In March, a piece of digital art by graphic designer Beeple sold for $69 million at the auction house Christie’s. The sale was backed by an NFT, or nonfungible token, which secures ownership rights to artwork through a digital record of the transaction, much like how physical art changes hands. This year, the NFT craze has spawned sales in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, be it for a New York Times story or Jack Dorsey’s first tweet or the Nyan Cat GIF.
For many NFT collectors, the objective is to help financially support artists and claim bragging rights for owning an original piece of digital art. But Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah—who run the storytelling platform Lioness, which helps brings stories of workplace abuses to the media—saw an opportunity to capitalize on the enthusiasm for NFTs for a new purpose. “There was all these different ways that NFTs were being used and riffed on,” Scorah says. “And we noticed that no one had yet used them to bring attention to a social issue or to an individual story and kind of harness the power of the NFT for activism.”
Today, Lioness published an essay from an unnamed source alleging misconduct by a prominent wellness guru and alternative medicine practitioner, when she was a guest at their wellness center in the 1990s. Along with publishing the essay, Lioness has minted an NFT on the platform Foundation, using a diary page that the author wrote in 1998, back when the events she describes allegedly unfolded.
Steinhorn and Scorah felt the page offered a powerful reminder to readers that a real person was behind the allegations, despite her anonymity. “Here was the perfect visual artifact that illustrated exactly what this story was about,” Scorah says. “It was written by this young woman who was in her twenties at the time. It’s really raw, and it feels very authentic to the experience of a young woman who is confused and doesn’t understand exactly what she’s getting into, and is messed up about it.”
As a small firm, Lioness also had concerns about the potential legal repercussions of publishing an anonymous account with allegations against a deep-pocketed public figure. (Lioness had courted several publications with the story, but they were unwilling to publish allegations from a single anonymous source.) To help protect both the author and Lioness, any proceeds from the sale of the NFT will be directed into a legal fund, for use in the event of a lawsuit or other legal action; bidding on the NFT will officially open next Thursday, September 23, at 1 p.m. ET. “We’re cementing it forever onto the blockchain,” Steinhorn says, “and in the process of doing that, hopefully, getting a bid that will allow us to continue this work.”
Still, NFTs are a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s not clear this approach will call attention to the allegations or appeal to a limited pool of potential bidders.
In some ways, Steinhorn says, this NFT is a successor to the one recently sold by model and writer Emily Ratajkowski, which was aptly titled “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution” and intended as a statement about who should profit from her image. (The NFT ended up selling for $175,000.)
“It’s not a vanity project anymore,” Scorah says. “It’s not the artifact [or] object that is the goal. It’s actually a means of showing support, a means of trying to shift culture, a means of trying to hold powerful people accountable.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated and revised to highlight the newsworthiness of the use of nonfungible tokens as a tool for activism.