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Feb 23, 2022

Ruminations On PFPs

Jack Burt
Jack Burt

Writer

Why distinguish PFPs from any old NFT?

In determining why we’d distinguish a profile picture NFT (pfp) from any other NFT, taste preferences can quickly become the stick caught in our bicycle spokes. A pfp is like a good song that you hear cranking through the grocery store sound system. You know it's music because it sounds good, right?

But you like pop-rock and think Nickelback represents the highest achievement in music’s evolution. Meanwhile, your wife likes reggae and thinks Bob Marley broke the simulation with “Three Little Birds”. Don’t worry — we are not going to let this discussion descend into an infinitely regressive debate on the relativity of taste.

For now, hopefully we can agree that there are different tastes for different people, and yet there is a reason why people generally don’t listen to police sirens in their free time. Likewise, just because an NFT collection is packaged, marketed, and utilized as a pfp collection, does not mean people can't interpret and interact with the NFTs however they wish. The NFTs themselves are agnostic, they don’t care what you believe about them or what you do with them. So long as the dimensions are there and it's a jpeg, most NFTs could be a profile picture.

Take the case of Bored Ape Yacht Club and their popularity as pfps; there’s probably someone out there who snagged their Bored Ape regardless of if it was a perfect profile picture, a smart investment, or a premier community to join, but rather they privately snagged an ape solely because the ape resonated with them spiritually (they’re currently completing a PhD thesis in Neuroscience, specifically studying Chimpanzee eye-gaze in relation to frontal cortex activity, and simply put, they sometimes feel like a Bored Ape themselves, sipping on Starbucks cold brew and pushing buttons behind inch-thick glass while they prod an even more bored, less intelligent ape to watch slide after slide of photos lazily pulled from shutterstock.)

Ape sits with human skull in its hands

Others might have snagged their Bored Ape as a sardonic cash grab. They saw folks changing their profiles to apes, numbers going up, and so they bought. They never changed their profile pic and they sold ten weeks later, emotionless toward the transfer of their ape but elated by their newly plump eth balance.

Suppose though, you're neither of these aforementioned people, you’re not in it just for the art or the money. If you’re in it for the profile picture . . . if you're going to spend hundreds or thousands or potentially even millions of dollars worth of crypto on a pfp, then you probably also care to some degree whether there is an objective basis, no matter how tenuous or trivial, that qualifies purchasing a profile pic as opposed to drawing from your camera roll.

What Distinguishes PFPs?

At the risk of sounding like a network news panel, we spoke to Deeze, one of Flip’s resident experts and a sort of high priest in the NFT world.

We wanted to ask Deeze about a lot of projects, but given there are now as many pfp collections as there are stars in the milky way, we figured it’d be best to start with his thoughts on CryptoPunks as a sort of ekpyrotic starting point for pfps.

Hoping to understand in reverse, we asked Deeze why he thought punks took off as pfps in particular and Deeze had a number of poignant remarks:

For one thing, he said, punks are fitting as pfps because they utilize “super simple pixel art that is clean.” Not only are the punks colorful and attention-grabbing, but also, “one pixel differences are easy to differentiate and they look just as good when they’re 24x24 pixels as they do scaled up on billboards.”

The aesthetic measurements of a pfp are not insignificant; size, resolution, and color play a subtle factor in an NFT’s profile-pic-ability. We see it with the punks and apes, it just works. And sure, Van Gogh painted with lots of color, but if you try to upload _Starry Night _as your profile picture, all you'll see is a mosh of twisted brush strokes. In terms of NFTs, Art Blocks are a prime example of a collection, that despite massive popularity, just don’t seem to fit well as pfps (whether they’re too abstract, too detailed, or too whatever, one could debate.)

Deeze added that CryptoPunks are one of the first NFT projects that “stuck around” like a virtual family — and despite punks lacking diverse utility, the community members maintained relevance via discussion. Another og punk, 6529, plucked a similar chord on Twitter, saying, “pfps are not like fine art - 99% are worthless without a community using them.”

Ok, so perhaps what delineates a pfp is especially in social flux — its relevance is shifting according to the ocean of users who mint, purchase, and interact with it on Discord, Telegram, etc,. In this sense, pfp collections function a bit like digital country clubs, they are not just regarded for their content, but also for their historical context, their current members, and their network activity.

And maybe for CryptoPunks, aesthetics and community were enough to create the perfect memetic storm; however, these are merely descriptive factors, not prescriptive formulas. Punks were a sort of big-bang event in the pfp world. As the non-fungible environment expands and cools down, so too will the rules.

Personally, we’re still wondering what comes next. Does the criterion for what makes a pfp tighten with the passage of time, or are the parameters pulled open as we approach the future of NFTs?

Squinting into the future, Deeze had a personal hunch as to what direction pfps might take.

Future pfp collections, he said, “will need to take a lot of execution risk and tap into unique niches that aren't addressed already,” of which he cited Azuki as a prime example — a collection that pushes beyond the aforementioned CryptoPunk approach and instead plans to literally spill out into the real world with meetups, exhibits, and music festivals. While this is not entirely revolutionary (BAYC, for instance, has significant derivative uses through Kennel Club, Mutant Apes, and meetups of their own,) it's reasonable to say utility has entered the chat, people are expecting more than just a picture with their newest pfp.

Whether it be Punks, Apes, Penguins, Seals, or Azuki . . . tentatively, a limbo-bar has been set for pfps, vague lines have been draw, aesthetics, community, and now utility are hallmarks of the structure, though this wobbly pfp scaffolding begets more poking.

It seems likely that there will be many small refinements to the pfp world — there are infinite ways to mimic and rebrand the existing collections. We’re curious as to what could categorically disrupt all previous pfp models?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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