For years, blockchain and crypto have been clawing their way into mainstream consciousness. This year there has been a surge in interest in one area of this emerging technology – NFTs. Created using blockchain, these "non-fungible tokens" are unique assets in the digital world that have exploded in popularity, creating new economic possibilities in everything from art to gaming to real estate. But one particular subset of NFTs is showing increasing cultural dominance.

PFPs (essentially profile picture projects) are displaying such a significant impact on our digital identities that are allowing for wider mainstream adoption of NFTs within pop culture.

Most of the general public isn't aware that we as a society have had digital identities for significant portions of our lives. Myspace, GooglePlus, blogging and Friendster were the crude first frontier of digital identities before the current emerging era of the Internet referred to as Web3.

Those on the Gen-Z/Millennial cusp, are the last generation to remember what life was like without a cell phone. Family memories such as baby pictures were still captured on film with disposable cameras and polaroids and many of our initial interactions with the world were still analog. Society did not convert to being digitally native until after the first half or quarter of our lives had passed. Similarly, Millennials and Gen Z were the native users and early adopters of most social media platforms, not our parents. 

As a result of this new digital society, those 35 and under have become accustomed to building identities online as a way of communicating our identity and finding community. PFP NFTs are being adopted by those in the Millennial/Gen Z cusp in the same way that consumers have historically aligned and identified themselves with certain fashion brands. All companies that connect to their consumer through their brand need to take note.

NFT NFT Photo: A M Hasan Nasim / Pixabay

By collecting physical assets, the buyer signals their values through the personality of the brand. Supreme is the best example of a brand building a community through fashion. Their brand is less valued for the craftsmanship or products Supreme sells but holds more value for what it means to wear Supreme. A person wearing Supreme will be seen as edgy and upwardly mobile while a person wearing Chanel may be seen as more sophisticated, traditional or belonging to a wealthy background. The wearer is recognized as having certain attributes based on the brand they're wearing. 

It is natural that PFPs have now evolved to reflect similar values, which is where crypto culture and community come in. PFPs are NFT collections typically consisting of thousands of procedurally generated artworks using an algorithm that makes sure no two images are the same. PFP Projects are often the highest grossing NFT projects on Opensea, a major marketplace dedicated to these tokenized digital assets. A Sotheby's auction of more than 200 non-fungible tokens of Bored Ape Yacht Club, a monkey-themed PFP collection, fetched $24 million.

Last week in New York, it seemed the world's leading financial center had been taken over by NFTs in much the same way our online life, such as on Twitter, is filled with people's PFP avatars. There were 15 different NFT-themed billboards in Times Square coinciding with the NFT.NYC conference dispersed across six venues with 600 speakers and a waitlist for attendees of more than 3,000.

The sudden mass adoption of PFPs signals a move in our collective consciousness as recognizing that PFP assets are just as valuable as major fashion brands. As more and more people seek to build digital identities, we're looking to have more safety, security and control over how they are monitored and controlled. Our digital identities are currently controlled by centralized corporations like Facebook/Instagram, Google and Apple. 

By making our digital identities decentralized through crypto communities, we take back our ownership of our online identity. PFP communities have sprung up on social media networks like Discord and Twitter, allowing for an avatar-centered identity that is built around community values and less on personal identity, career or physical characteristics. 

Part of the draw of owning a PFP is that by holding this NFT, one gains access into exclusive club of members such as messaging platforms like Discord and Telegram for collectors, and the community that has been generated there is extremely active. Members also have access to additional NFT assets that are airdropped to their account and increase the value of their collection. The exclusivity of this membership acts as a Metaverse equivalent to Ivy League level status. 

Companies need to take into account this new sense of identity if they are to retain connections to their brand. 

"Building communities on-chain will revolutionize how brands align with grassroots taste-makers and change-agents to support the adoption of decentralization within the larger ecosystem of consumerism," Karsen Woods, Chief Experience Officer at 888tnw, said. "Founders can have direct relationships with their community through linear strategies rather than a top-down approach. It’s no longer about who spends the most money to support your company, it’s about who champions momentum on behalf of your entire community."

(Chad Knight is an American contemporary digital artist, the head of 3D Design at Nike and a former professional skateboarder.)