Discover more from Cody Brown
The Eternal Art of the Online Riff
A framework for thinking about riffs and hope for what comes next
For the past year I’ve been trying to figure out why I love certain web projects and why some make me want to gouge my eyes out. Then one night, the YouTube algorithm reunited me with a scene from the Office.
The scene is a classic. In it, we learn that, for weeks, Michael Scott has been participating in an amateur improv class and breaking every rule of improv imaginable. He derails scenes, escalates them, cuts off scene mates and all in a way that involves him earnestly participating.
The scene lands because it’s a cringe that’s so relatable. Everyone knows how glorious a good riff between semi-strangers can be and how little it takes for one person to bring it all crashing down.
So how do you cultivate better riffs? how do you start one? Where do riffs often go off the rails in web2 platforms or web3 projects? What kind of riffs are newly possible and worth experimenting with in web3?
A Simple Framework for Thinking About Riffs
Creating a good riff is more art (and luck) than science but the most helpful framework for thinking about riffs I’ve found involves three core roles. These roles each can have different names depending on the project but each role brings something distinct to the table. The context maker (or curator/conductor) provides a frame and guidelines for the riff. The creator (or user/player) answers that call. And the patron (or backer/collector) supplies the reward for riffs they like, which can be something as small as a fave or a conversion to a subscription or to a large purchase.
When things go well in a riff, these roles move in sync and can create a kind of creative flywheel where the outcome is something no one could have imagined in the beginning. Think about how incredible of a machine TikTok is for setting up riffs. On TikTok, any video uploaded has audio automatically separated so others can use it as a base for their own videos. One memetic audio clip can serve as a context that spawns thousands of videos, which then spawns other clips, reactions, and duets. Occasionally, you get alchemy:
When things go poorly in a riff, the roles get messy. In the case of Michael Scott’s improv class, the cringe begins when he rejects his role as individual player and forces his own context on the group that then reluctantly participates.
So what about riffs here that go beyond what we’re familiar with in TikTok? That are made from scratch?
Riff Examples from Three Different Eras of the Internet
One of the most famous websites of all time was started by Alex Tew ( who would later go on to start the multi-billon dollar company Calm.com). The premise was simple, he laid out a grid of one million pixels where anyone could purchase a pixel for $1 and attach a link to it. The brilliance of the project was that Alex was great at capturing press attention, and at a certain level of press attention in 2005, it started to turn into a good deal for advertisers. The novelty of the site and the story attached (he made it to pay for his university education), was irresistible. He set the context, cultivated the attention, and people started buying pixels.
Reddit was inspired by Million Dollar Homepage but introduced a novel mechanic that played into the tribal nature of subreddits. All Reddit users could place a pixel on the page but only every five minutes and anyone could then cover your pixel with their pixel. The mechanic created a gang like collaborative riff where various subreddits or aligned groups would commit to a certain place of the map and then defend their turf. And because every pixel was recorded, the eventual output was a fascinating animation that cataloged how these riffs came and went.
Exquisite Land (2021)
Exquisite Land was released into one of the frothiest NFT markets imaginable in 2021 but was notable in that it was entirely free to play. The mechanics were pretty simple, a few friends started by drawing tiles on the grid and then when the tiles were placed a coin appeared that they could then share with others (or themselves) to create the next tile. All artists minted their tile as an NFT for free (even the gas was covered so there was no charge to the user). The outcome of this was a month long riff experiment where people also owned their work and helped create a wild looking internet mural with a group of friends and strangers.
All of the above projects are rare, memorable, and difficult to replicate. It’s notable that many people tried to build a web3 version of Million Dollar Homepage but few gained traction. All three of the projects resonated because they had a novel way of revealing the strengths and weaknesses of each era of the internet.
A State of the Union for Riffs and the Creator Economy in 2023
For the past five years, the creator economy has had momentum. Platforms like Patreon and Substack helped make it possible for people to make a living from their creative work by getting money and support from backers directly.
One of the big ideas in 2021 was that all of this was going to explode even further because of the blockchain. The mechanics of NFTs and in crypto would strengthen this relationship and open doors to new communities where participants would have more direct ownership. So how are things now?
In 2023, we’re about a year into the crypto bear cycle. The price of Ethereum is back from it’s low point but a huge percentage of NFT projects (if you value these projects based on floor price) have collapsed in value and many are asking what the future holds.
Here’s Li Jin from Variant Ventures:
Many close to the scene have a take on where things went wrong.
This sentiment is reflected in the data on the platforms.
It’s hard to think of a single new NFT project right now that doesn’t look like this:
Or an NFT project from an established creator group:
Or the outcome from a prominent creator:
Some of the most pointed criticism of NFT culture in the past few years has simply been true. It attracted people who are incredible at building hype but little else. The novelty of investing in digital objects was amusing enough to bring new people in but it was rarely profitable for them. Many who did find success collecting were targeted by hackers and then robbed for hundreds of thousands in a few clicks. Things like “community” were promised and sold for five figures only for people to realize, later, that this meant access to a Discord full of other degenerate gamblers.
Even for those who entered with a project that was truly interesting, the danger was often in it succeeding too soon in the market. A group would find and love a new project, speculators would see the trade activity, and in a few days, only the original clique and those with a ridiculous amount of money to blow could buy a token. The market pressure would seep into everything after that, like an early stage startup that does an IPO for all of its stock on its first day.
In other words, the riffs, in too many of these projects weren’t just bad, they flattened into a repetitive and expensive zero-sum game of trading and flipping. At it’s peak, there was a seemingly never ending supply of new projects to back/promote and those with a lot of ETH could toss hundreds or thousands at projects leisurely then take gains as they came. Those who didn’t have a lot of ETH had to evaluate every project for its ability to flip or it would be game over. Many spent more than they wanted, lost it, and then never returned.
Sometimes it’s only possible to make progress when you’ve learned the hard way. It’s difficult to think of anyone now in NFT world who isn’t critical of the 10k PFP meta or who has an allergic reaction to slick sites with roadmaps and pseudonymous founders.
And yet, in all of the mania in the past few years, there’s been an incredible group of people who chose to focus on things they loved about the space. All it took was one project they really connected to. Or a group of people they met through the drama of trading and building. Or an aspect of digital ownership that they see as core to the future of the internet.
Some things that have been inspiring recently:
A decentralized alternative to Twitter is live and growing
Farcaster launched before Elon took over Twitter and has been steadily growing users since. The decentralized part of it has lead to launches of multiple clients and communities (hi Purple DAO) that support the expansion of the protocol.
A DAO bought a golf course
Many DAOs launched in the last year with grandiose plans and some of them succeeded. One of those DAOs is Links DAO which pulled members together recently to purchase the above golf course in Scotland.
Amusing partnerships are happening with brands
Some artists have really found their patrons
Instead of going all in on a 10,000 piece collection that mints out in a day, some artists have taken their time. One of my favorites is BKKBros who has been doing a speed run of video game history, one piece at a time, for the past two years. He’s amassed a group of patrons who support his work, and he’s one of many who has done something similar at various scales and niches.
Some communities have really found a home
Shout out to FWB, DEF, and the Manny’s discord.
Weird coordination games are happening on chain
People are doing crazy musical collabs then selling them in loot box form
A string of experimental music projects lead to a 77 person headless band and recently to CC0lab, which is releasing musics and stems into the public domain.
It’s never been easier to publish on chain and create context around your work
Zora and Manifold have radically simplified this process and are consistently rolling out new formats.
The podcast ecosystem around the creator economy/ crypto is really good
Shoutout to Interdependence, New Models, Chase Chapman, Overpriced JPGS, Bankless, Joshua Citarella, Building at the Edges, The Scoop (I know I’m missing some. remind me)
Millions of dollars are getting deployed through DAO governance and quadratic funding
Shout out to Nouns and Gitcoin.
A new model for AI digital voice is emerging
In 2021 Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst launched Holly+. A project that involved Holly using machine learning and AI to make a twin of her voice that others could use in their own work. Anyone could mint a token and those who minted became part of the DAO controlling the digital twin.
This project sounded insane when it first came out, but here we are, two years later and the technology to do what Holly did for her own voice has swallowed the entire music industry. People are releasing high fidelity mixtapes that feature realistic depictions of Drake and Kanye.
And some artists are embracing a version of Holly’s model that includes NFT splits.
Every era of the internet brings new mechanisms that deepen the kind of riffs that are possible. These new mechanisms also tend to bring some combination of euphoria and chaos. This was true with the first message boards in 1985, true for social media in the 2010s, and it’s been true for the past few years with NFTs unlocking native digital ownership.
In the spring of 2023, we’re way past the euphoria stage in NFT world. Things have fallen back to Earth and the questions people have been asking are now heard at a different volume. Is this all a fad? Do people really care about digital ownership or are they more interested in exotic gambling? Will those who profited in the previous cycle cash out or pay it forward? How do we make this tech more accessible? How do we use this tech to unlock better riffs?
They represent a sliver of the total market but all the projects above give me confidence about where things can go. The tech that enables NFTs and digital ownership is just tech. There are so many ways it can be used and those who release projects have control of the context they create and riffs they want to enable. They can direct their energy towards floor price, or they can lean into something weirder.
We’re now entering a cycle where a huge group of speculators have left. And a cycle where, in the past two years, the infrastructure to code custom applications has gotten radically more accessible. This is a unique time to do what has always been fun to do on the internet. Launch products that set up a good riff.