NFTs as a carrier of karma: The usefulness of the useless is the greatest use

I was exchanging New Year greetings and having a casual chat with my writer friend Alice through email, and naturally, we started talking about NFT books. Alice said, “Just a weak question, so when you buy an NFT book, you get a different cover design…?”

This sentence is by no means insignificant. Firstly, the term “just a weak question” is equivalent to hiding one’s true intention. When the question is truly weak, the questioner would not add this preamble.

Secondly, Alice is a writer who is very knowledgeable about blockchain technology. She has purchased my NFT book, and we have had in-depth conversations about cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and other concepts. If even Alice has such doubts, I cannot expect others to understand deeply.

Lastly, this is probably my allergy: I am afraid of ellipses… especially when I encounter people in my work who end every sentence with an ellipsis. I always wonder what they have omitted. Please, I need to grasp all the information; why can’t you just be clear? Or is it because “if I’m serious, I lose”? Is it just that we have different understandings of grammar, and the other party thinks that the ellipsis is just the meaning of a quarter rest? Alice is an influential writer; when she uses ellipses, I can only interpret it as “you still have many unclear points.”

Alice’s comment made me realize that I have not explained the concept of NFT books clearly enough. So after I thought the topic had come to an end, I wrote this article.

Fishball Theory: It’s not about giving me two more, but taking away two from others

Although it’s a yes or no question, simply responding with yes or no is obviously not comprehensive enough. The implicit question is, “What exactly do I get after purchasing an NFT?” This is a very reasonable question. Since it’s a transaction, people naturally expect to receive something after paying money.

Some people might simply interpret buying NFT books or subscribing to newsletters as donations. Since they don’t expect any returns, the question of “what do I get” becomes irrelevant. I don’t advocate this interpretation, but I wouldn’t say it’s wrong either. After all, there’s no absolute boundary between donations and transactions. For example, participating in crowdfunding the development of a smart coffee machine can be understood as “purchasing” a share of hope, a parallel world where a smart coffee machine exists. Whether you get scammed is another matter.

Let’s try comparing other types of books to understand why the situation of not knowing what one gets only occurs with NFT books.

Buying a physical book is easy to understand because, like buying rice, vegetables, cars, or property, consumers know clearly how much they pay and what they get, which they can hold, see, and even smell. Buying a physical book gets you a physical book.

It’s hard to imagine now, but buying a traditional e-book was once difficult to understand or at least difficult to accept. But today, even those who haven’t accepted it should understand that buying a traditional e-book allows you to download the text through a computer, tablet, or e-reader, granting you the “right to read.”

As for NFT books, because I adopt an atypical license Creative Commons, readers buy not only the “right to read” but also the “certificate of originality.” Visually, this certificate is a unique cover and author’s signature. Receiving the text after purchase is actually the same as with traditional e-books, but it suddenly becomes difficult to understand. The key lies in “unauthorized copying is not pursued,” as I make the text available for those who haven’t purchased it. Digging deeper, this is a variation of the “Fishball Theory”.

Most Hongkongers know that the “Fishball Theory” was invented by Dayo Wong, who has become a legendary figure today. In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, Dayo Wong held a stand-up comedy show called “Out of Charcoal” where he introduced the Fishball Theory. The story goes like this: someone bought a skewer of fishballs and found that another person had two more fishballs than they did. Instead of asking for two more fishballs, this Hongkonger actually demanded that the other person’s two fishballs be taken away.

Why is the feeling of not gaining anything from purchasing an NFT book a variation of the Fishball Theory? It’s because what we complain about is not paying and not getting the text, but that others also get the text, and we don’t feel our gain. Ironically, the easiest and most direct way for everyone to understand what they get from buying an NFT book is not by providing more features or better service, but by taking away two fishballs, no, taking away the text of the book from others.

This is even more absurd than the Fishball Theory. Taking away two fishballs from someone else at least saves some food in the world; but digital content can be infinitely copied, and putting the text of the book behind a paywall only creates a group of people who cannot access knowledge, without bringing any benefit to the world. I’m often accused of being irrational, but at least on this issue, I can’t agree.

However, this doesn’t mean I’m blaming consumers, thinking that I’m always right and others are wrong. Absolutely not. Human rational thinking is a beautiful misunderstanding. Many decisions in consumer behavior and daily life are often irrational. Two of my favorite books, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and “Predictably Irrational“, have plenty of examples on this. As a product designer, if you only blame consumers for being irrational, have no ability to make them rational, and don’t understand how to hack irrational consumer behavior, you will eventually be a failed product designer.

After reflecting, I decided to take away two fishballs from the hands of free readers. First, I removed the conspicuous “Download unauthorized copy” button from the book’s introduction webpage. Second, I asked Liker Land to modify the web3 bookshelf interface so that only NFT holders can download the text of the book when browsing the NFT book page.

Why do I, who has long upheld the democratization of knowledge, compromise so easily? Because it’s not a compromise at all. The text of the book has been clearly marked CC-BY, already uploaded to IPFS, and metadata written on the blockchain. There are many ways to download for those who are truly interested in reading. Not having a download link on the official website may be inconvenient, but if it’s too easy to access, people won’t value it. Raising the threshold slightly can be seen as a “proof of work” for readers to prove that they want to read. Otherwise, it’s “proof of stake” by paying to purchase an official copy.

In fact, I have made it very clear myself, “encourage original copies, allow unauthorized copies, and eliminate pirated copies.” Unauthorized copies are only “allowed,” not encouraged. If there is demand, there will be supply. Why bother making unauthorized copies yourself? It’s always doing thankless tasks, so foolish.

It took me more than a decade to figure out such a simple thing, even though I claim to be flexible in my thinking.

Empowerment: The usefulness of the useless is the greatest use

In addition to taking away two fishballs from the hands of unauthorized-copy readers, a positive approach is to give two more fishballs to the official-copy readers. This way of thinking is called “empowerment” in the NFT industry.

Empowerment, as in granting functionality, is known as empowerment. For example, holders of the Shi Yuan Fried Chicken NFT get a free drink every day for life, which is a form of empowerment. In the fan economy, typical NFT empowerment includes joining a fan club, participating in offline events, or having priority access to purchase concert tickets. In short, NFTs provide exclusive privileges rather than access to content.

In 2021, when NFTs were the freshest and most popular, there were many discussions about empowerment. Interestingly, NFT experts generally do not advocate empowerment. The reason is simple: in modern language, empowerment is not cool. In ancient language, the usefulness of the useless is the greatest use. In plain language, empowerment makes purchasing NFTs a “utilitarian” act of buying functionality rather than just supporting idols or appreciating art. The lack of purity is a minor issue, but the limitation of imagination is a major one. Empowerment provides an anchor for pricing, making people associate the price of NFTs with the total price of all functionalities, making it difficult for NFTs to achieve sky-high prices.

However, an NFT without empowerment doesn’t mean it has no functionality; it just hasn’t been solemnly defined in advance. The most basic and inevitable function is ownership, even if it generally doesn’t mean that others cannot use the related content.

As for further functionality, one possible outcome of not having a definition is that nothing will happen in the future, or even that the NFT issuer can’t be reached. Of course, industry common sense is that even with promises, it’s still possible to not find the issuer. But another situation is that although nothing specific has been promised, the NFT issuer will remember the support and look for opportunities to repay in the future.

Last week, I sent red packets to all the readers who bought the NFT book “Moneyverse: How money works in the multiverse“. I didn’t explicitly say it, but it was actually a form of post-hoc empowerment. I never promised or even thought of giving red packets to NFT book holders beforehand, but readers still bought the original copy, and I am grateful for that. I thought that as long as there is an opportunity and the ability, I would repay the supporters. And the Lunar New Year was my first opportunity.

NFTs are a carrier of karma, filled with your support and kindness. Through the immutable nature of the blockchain, nothing can be taken away except the karma that follows you. I won’t cheaply fool you into believing that good people will always be rewarded, or that good deeds will inevitably bring good rewards. But at least, as a certificate of the original copy, NFT books indeed help me remember the readers who once supported me. I will find you. And I will thank you.

Extended reading

  1. Promote originals. Allow reproductions. Eliminate piracy.
  2. 怎麼去擁有一道彩虹?與五月天聊 NFT
  3. 《小王子的領悟》番外篇.擁有

My articles are not put behind a paywall and are all open for reading. If you like this article, please collect its Writing NFT to support writing and preserve journalism.


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