Graphic by Sriman Narayanan / North by Northwestern

Created in collaboration with North by Northwestern and The Knight Lab, NBNFTs are the first collection of generative Wildcat-themed NFTs (non-fungible tokens, but we’ll get to that in a second). Our goal for this experiment is to gauge the Northwestern community’s understanding of cryptocurrency and assess the viability of integrating blockchain into journalism.

What even is an NFT?

Think of it as owning a painting. Sure, people may make prints of your painting, take pictures or even try to replicate your work, but you still carry the rights to the original. If someone tries to assert that their own version is the original, you have a certificate of authenticity to dispute their claim.

Now take all that and transfer it online – you got yourself an NFT.

NFTs are non-fungible tokens. They can be art, music or even movie scenes. Each of these tokens are unique and permanently coded into the blockchain. The blockchain is a universally accessible ledger of sorts that is constantly updated; once something is added to the ledger it can never be altered. It’s sort of like that certificate of authenticity, except everyone in the world can access it. (You can view Bitcoin’s blockchain transactions here.)

For the people who don’t care about legitimacy or bragging rights and may not be able to get past the fact that you can just screenshot NFTs off the internet, think of it as a way of expressing creativity and supporting artists.

Shawn Smith, the art director of Threadless, launched his own line of generative NFTs called “Dumpling Pets” in April 2021. He built his crypto following through the community of fans he gained as an artist under the name Shawnimals.

“To speak more realistically, there’s always been people who create things, and then people who collect things, and it doesn’t really matter what they’re collecting,” Smith said. “If they’re interested in it, they’re collecting it.”

And for NFT enthusiasts who aren’t interested in art, they can also opt to own a permanent slice of history. The Associated Press auctioned the iconic photo, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” as an NFT alongside other historic milestones. Time Magazine is turning historical moments and events into NFTs under a collection called TIMEPieces. Last March, Quartz sold the first ever NFT news article for $1,800.

NBNFTs are our first leap into the crypto world.

So I kinda get what NFTs are. But what does crypto do?

In 2009, an individual under the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the concept of cryptocurrency to the world. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, cryptocurrency’s central purpose was to decrease individual reliance on banks, corporations and the government for currency control.

“I think the most powerful way to explain it is the idea of separating money from the state,” said CoinDesk Deputy News Editor Zack Seward. “You think about Bitcoin, that’s what it is. We’re all used to money that’s issued by our national governments, and when Bitcoin came around, that presented a new paradigm for how money can be issued.”

If you wanted to withdraw money from your bank account, you’d have to go to a bank or ATM. Each transaction is recorded on the bank’s centralized ledger. The banks hold the sole responsibility for overseeing these ledgers, meaning that most people cannot monitor how these institutions are handling our money and must depend on them to keep our money safe. Without accountability and transparency, banks are exposed to fraud, embezzlement and corruption.

Cryptocurrency implements a lot of the aspects of basic currency but offers a method of putting regulating power in the hands of the people. Instead of centralized ledgers that keep track of transactions, each person holds their own copy of what we call a distributed ledger. If one person were to make a purchase using cryptocurrency, everyone’s ledger would be simultaneously updated to represent that transaction. If someone tried to alter one copy of the ledger, every other ledger in the world would disprove that discrepancy.

“It’s gonna be fast, seamless money transfers between individuals. It’s going to be a new way to monetize your online experience as a user of various platforms,” Seward said. “I think there’s just too much momentum right now for it not to be a big part of our lives in the future.”

According to Time, the cryptocurrency market is worth more than $3 trillion as of early November. However, according to MarketWatch, only 13% of Americans have bought or sold cryptocurrency in the last year. The purpose of cryptocurrency is not to be a stock to invest in, but an accessible and feasible way to give money-regulating power to the people. To fulfill this goal of cultivating a decentralized currency, we first need to strengthen cryptocurrency involvement.

Blockchain meets journalism

Throughout this project, we have been trying to explore the intersection between cryptocurrency and journalism. Imagine subscribing to a news outlet and being given crypto tokens every week you could use to tip journalists or vote on topics to cover. Or for photojournalists, imagine a smart contract that activates each time one of your photos is used or shared that gives you a little chunk of crypto royalty.

With this project, we’re trying to do what others have also done before us. In 2016, a startup named Civil attempted to create a blockchain-based media platform that would decentralize how news is assessed and change how journalism is funded. Civil created and sold its own crypto token to try to raise $8 million to help jumpstart its project but failed to reach that goal. The organization eventually shut down and its team was absorbed into ConsenSys, an Ethereum software company that develops blockchain-based applications.

While we’re by no means trying to be the next Civil, cryptocurrency not only has the potential to streamline the journalism industry, but also the capabilities of rewarding journalists with secondary sources of income. Starting on the small scale, we’re hoping to educate individuals on the possibilities of cryptocurrency and implement its capabilities in a controlled environment. At the Knight Lab, we’re working to incorporate the over encompassing topic of cryptocurrency into journalism, starting with one NFT at a time.

Meet Solana – and learn how to buy an NBNFT

Different types of cryptocurrency require different types of wallets. For this project we are using Solana (SOL) as our currency of choice.

Why Solana? Let’s briefly talk about crypto’s environmental impact.

Bitcoin, Ethereum and other mining-based forms of cryptocurrency consume immense amounts of energy. Miners, through a process called proof-of-work, are required to complete energy-intensive puzzles in order to record new transactions on the blockchain. According to The New York Times, Bitcoin mining requires an annual 91 terawatt-hours of energy. This is seven times the amount of electricity used by Google’s global operations and more consumption than the entire country of Finland.

As opposed to Bitcoin’s proof-of-work process, Solana operates on a system called proof-of-stake. Instead of complicated puzzles, individuals use their own cryptocurrency as collateral and are able to update the blockchain and earn rewards, as long as they don’t go offline or validate bad transactions. You can read more about proof-of-work vs. proof-of-stake here.

While exploring the capabilities of cryptocurrency, we also want to uphold environmentally-conscious practices. In order to create a sustainable crypto system in journalism, that also means considering ways to minimize cryptocurrency’s environmental impact.

We will be releasing additional details about our launch date, mission and roadmap very soon. In the meantime, here’s a trusty little guide from Geek Culture on how to set up a Coinbase account, create your Phantom wallet and buy some SOL.

You can follow NBN’s twitter for all NBNFT updates.