Alex Caton put a lot of thought into his girlfriend’s Christmas present this year.
The 24-year-old found a stunning picture taken by a local photographer of her hometown of Mississauga, 17 miles south of Toronto. In the foreground is her city and in the distance the glittering skyline of Toronto, where the couple lives together now. He thinks of it like her old life looking toward the future, to their new life together.
There is one small catch. The image he bought for around $200 is in the form of an NFT, a one-of-a-kind asset that exists digitally. Caton, a computer engineer, is the one in the relationship who’s most interested in NFTs. He’s aware that even though they talk about NFTs together and took in a real-world NFT gallery show recently, his girlfriend would probably enjoy something more tangible, too. So he’s trying to get an official print of the photo to wrap up, along with a fitness tracker.
“It’s not something I’d want to push onto somebody,” Caton said of the NFT. “I thought it would be a meaningful gift.”
It’s too late to order or find some of this year’s hottest Christmas presents, but there is one buzzy gift that’s still doable (if risky): An NFT. A virtual gift is often a fallback for last-minute shoppers, but it’s also appealing for anyone worried about supply chain issues, the rising prices for physical goods and a rapidly spreading coronavirus variant that makes shopping in person less attractive than usual.
The term NFT stands for non-fungible token, which rarely clears anything up, but they are unique digital assets, like an image or audio recording. Their ownership is stored on the blockchain — a kind of public ledger — and they can double as an investment and a kind of art, albeit one that you admire on a screen. They’ve taken off in the past year, with an NFT created by an artist named Beeple selling for $69 million at auction. More recently, Melania Trump was pushing an NFT painting of her eyes, and Tom Brady offered NFTs of his college resume and old cleats.
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They combine an age-old enjoyment in collectibles like baseball cards with the rush of gambling. For people who may have stayed away from the more purely monetary world of bitcoin, NFTs can be a more accessible entry point. Yes, you might be buying a unique digital token stored on the blockchain, but you’re also getting a cartoon of a depressed primate in a cute sailor hat. And once the recipient has one, they might hold onto it indefinitely for the sentimental value, or trade it away (the rare gift where immediately selling it off isn’t always considered rude).
As with any present, your mileage may vary. NFT values can fluctuate and they could end up worth less than you paid. But unlike cryptocurrency, they might always be worth a little something sentimentally. Many families are already all in, and know a virtual gift will be appreciated and even reciprocated. Others hope gifting an NFT will hook their loved ones so it can become a shared passion instead of something one person won’t stop talking about. But there’s no guarantee the person getting it will appreciate the gift and it could backfire, or at least be met with confusion.
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There’s the question of how to actually package a gifted NFT. You can simply put it in the recipient’s virtual wallet, but then you miss out on the drama. Usually people give a virtual representation when they can’t get the physical gift on time, like a picture of a back-ordered gadget. Making a real-world representation of an NFT is the reverse — a physical gift that’s a placeholder for the virtual.
You can print out a version to wrap or pop in a nice envelope, like Caton, who is getting a photo for his girlfriend. Kristen Langer is an art teacher and calligrapher who is planning to set up virtual wallets for her niece and nephew as a present. When you set up the new wallet you get a list of random words to access it as a recovery phrase, so Langer is going to write the words out in calligraphic style. 3-D printing company Itemfarm has seen an increase in requests to make physical versions of the images on NFTs. It involves confirming the person owns the NFT, then often wrestling a 2-D image into a 3-D file, says Itemfarm CEO Alder Riley.
For people who buy and sell NFTs, it’s usually not a casual interest. It’s the kind of hobby that inspires passion and, in some cases, talking about it to obliging loved ones. Perhaps it’s because NFTs are only increasing in value as long as more people buy into the idea. It has been compared to a pyramid scheme, but defenders say it’s no more or less an asset than sneakers, paper money or stocks. For some families, it’s more about being involved in something together than hitting it big.
Mariana Benton has a holiday list of her dream NFTs and at the top is a Cool Cat, one of a line of drawings of cats (she’s not expecting anything from the list, but just in case). Benton wasn’t into NFTs at first, but her husband Alex eventually won her over by showing her the NBA Top Shots NFTs, the league’s digital collectibles. The couple exchanged NFTs for Hanukkah.
“At first I didn’t understand why Alex was spending so much time in this thing,” Mariana Benton said. “Now it’s a whole cool new thing we can talk about.”
For the couple, who live in Los Angeles with their two kids, collecting things was already a family affair. Everyone in the house is into Pokémon cards, and Mariana and Alex collect baseball cards. Now the kids have their own crypto wallets and their 10-year-old daughter is writing about NFTs for a school paper.
“My daughter and I minted our first NFT together. We sat holding hands and clicked the button,” Mariana Benton said proudly.
Getting involved in NFTs from scratch isn’t exactly easy, and neither is giving one as a gift. First there are the technical issues — the recipient needs a wallet to “hold” the NFT, and the giver needs the right cryptocurrency to purchase it. The cost of entry is high, at least a couple hundred dollars, for the NFTs that have the potential to appreciate. There is also special lingo, different subcultures, Twitter accounts to follow and Discord rooms to join.
Alex Benton is also buying his mom an NFT for Christmas, at her request. She follows him on Twitter and wants to be more involved with what he loves, so he’s going to set up a wallet and buy her an NFT.
Unlike a nice scarf, a pair of earrings or a Swedish ax, getting an NFT is either accepting an entire world that you need to learn about, or forgetting about it like a bond your grandparents gave you and not knowing if you’ll ever benefit financially.
When Langer’s husband Josh lost his job earlier in the pandemic and got into NFTs full time, she wasn’t entirely on board.
But he had struggled with anxiety, depression and addiction issues in the past, and she saw how his new interest was pulling him out of it. Eventually she started to participate with some caveats: Kristen Langer has final say over most financial decisions around NFTs, and while they’ve invested some of their savings, it’s not so much that they couldn’t recover from it.
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“He has a pattern where he gets just stupid excited about something,” said Kristen Langer, 36. “But I really feel like it’s made us grow closer because it’s something he can teach me about instead of us coming home and complaining about our days.”
For her birthday, Josh Langer got his wife an NFT of the Scissor Sisters song “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.”
“It was my anthem in college,” Kristen Langer said. “I don’t know about resell value but this song is about me.”
Emily Cornelius does not want an NFT for Christmas. Her boyfriend, Ian Schenholm, is an avid gamer studying for the bar exam who spends hours researching crypto and NFTs online. He enjoys telling Cornelius about it all, but she’s made it clear that just because they can talk about it, that doesn’t mean she wants to be as involved.
“I don’t even want to know how to do it. I don’t ask him to get into astrology, I don’t ask him to get into color correction and how that could really enhance photos of himself,” said Cornelius, a comedian in Denver. “I would rather have something that is meaningful to me. I think that’s true of any gift.”
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Alex Caton put a lot of thought into his girlfriend’s Christmas present this year.