OpenSea, Web3, and Aggregation Theory

This was originally sent as a subscriber-only Update.

From Eric Newcomer:

The NFT-marketplace OpenSea is in talks to raise at a $13 billion valuation in a deal led by Coatue, sources tell me. Paradigm will also co-lead the $300 million funding round, according to a spokesperson for the firm. Kathryn Haun’s new crypto fund, which is currently operating under Haun’s initials “KRH,” is also participating in the funding round, sources tell me. Dan Rose at Coatue is spearheading the round and may take a board observer seat.

OpenSea confirmed the news on their blog:

In 2021, we saw the world awaken to the idea that NFTs represent the basic building blocks for brand new peer-to-peer economies. They give users greater freedom and ownership over digital goods, and allow developers to build powerful, interoperable applications that provide real economic value and utility to users. OpenSea’s vision is to become the core destination for these new open digital economies to thrive, building the world’s friendliest and most trusted NFT marketplace with the best selection.

This is, of course, a story about NFTs, at least in part, and by extension, a story about the so-called Web 3 née crypto economy that its fiercest advocates say is the future. But there are two other parts of this story that are very much at home on the Internet as it exists in the present: $13 billion, and “core destination.”

OpenSea’s Value

First, two more OpenSea stories from over the break. From Be In Crypto:

NFT marketplace OpenSea has frozen $2.2 million worth of Bored Ape (BAYC) NFTs after they were reported as being stolen. The NFTs on the marketplace now have a warning saying that it is “reported for suspicious activity.” Buying and selling of such items are suspended…

Meanwhile, there is a bit of a squabble happening over OpenSea over the Phunky Ape Yacht Club (PAYC). The NFT platform banned this NFT series because it was based on the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs. PAYC is virtually identical to BAYC, except for the fact it is mirrored.

This excerpt isn’t technically complete: buying and selling of the stolen NFTs — or of the PAYC NFTs — are suspended on OpenSea. The fact of the matter is that (references to) NFTs are, famously, stored on the blockchain (Ethereum in this case), and once those BAYC NFTs were transferred, by consent of their previous owner or not, the transaction cannot be undone without the consent of their new owner; said owner can buy or sell the NFTs to someone else, but not on OpenSea. It’s the same thing with with the BAYC rip-offs: they exist on the blockchain, whether or not OpenSea lists them for sale or not.

This, according to crypto advocates, is evidence of the allure of Web 3: because the blockchain is open and accessible by anyone, the stolen BAYC NFTs and the PAYC rip-offs can be sold on another market, or if one cannot be found, in a private transaction (leave aside, for the sake of argument and the brevity of this update, the question as to whether the fact that these transactions are irreversible is a feature or a bug).

Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a new concept. What is the first answer given to anyone who is banned from Twitter, or demonetized on YouTube — two of the go-to examples Web 3 advocates give about the problem of centralized power on the Internet today? Start your own Twitter, or start your own blog, or set up a Substack. These answers are frustrating because they are true: the web is open.

Indeed, if this frustration sounds familiar, it is because it is the frustration of the regulator insisting that Aggregators are monopolies, that Google is somehow forcing users to not use Bing like some sort of railroad baron extorting farmers simply seeking to move grain to market, or that Facebook has a monopoly on social networking, ignoring the fact that we have far more ways to communicate than ever before.

In fact, what gives Aggregators their power is not their control of supply: they are not the only way to find websites, or to post your opinions online; rather, it is their control of demand. People are used to Google, or it is the default, so sites and advertisers don’t want to spend their time and money on alternatives; people want other people to see what they have to say, so they don’t want to risk writing a blog that no one reads, or spending time on a social network that because it lacks the network has no sense of social.

This is why regulations focused on undoing the control of supply are ineffective: the marginal cost nature of computing and the zero distribution cost of the Internet made it viable for the first time — and far more profitable — to control demand, not by forcing people to act against their will, but by making it easy for them to accomplish whatever it is they wished to do, whether that be find a website, buy a good, talk to their friends, or give their opinion. And now, to buy or sell NFTs.

This, then, is the reason that OpenSea received its $13 billion valuation: it is by far the dominant market for NFTs; should the market exist in the long run, the most likely entryway for end users will be OpenSea. This is a very profitable position to be in, even if alternatives are only a click away. It’s not like that reduces the profitability of a Google or a Facebook.

It is also why OpenSea’s bans have some amount of teeth to them: as I noted, you can still buy and sell these stolen and rip-off NFTs, just as you can still go to a website that is not listed in Google, communicate with a friend kicked off of Facebook, or state your opinions somewhere other than Twitter. The reduced demand, though, lowers the price, whether that price be traffic, convenience, or attention. Or, in the case of NFTs, ETH: not having access to OpenSea means there is less demand for these NFTs, and less demand means lower prices.

In short, OpenSea has power not because it controls the NFTs in question, but because it controls the vast majority of demand.

Crypto’s Aggregators

One of the reasons that crypto is so interesting, at least in a theoretical sense, is that it seems like a natural antidote to Aggregators; I’ve suggested as such. After all, Aggregators are a product of abundance; scarcity is the opposite. The OpenSea example, though, is a reminder that I have forgotten one of my own arguments about Aggregators: demand matters more than supply.

To that end, which side of the equation is impacted by the blockchain? The answer, quite obviously is supply. Indeed, one need only be tangentially aware of crypto to realize that the primary goal of so many advocates is to convert non-believers, the better to increase demand. This has the inverse impact of OpenSea’s ban: increased demand increases prices for scarce supply, which is to say, in terms that are familiar to any Web 3 advocate, that the incentives of Web 3’s most ardent evangelists are very much aligned.

The most valuable assets in crypto remain tokens; Bitcoin and Ethereum lead the way with market caps of $874 billion and $451 billion, respectively. What is striking, though, is that the primary way that most users interact with Web 3 are via centralized companies like Coinbase and FTX on the exchange side, Discord for communication and community, and OpenSea for NFTs. It is also not a surprise: centralized companies deliver a better user experience, which encompasses everything from UI to security to at least knocking down the value of your stolen assets on your behalf; a better user experience leads to more users, which increases power over supply, further enhancing the user experience, in the virtual cycle described by Aggregation Theory.

That Aggregation Theory applies to Web 3 is not some sort of condemnation of the idea; it is, perhaps, a challenge to the insistence that crypto is something fundamentally different than the web. That’s fine — as I wrote before the break, the Internet is already pretty great, and its full value is only just starting to be exploited. And, as I argued in The Great Bifurcation, the most likely outcome is that crypto provides a useful layer on what already exists, as opposed to replacing it.

Moreover, as I explained in a follow-up to The Great Bifurcation, this view of crypto’s role relative to the web places it firmly in an ongoing progression away from technical lock-in and towards network effects:

Technical lock-in has decreased while network lock-in has increased

This is a dramatic simplification, to be clear, but I think it is directionally correct; the long-term trend, all of the hysteria around tech notwithstanding, is towards more openness and less lock-in. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that companies are any less dominant; rather, their means of dominance has shifted from the technical to the sociological.

Crypto, still largely valued on nothing more than the collective belief of its users, is the ultimate example to date of the power of a network, in every sense of the word. That that collective belief is a point of leverage for companies that can aggregate believers is the most natural outcome imaginable, even if it means that the lack of technical lock-in will likely prove to be more of an occasionally invoked escape hatch (and a welcome one at that) as opposed to the defining characteristic for the majority of users.