During the heady years of dotcom fever in the late 1990s, two phrases commonly bandied about were “content is free” and “content is king”.
Prior to the worldwide web, providing content to the masses involved committing it to paper, celluloid, vinyl or the airwaves – all expensive processes – but the public were willing to pay, assuring that content creators got their cut.
Come the popularisation of the internet in the early 1990s and that all changed. Finding an earnings model that reliably rewards content creators and owners has been a bugbear ever since.
Many of the market players addressing the parallel MarketingPulse, eTailingPulse and Entertainment Pulse online sessions, organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council earlier this month, said non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the rise of Web 3.0 could provide the answer. Addressing a fireside chat titled “Digitalising Entertainment Experience with NFTs”, Melody Hildebrandt, President of Blockchain Creative Lab, summarised the history of content distribution over the internet.
“Over the arc of the internet, using Web 1.0 we could read things on the internet. Web 2.0 was reading and writing; users could easily put things out in the open through the new social media model. Now we have Web 3.0 which is read, write and own. We can own digital assets. Property rights have moved onto the internet.”
While social media platforms own content at present, under Web 3.0 it is the creators who will own the rights – and NFTs would prevent the endless reproduction of content, Ms Hildebrandt said.
Many Hongkongers gave relatively little attention to the rollout of the worldwide web as it coincided with a momentous occasion in the city’s history – the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) recorded the events leading up to, and after, the handover and copies of the paper, especially the front pages, quickly became collectors’ items.
At a MarketingPulse talk titled “Reinvent & Revitalisation: Preserving History on the Blockchain to Ensure Immutability with Decentralised Ownership”, Gary Liu, CEO of the SCMP, shed light on the company’s NFT venture, ARTIFACTs, which aims to develop a standardised metadata structure to put historical accounts and assets on the blockchain.
Hong Kong’s 118-year-old newspaper of record showcased how it decentralised ownership of its historical journalism and aspired to build an ecosystem around the preservation of history on the blockchain by launching collectible NFTs from the Post’s archives.
Mr Liu said media organisations across the world could replicate physical artifacts as digital assets on blockchains. The SCMP aimed to create a standard for media groups seeking to take their digital assets to market.
As it set about marketing NFTs of front pages as artifacts, the SCMP wanted to offer cover pages with historical resonance – hence the decision to choose 1997, handover year, for the NFT drop.
Fielding questions from Andy Ann, NDN Group CEO, Mr Liu confirmed reports that the initial drop, for the first half of 1997, sold out quickly.
“Collectors care about preserving history so we sold out in two hours,” Mr Liu said. “Collectors came from all over the world. We split 1997 into two drops – the second will be handover day to the end of year.”
Mr Liu said the archive project was the SCMP’s first foray into the metaverse, pointing out that three words which have been much-discussed recently – blockchain, the metaverse and Web 3.0 – were all based on decentralisation of the internet. Assets will be owned by individuals, not just big tech firms. The metaverse is a virtual world where people can own and transfer assets as they do in the physical world.
Mr Ann asked how this would impact the media industry.
“We are trying to figure out what will definitely be the impact. But it is all about attention; if users shift to another system or world then media firms have to go there,” Mr Liu said.
The metaverse is all about content, he pointed out. In the physical world many things are not content. But in a metaverse everything is content – and while this will upend industry it will also create many opportunities for content creators. In order to own content, you must have smart contracts and be able to prove content is original and belongs to you.
Mr Ann asked what challenges media firms faced in using NFTs.
“First you need to get the business and mission right. We consulted with many people from various industries and countries to see their needs, such as archivists and museums, [to help us] develop standards. We still need to fine tune this.
“The second big challenge was engineering – the technology is very new and we had to learn from scratch, which was why it took longer than initially hoped.”
Mr Ann asked what tips Mr Liu had for other media firms seeking to use this model.
“The NFT world is all about community; people are engaging with Web 3.0 because centralised internet technologies no longer fit their needs. Everyone wants to belong to a mission larger than themselves.”
He pointed out there had been many scams related to these new technologies, as well as many bad projects where founders had not figured out who their communities are. The user base can see through such flaws.
Community is also critical for Ms Hildebrandt at Blockchain Creative Lab, a subsidiary of Fox Corp established last year as the firm realised the potential of NFTs.
Fielding questions from Liz Shackleton, Founder, Chime Consulting, Ms Hildebrandt said Fox focused on live entertainment and could sell many old assets. The firm forged relationships with content creators such as leading chef Gordon Ramsay and many sport series, as well as Fox News. This gives the firm a lot of intellectual property and access to strong fan bases.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) content is well-suited to NFTs, she said. Basing the NFTs on wrestlers with unique, colourful masks could tap into the drama of the show with fans able to vote on which of the wrestlers should be unmasked. Success would take them to higher levels in the community. She said Fox was targeting the mass fan base rather than the traditional crypto community.
A performer with a massive fan base is country singer Dolly Parton (main picture), who will use blockchain to stream a live concert. Ms Hildebrandt said Blockchain Creative Lab had to consider design issues for this event. For Ms Parton, an eco-friendly blockchain was very important – she did not want a heavy energy consumer like the "proof of work" protocol Bitcoin, so they used Eluvio Content Fabric’s blockchain which applies an eco-friendly “proof-of-authority” protocol.
Ms Hildebrandt said Dolly’s fans are not digital natives or crypto speculators, so they developed a specific site, welcometodollyverse.com, which is easy to sign in to and obtain a cryptowallet. “There is no need to cook up a 16-character password, Ms Hildebrandt said. “People are comfortable with self-custodianship of assets in this way.”