Creator Stories Episode 7: Sean Bonner
Art, music world and communities.
This article is a transcript of a live interview conducted by Jenil. If you want to attend our next Creator Stories episode, join our Discord and follow us on Twitter. We hope you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as we did! 😉
Hey Sean, we're excited to have you here! Could you introduce yourself to our audience that might not know you and talk further about your background and what led you to build the Crowd community?
Sure, thanks for having me. I will go all the way back to the beginning. In the early nineties, I started a record company when I was in high school. It was the very first thing I really did outside of a crappy job at a grocery store aha. I was working with creatives friends and tried to build a community around art and music, and building communities has been my consistent primary goal for over 30 years now.
I spent a lot of time in the music industry and then migrated to the art world. I was primarily doing a lot of design work with bands and ended up working very closely with artists. From there, I just shifted to spending all my time with artists.
I ran an art gallery for many years, and I was very early on the internet. I was promoting the record label and all of these things on IRC, going on Mosaic to try to build a webpage way before all of the stuff was happening on the internet. It was in 1991 and 92.
Internet and tech have always been hand-in-hand with creative work, and I've always looked at it as just another tool in that box of things that you can use to help do more fun and creative things.
I then started spending much more time online, doing online community kind of thing. I helped set up one of the first blog networks in the early two-thousands. The company was called Metro blogging. We had about 60 blogs worldwide, with maybe 10 to 15 writers on each one, writing about things happening in their cities. It was the very early days of local journalism and how blogs were shaping.
Slowly, I moved away from the art gallery to spend more time on communities and started hanging out in Hackerspaces and doing more physical work. I learned a lot about the DIY culture of music and art at this time and how it was starting to impact technology.
Then in early 2011, there was this earthquake that hit Japan. I realized that I was in a good place to help because I knew many people worldwide, a lot of people in tech, a lot of people in hardware, etc.. I decided to help create a nonprofit called Safecast. Our primary goal started out with helping out in Japan. It then grew to be more of a global project where we collect and publish environmental data. We have a hardware and a software platform that allows volunteers worldwide to collect and publish ecological data. Our solution is now used by governments and institutions.
That's what I've spent most of the last 10 years. As part of our work, we worked with many universities and did a lot of blockchain research to try to find ways to aggregate that data and validate it on-chain to ensure that it's not changed. As part of that work, we co-founded the blockchain research lab at Keio University and worked very closely with the digital currency initiative at MIT.
Now all this time on the side, I've always been a photographer. I've always carried a camera with me, and I've been documenting things along the way. I've done photo exhibitions, a book on street photography etc..
At the end of last year, when NFTs became trending, many of the artists and creators I had always been in touch with started asking me questions about blockchain. It just seemed like the perfect combination of several areas that I had spent a lot of time in.
Initially, I just started trying to help people and explain things, help people not get scammed, try to help them understand what was going on with it, explain what a token is, what a smart contract is etc.. But I'm a very hands-on person myself. I can't just sit back. I have to dive into it myself and understand it better. So I started minting my own NFTs and started thinking about social tokens and all of this stuff. That's how I ended up finding Coinvise, on the recommendation of another friend.
I also have an extensive mailing list with several thousand people that I send notes out to each week to talk about stuff I'm interested in. That's called the Crowd, which was the impetus for the token that I created with Coinvise. I've been distributing them out to people in that group, and people are getting on board with it.
Separately I've also been helping build a community for artists focusing specifically on NFTs called discord.art.
These are all the primary things that I do. And then, in addition to that, I'm still helping several artists that I worked with all the way back when I had the record label or the art gallery.
I'm just really immersing myself in every corner of what's going on.
This is amazing. I would love to know more about when you were working on the record label and art gallery. What was it like back then, when you were building this community? How did people come together? What was the core idea?
With the record label and then with the art gallery afterward, in both of those, we were just doing things that we liked even though they weren't accepted by the music industry or the art world or whatever.
We had the choice of either groveling around and knocking on doors and begging other people to pay attention to what we're doing, or just build and not worry about whether the established people in these industries would like it.
I've just found people that were passionate about the same things as me. I tried to build something around my passions rather than tried to get acceptance.
I like it. There shouldn't be any validation. There should just be like, you do your own thing, and people take it or leave it. It's typically artists that have this approach.
Exactly, and it's an aspect that really attracted me on multiple levels to Web3 projects.
Web3 feels like we're back in the nineties when anything was possible, and we had many raw tools in front of us. We could build whatever we wanted to. And I think this is a feeling that was lost quite a bit during most of the web 2.0 era. Companies would let you come in and do these specified things on their platforms, but that's it, and you had to work within these managed constraints dictated by companies. It was much more limiting. I'm a big fan of creative limitations, don't get me wrong, but I don't think that most of what came out of Web2 was creative limitations. I think that was more a sort of corporate mandate.
With Web3, what we have in front of us right now is almost a different fork on the evolution of things that are happening online. Much closer related to the Web1 days, and that's very exciting.
I think there are two narratives here. There's this narrative that many artists or creators are into this idea of building an empire or building a huge audience or distribution. Then there's this other narrative that they don't really care about tools. They care more about whatever gets them to better capture the network effect. What is the approach that fits you? What do you think about this?
Well, I don't think it's any one of those things. I think it can be all of those things at the same time. I think artists are perhaps, more than other people, comfortable with the idea of having only a handful of supporters, and those supporters are making everything possible. That's what being an artist or an indie band is. Their goal has always been not to find millions and millions of fans but to find a few hundred or a couple of thousand fans that allow them to do their thing.
A lot of artists just want to make art. They don't want to have to stop making art to go work a job that they hate. They want to find ways to keep making art, so they're open to considering whatever tools are available that might enable that.
So I don't think it's necessary they're either super excited about the network or super enthusiastic about the tool. They might find the network and the tool.
Interesting point of view. I would like now to expand a little bit more on art. Now that we have NFTs, and almost everything is financialized, how do artists think about art? How do you see this notion of financialization everything?
I think it's a little of a misconception to act or believe that things are only financialized now.
Things have always been financialized. Artists have always been trying to make and sell art. What's changed is that it can be done faster now because many middlemen have been removed. Transactions that might have taken weeks or months can now happen in seconds. The thing is that you get these speculators, you get all of these people jumping into it who are just trying to see what kind of a return they can get 12 hours from now, and I don't think that's very good for art. I think most artists realize that's not very good for them in the long term, but it might be really great for them in the short term. Like anything, the dust will settle on that. I mean, anytime there's a new thing, there's a bunch of people who jump in, they find it super exciting, there's a bunch of chaos around it, and then it settles down at some point.
I think we're seeing little bits of that today. But it's coming in waves. If you think of the percentage of the population involved with any of this, it's such a tiny fraction.
Some people are impressed that this thing has been crazy for a whole year already, but that's nothing compared to what's going to happen once millions and millions of people are involved.
I think we're going to continue to see these kinds of waves of speculators who jump in and then run away. There'll be waves, but I think the people who are finding ways to do sustainable work and find ways to use these new tools that allow them to create what they want will continue to grow.
Let's now dive a little bit deeper into your work about NFTs and social tokens. What are some of the goals or ideas tied around your NFTs? Obviously, you're creating art and building a community, but what are some ideas you're trying to achieve?
Sure. So I've been primarily creating NFTs of my photography, and I'm looking at that just as kind of another format. I've done books and gallery exhibitions, and so I'm very comfortable with the idea of different types of additions for things. You can have a very large print that could be sell as a one-on-one NFT, you can have a smaller print that's an edition of 10 or something, and that's what I like, trying different things.
I'm looking at NFTs first and foremost as just another format in which I can sell my artwork. But I'm also really excited about the utility that comes along with that.
For example, we have a Discord Server called discord.art, where we have different channels that only token holders can access. If you hold an NFT by other artists or by me, you can get into specific channels. I really enjoy creating these sort of magic keys that grant community members access to particular content. It reinforces this community.
With the social token, I went into it initially from a place of curiosity. Like I said, I have this mailing list of a few thousand people, and it's not a mailing list about this topic. It's a mailing list about what I'm interested in each week, from politics to law, to art, to culture, to whatever. I happen to be focused on Social Token, and I ended up writing about it. I thought that was a perfect place to build the social token because it could be anything.
Today the main utility of this token is membership in the community. By holding a token, you can get access to certain channels. The next step up from that could be allowing community members to exchange NFTs for it, or something like that, which would be the only way somebody can buy the NFT.
But I'm excited to see where else it can go. And I don't necessarily have a core plan of what I'm trying to achieve. It's more an experiment as I'm just trying to distribute them around and seeing what happens with it.
I then use that experience to do consulting for other people. And again, using myself as a little bit of a sandbox in it.
Super interesting. One of the things that we got really excited about in the beginning was exactly that. With a token, you can really identify a piece of stakeholders over time, and that stake in the community itself gives you a say in what direction it goes. I would like now to ask you how do you think about the speculation around the token itself? How do you create that balance between community and speculation?
I think that with some of the other tokens that I've helped people set up, there's a little bit more speculation because they've been more actively used immediately for commerce.
But with the $CROWD token, I've tried to hold back on that a little bit, avoid that speculation, and really keep it more as a non-valued reward for people who are part of the community. I give them out to people who pick up my NFTs and occasionally send them out to everybody.
So I'm a little more cautious with $CROWD and speculation, but I've seen a lot of people trying different things with other coins that are more speculative.
I guess a natural follow-up to that is probably how do you see this notion of involving the token within the process of community building? How do you see that play around as a role for creating incentives? Have you tried to play around with any of those use cases?
With Crowd, I'm running experiments, and I like the idea of seeing what people do with it, as opposed to trying to do something with it myself. I want to give it to people and see where it leads with some of the other projects.
There have already been people who are using it to trade for things. I know people have come back to me and told me they've bought NFTs from each other using $CROWD as the currency for that, which I think is super cool.
In fact, the first NFT that was bought with $CROWD happened outside of my knowledge, and I found out about it a few days later. People are really excited about this, and I like to see them take the initiative and come up with unique things.
That's the power of Web3. To conclude this interview, I will ask you a question we ask all the creators we receive on the podcast. If you had infinite resources, what would you create that would help the rest of the artists and creators in this space? Something that you feel like there should be there, but it isn't?
Well, there's a lot of ways to answer that question. I think that, right now, a huge elephant in the room that everyone is talking about and realizing it's a huge problem is that there's only a handful of marketplaces making secondary sales for NFTs. And you know what? 98% of those sales are happening on only one: Opensea. It's not healthy or sustainable in any way, regardless of the intentions or competency or anything.
So if I could just snap and solve a problem, I would create 10 more NFT marketplaces. That kind of secondary market could be distributed among many other ways, which would, I think, resolve a whole lot of problems that are currently bottlenecking in the fact that all of that transaction and exchange is happening in one place with very few people working there and very few resources with which to work on. Regardless of the huge pile of cash from investors that they're sitting on, they don't seem to be able to do anything with it. I think that's really the biggest problem that needs to be resolved.
Once this is out of the way, I think that the next step, which I think will happen regardless of whether I wish for it, is just solutions to make it easier to use tools. And I think you guys are a perfect example of that.
Outside of Coinvise, if you want to create your own token, there's no good solution. It's tricky to directly writing contracts or paying somebody, and your solution makes the whole process a lot easier. You've made it simple and easy, building a platform where anybody can come in and, and in a couple of clicks, get something going.
I think that's what we're going to see across the industry and across the market in general. More tools that allow people to make things on the blockchain easier and quicker. That's how the larger world is going to get onboarded.
I was just a part of this project with a couple of friends called the visitors. We did a 10,000 avatars art-driven project on Polygon, and people were very skeptical when we initially announced that because they were like, oh, it's going to be so hard to do.
But one of the things that we prioritized was creating this effortless step-by-step onboarding. The onboarding process was well-designed, so there was this motivation to just go through and make it. The project sold out in eight days.
I think paying attention to making sure things are easy and straightforward is primordial.
Thanks so much, Sean, for being here. It was a pleasure to discuss with you, have a nice day.
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