went against everything TCAF was supposed to stand for, but in an era where most “independent” movies come from the A24 factory and “alt” directors like Greta Gerwig are directing Barbie, no one could afford to care. The kind of broad federal support which enabled TCAF to be accessible to a wide range of artists and fans did not exist anymore, which is how you get a public-private partnership aesthetic.

However, if there are obvious differences between the world of alt comics and NFTs, the TCAF example is generative for pointing out some of the similarities. There is a lot of crossover between alienated nerds in fandoms and alienated nerds who like NFTs. Which makes sense when you consider how much NFTs borrow from fandoms aesthetically. NFTs are one of many failed attempts to monetize the internet; which, in this case, meant creating a system of exchange value around aspects of internet culture which had previously just existed online for free as e.g. memes. That’s why so many NFTs look like what would happen if tech bros started making horny Sonic DeviantArt graphics. I guess that’s just what Bored Ape-style graphics are minus, crucially, the horniness. In any case, while fandom aesthetics and communities are considered cringe, it’s been easy enough for NFT artists to cherry-pick these fan visuals and turn them into private property, giving them the patina of culture, if not the social capital of “good taste.” And, like all forms of gentrification, the fandom to NFT pipeline performs a political function as well, defanging former sites of counter-hegemonic, or at least ambivalent, socialization. 

In 2017, the artist now known as Mushbuh, who had been immersed in AI and crypto since childhood, launched itemlabel, a sizable community of plushie consumers. Using Japanese artist/musician Emamouse as the face and voice of the company, itemlabel reached isolated fandoms, from trans furries on DeviantArt to alt comics readers. In 2019, Mushbuh tabled the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF) with a vague book about online consumerism and bootleg Pokemon stickers; in 2020, Mushbuh began making NFTs. You once told me that NFTs are gentrified fandoms, both aesthetically and materially.” What did you mean by that? And why is this worth discussing, even though the NFT bubble has burst?

OK: I was responding to the rise of corporate influence in physical spaces that were once a haven for independent art. As a glorified ~*~𝒐𝒍𝒅 𝒉𝒆𝒂𝒅 𝒔𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒆 𝒒𝒖𝒆𝒆𝒏~*~ I've seen this process play out many times before. 

The consumers and producers of horny DeviantArt are a powerful market, and although the majority of users have rejected DeviantArt’s NFT-ification, they lack the ability to actually control the platform. Historically, these platforms were used as a way to find fandom IRL. The commodification of fanart would happen via printmaking, and the money exchanged for it was mostly physical, whether it was individual or at smaller, more decentralized events. Eventually, the state, via the private corporations that control it, needed to “disrupt” the convention market. One way gentrification can start is via an important, traditional, beautiful field of art: bootleg toys and media. 

Hollywood’s embrace of Comic Con and big tech’s rise as a payment processor fundamentally changed our relationship to fandom. Like the fine art world before it, fandom has become a site for speculation and extraction. This abstracts our relationship to production, which makes it harder for us to organize as workers, aka why we get endless grievance hashtags like #comicsbrokeme instead of functional and transparent, schools, festivals, guilds, or unions that build worker power.

I want to link online payment processors to cryptocurrency/NFTs, because the slimy worms who created say, PayPal, are the same cohort pushing dogecoin to da moon or whatever. Their libertarian ideology was forced onto people like Mushbuh when they were children. The embrace of fandom memes by Mushbuh and their publisher PEOW was an early indication of the internet’s influence on physical content. 

Around this time, Mushbuh enlisted Emamouse to promote their plushie company, itemlabel. When Mushbuh minted NFTs in 2020, they used images of Emamouse’s work alongside popular Japanese media like Animal Crossing. When fellow festival workers and cartoonists denounced NFTs, Mushbuh’s publisher PEOW took the common libertarian position of, “Have you heard about airplanes?” as a cudgel against criticisms of big tech’s environmental impact. After Mushbuh and their publisher were rude to me about their involvement with NFTs, I decided to figure out how much money itemlabel was actually making or holding in assets. I won't dox their real name, but that's when I learned Mushbuh had been immersed in cryptocurrency since childhood. 

Trans people are often early adopters of emerging online platforms because these forms of communication can assuage dysphoria and many users are able to find resources for transition that were previously unavailable to many parts of the world. At the same time, private owners are competing for larger influence over the means of content production. NFTs, the metaverse, and the gay CIA rebrand are all attempts to re-entrench ruling class authority. The anonymity of the internet allows us to explore transness when it isn’t often possible to IRL. For better or worse, we have come to associate ourselves with the avatars next to the names and handles we define for ourselves online. 

Our ciphers are often existing IP transposed to our unique styles. I want to stress that I enjoy these artists and publishers. Emamouse has created a fantastical version of living in a city that is constantly advertising to you, and the advertising you do when you relay your sensual experience of it to a digital audience. They mesh their experiences of themselves using a rendered and physical mask that is their only publicly known face. Their comics are colored pencil drawings with a parade of characters often layered with experimental panels or rendered in extreme depth that pulls the viewer further in. Their music is a noisy mixture of video game overtures and distorted idol-like vocal snippets that sound like a cutesy commercial. Combined, Emamouse creates the isekai of everyday life; another dimension walks among us, and we can address and embody it whenever we want. 

A popular enough mascot becomes a commodity, and post $DOGE, it can become a digital currency as well. This is what Emamouse refers to in their comic “The Darkness of Modern Society.” In this work, the drudgery of manual labor creates a monster of alienation in an already sad and isolated people, who, as we come to find out, are actually characters in a TV show. The monster is us: reading, watching, and buying t-shirts of “The Darkness of Modern Society.” The same “We can’t beat them, might as well become them” conclusion is present in the comic “978-91-87325-43-4” by Mushbuh. Named after the physical book’s ISBN, it similarly implicates the reader for buying the book that allows the reader/author to live in the literal clouds, isolated from people like farmers and fast food workers. 

Both of these works are responses to commodification, extraction, and speculation of our identities that already happened while we were children on the internet. Their nihilistic view that workers have no hope of controlling our future and saving our planet made them clear marks to push this worsening technology—crypto, NFTs, AI, and the platforms themselves. 

CM: Even if NFTs are discursively and materially over, the fandom to NFT pipeline you laid out here is helpful because it shows what’s going to happen to trans culture online––or, rather, is already happening, as Mushbuh, Emamouse and itemlabel’s work reveals. The first generation of trans native internet users (aka the first generation of horny trans DeviantArtists) caused geographically isolated people to become friends and also to transition. Which meant that, suddenly, there was enough of a critical mass to start making material demands for housing, healthcare, and culture. We can maybe call that the “trans visibility era,” which began in the late aughts, ran through the 2014 “tipping point,” and ended with the election of Trump in 2016. 

What we’re experiencing now is the backlash to the “visibility era,” the “anti-trans era.” While increased “visibility” helped trans people find each other, it also helped our enemies find us. And, without proportional material gains, visibility led to hyper-visibility and political targeting, both as a specific reaction to trans peoples’ material demands for healthcare (this is what historian Jules Gill-Peterson has called the state’s effort to “become cisgender”), and as part of America’s more general push for a white christian ethnostate. What this also means, to bring it back to our conversation, is both political repression online such as shadowbanning trans people on TikTok and Twitter, and a property grab, as failing tech platforms use decades of user data to develop extractive AI technology (a scenario in which both the data and the user operate as sites of extraction). There’s something deeply depressing about the fact that, unable to have shared IRL spaces, so many trans people formed communities online––only to have everything they built get used to build the technologies that will automate them. 

At the end of the day though, it’s not only about NFTs, but about asking (to quote you lol), what are the conditions which produced them? How did NFTs come to seem not just profitable but inevitable? To answer this, we need to look at how Big Tech gentrified culture, both online and IRL. We need to look at Williamsburg.

OK: NFTs were a great jumping off point for this conversation, but they were always an experimental gambit. Even more pervasive is the ability of payment processors like Square to collapse huge swaths of the economy with zero accountability or oversight. NYC has lost the ability to have public improvements without further entrenching its relationship to big tech. Private tech companies should not control our school books and transit. 

When I was a teen I was desperate to find more people like me, and I was lucky to be enriched by so many beautiful art spaces in NYC. I gravitated to Williamsburg where the Jewish socialist side of my family is from, but now it causes me so much mental anguish and anxiety to be there. It's disorienting to walk through a place that was so important to my social life as a young adult where so much has been erased. People get similarly sentimental about virtual spaces, but it’s pretty easy to navigate from The Matrix Online to Skyrim. The anguish from being gentrified from a place you physically grew up in is exponentially worse. Losing your family home because an Apple store decided to open on your block is a much larger issue. Big tech/media industry treated Williamsburg like an incubator and won. How did we allow that to happen?

Vice the magazine always existed as a conservative project to compete with alt weeklys and local zines. There were functional print media mechanisms for sex workers to get gigs and trans people to find community; in the seventies, there were hundreds of feminist bookstores in network with each other. The AIDS crisis was perpetuated in order to disrupt real power that queer-friendly, working-class neighborhoods were building. As soon as manufacturing jobs became somewhat safe and stable due to union influence, they were outsourced. I believe that further militancy combined with a dedicated pro-immigrant socialist program with international ties would have been needed to prevent the collapse of NYC’s working class autonomy. The collations that won us the concept of rent stabilization had been squeezed by disease, fed assassinations/propaganda, and the upward mobility that happens when labor gains aristocracy. 

Post-industrial Williamsburg gave rise to cheap warehouse rentals. Art spaces flourished during this time, but like the previous waves of gentrification, failed to organize against their landlords, who decided to sell the warehouses to developers. Vice physically gentrified community art spaces like Death By Audio, and manufactured consent with white imperialist talking points and nihilism. All this and more was laid out by the (sadly now defunct) activist group Get Artist Paid and their #StrikeVice campaign.

Recently, there have been calls to switch DIY (do it yourself) to DIT (do it together) because without a grounding in a social/political project, art spaces become another cog for the libertarian, capitalist, and fascist elements in power to utilize.The fall of small presses to Amazon, Kickstarter, and NFTs, and the fall of Williamsburg as a neighborhood for affordable culture and music are inextricably linked. Instead of hitching our art on a few small business owners and a prayer or putting all our eggs into the internet, we should be actively participating in and collectivizing the distribution of our work.

CM: These examples are helpful in tracking the political alliances forged between various corporate gentrifiers. In addition to more explicitly right-wing views like transphobia and racism, what we see is (especially from Vice) this more politically nebulous strand of nihilism. I mean, this piece will come out after NYC has been bathed in forest fire smoke, making it the worst air quality in decades (although conditions like these have been normalized in parts of Asia for years now thanks to a manufacturing boom aimed at satisfying western consumer demands). So it’s not like doomerism comes from nowhere. 

But rather than generating a potentially radicalizing despair, this active encouragement of nihilism tries to make it uncool to care about material reality. That’s been the consequence of the switch between the 2010s—“woke” era, influencer era, algorithms keyed to respond to Big Emotions—and the present, which is a retreat into the aesthetic, individual and the minor, and a splintering of digital monocultures into self-conscious niches. This isn’t everyone, of course: social media algorithms work by giving us what they know we like already, which means that, if you’re still into Gerblin-like content, that’s what you’ll get. But it is a growing ethos among trans posters, which is why it feels relevant here.  

At first, I took this as a failed politics. Like, you’re not exposing or pushing back against the means of content production. Rising stars of social media no longer even favor pre-vibe shift style content; they favor photo dumps with off-kilter selfies. It’s not anti-content, just expressing competency in the most updated form of content production. 

But now I understand that this is also incorrect: while the corporate takeover of queerness is less explicitly violent then anti-trans legislation, one of its greatest counter-insurgent effects was to make trans liberation so cringe––so associated with corporate extraction––that it seemed like the only way to fight back was to paradoxically be apolitical. It wasn’t that trans people e.g. stopped facing housing insecurity, but that talking about it made you sound like an infographic. It didn’t matter if you were right; you sounded like an op. As my friend James Factora pointed out in conversation, both of these movements (the corporate takeover and the de-politicization of trans) stemmed from white people, which makes sense, since they’re the ones most likely to benefit from both. This isn’t to say that QTPOC don’t do it, but that when they do, “it feels,” to quote James, “very…pick me.”

As a result, when the anti-trans backlash really ramped up, operating in an explicitly political register, the trans liberation movement had been so defanged that most people didn’t know how to respond. Responding apolitically was no longer cutting it, but responding politically was still cringe and op-like. So now what?

I think we’re finally seeing a backlash to “talking about trans politics = cringe,” but it isn’t really coming from trans people pushing back, just a change in circumstances. First, as the anti-trans movement gains traction, it’s becoming more untenable for people to argue that talking about trans politics is just corporate woke-speak; because politics is now materially affecting their lives once again. People are losing healthcare access, many trans Floridians are  evacuating their state. The other reason for this change is aesthetic: after a certain point, being nihilist all the time becomes just as unfeasible and fake as caring about everything all the time. 

Instead of psychedelic nihilism (nothing matters), I’m partial to Algorithmic Dada. I’ll start with the Dada part first. Historically, Dada emerged in response to the horrors of WW1, which many viewed as a source of needless carnage, especially young people, who were forced to serve in the army. Perhaps we can draw a historical parallel to COVID, which was also a source of needless carnage, especially for young people who were e.g. forced back to school without proper protections, or to serve as essential workers once their parents died and they suddenly became the family breadwinners. But moments of social collapse are also necessarily collapses in meaning-production. The Dada artists rejected reason or aesthetics; the war was nonsense, so they were, too.

The “algorithmic” part of Algorithmic Dada reflects the post-pandemic rise of AI, as corporations seek to replace workers with computer programs that can’t get sick. As Ed Ongweso Jr., Meredith Whittaker, and Sarah Myers West recently reminded us, AI doesn’t have consciousness. The data sets AI analzyes belittle human capacity, but that’s also not the same as “thinking”––the computer is just doing input/output. So Algorithmic Dada is an attempt to metabolize this contradiction, in which AI is both a superior pattern recognition mechanism and a void. Though like all aesthetics, you can also use this negatively, it’s context dependent: teens love to troll Libs of Tik Tok, but Libs of Tik Tok also loves to troll teens.

What Hito Steyerl recently called “mean images” feel like Algorithmic Dada’s opposite. The “mean” here signifies both nastiness and the kind of statistical averaging which machine learning relies on. Image generators take complex data sets, find the average and make the image off that. The forms of difference and potentiality suggested by Algorithmic Dada are combined and averaged out. Unlike traditional photography, which marks what exists, mean images do not have a referent in reality; they instead describe what is “most likely” to exist. 

OK: Right! I was so happy to see mother Hito's take on AI being aligned with our thinking here. Social media IS gambling, and the house always wins. Perhaps Algorithmic Dada is the "Janus face towards the commons," but I tend to be pessimistic about salvaging good parts of digital life. A small press publisher had an event recently that a lot of comics people I really like were involved in, but they were deliberately trying to cause a scene by inviting tradcath people to perform. They're not even getting the Peter Thiel money directly! Just auditioning for it! It's truly pathetic that this is the state of a once thriving physical publishing industry. The publishing industry doesn’t need social media, it could exist in its own regional, physical, sphere of influence.

I want to stress that we should take our dependency on the internet very seriously. People, in particular children, are now having to be treated for computer addiction. There are several class action lawsuits about the effect Instagram has on teenagers. Facebook's own internal documents reported the harm the amount of screen time we're forced to dedicate ourselves to for our money, friends, etc is actively harming us. Being under constant surveillance is a form of torture. New media extraction is often mental, so it can be harder to quantify the harm it causes. For now, a kid on social media is normal, but hopefully this era of history will be just as shameful someday.

Although it’s difficult to separate from the industry around it, art is a rare space where we can take a breath and process what we're constantly consuming. I feel less scared about the Great Water Wars when I’m surrounded by people in a brilliant collective fight for our futures. I definitely unplug from the algorithm that makes me scared by plugging into the absurd, but beyond that, I get immense strength from organizing with my neighbors and fellow art workers. We deserve liberation, freedom to practice what is sacred to us, as well as rich, long, and healthy lives. Getting there requires massive organizing so that we are no longer burdened with high rents, low wages, and psychically damaging data extraction.

I want to see an empowered international proletariat in my lifetime. To control the means of production in the internet age will require some form of Luddism. Meaning, a movement based around the destruction and rejection of tools the workers cannot have collective ownership of. Current iterations include “right to repair” legislation. (Readers, if you’re enjoying our psychedelic discussion of internet culture, definitely check out this syllabus my friend Nick made for a class based around the book Breaking Things at Work by Gavin Mueller, which gives a history of the Luddite movement.)

CM: Digital labor is automated, surveilled and exploited with algorithmic precision, making it difficult for the working class to control. But, instead of trying to beat the algorithms, some users are dropping out of the game. If the latest iPhone was the status symbol of the aughts, in the 2020s, having a fliphone––or no phone––is now much more chic. Crucially, it’s not a form of resistance: it’s just an updated status symbol, one that, most often, only the rich can afford, versus e.g. the kinds of precarious labor like delivery service or rideshare driving, which require smartphone access. But for the laptop class, the decreasing material returns of non-stop digital labor are now less than the reward of free time. Millennials loved to be clouted only for zoomers to (correctly) troll them for overvaluing a digital labor economy which will never love them back. Especially since, as the tech industry deflates, we can finally see the digital culture industry for what it is: a desperate stopgap propping up the American Empire, our top export after carcerality and war. 

Neo-Luddism is one part of the anti-workism trend which has soared since the pandemic began, from the booming r/antiwork forum, unionization efforts at mega-corporations like Starbucks and Amazon. Perhaps we could end up discussing some artists who use fanart aesthetics towards Neo-Luddite ends, such as metropolarity, furry artists, and Doc Future (Topher Florence). And you, of course, haha. 

OK: Gig work shouldn’t exist, we can and should have a functional way of life that doesn’t create a subservient class of people who face the elements and disease for anyone else who can afford to shelter in place. I don’t think there is a conscious Neo-Luddite art movement yet, although I am doing everything I can to actively encourage one lol. Over the years, I have been very influenced by Metropolarity, a collective of sci-fi writers based in Philadelphia. Their work often recalls the nineties cyborg feminist autonomous scene that was influential to the early internet, and they’re very critical of technology’s relationship to empire. Crucially, Metropolarity is a collective based in a physical place, and they’re building community centers with their direct neighbors. 

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Topher Florence, who is criminally under-appreciated as a video artist. His work has never been given proper retrospective and is more vaguely known in the early Something Awful jokey-memey realm. How many more pieces about dril do we need while other architects of internet creativity languish in 14.5k subs? I also want to throw out the cut-up collage movie Earth II by the Anti-Banality Union and The People’s Joker by Vera Drew as brilliant collective endeavors that are critical of privatized media ownership and its gatekeepers destroying the planet. 

My personal artwork has always been influenced by the furry community. Further Affinity was a project where we encouraged our art school friends to in some cases go back to their roots, and in others try to experiment with taking furry commissions. The result was some of the most unique furry art and pornography ever published. Participating in smaller art markets where people truly appreciate craft or attention to making their fantasy character more fully realized is life giving! It’s a way to pull out of the big absurd bucket of all unconscious thought and actually process where you are in relation to another person. 

Handing someone a zine I made and talking to them about their zines in turn is always going to be more valuable to me than watching numbers go up on a post. I refuse to be pessimistic about these spaces in relation to the larger market share in internet content. Perhaps these events must stay small to ensure sustainability. I’ll pass the same $20 at the comics fest for the rest of my life, and I am dedicated to making opportunities for others to do the same.