Between Minimalism and Extravaganza — my interview with Kyle Chayka

This interview was first published in Plumes With Attitude ( 🇫🇷 ), my personal newsletter on the benefits of writing, on November, 2021.

Kyle Chayka is one of my favourite writers discovered this year. He is an independent journalist, the author of a book on minimalism, and more recently the cofounder of Dirt aka the first NFT-driven entertainment newsletter. As someone who comes from both the traditional media and the art world, he has a unique perspective on how crypto and NFTs are changing the game for both emerging creators and established industries. Below is a recap of our conversation. Enjoy the read!

Note: This interview was recorded on November 24th and has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Hi Kyle and thanks for accepting the invitation. I am so happy to have you today! I have been following your transition to Web3 and I am pretty excited about the evolution of your newsletter, Dirt. So I wanted to start this conversation by asking you how you described your publication when you launched it versus how you do it today.

I launched Dirt in December 2020. At that point, there were still a lot of lockdowns around the world. Since most of us were stuck at home, a lot of the talks we had were about the digital content we consumed on Netflix, TikTok or Twitch. The daily newsletter addressed the specific topic of helping people find what to watch on the internet. We had a lot of organic growth very quickly as people were online all the time and definitely needed to find entertainment.

In the spring of 2021, I was getting more exposed to the crypto and NFT narratives on Twitter. So I became interested in testing those things out. I saw this overlap between the avant-garde digital culture and the Web3 ecosystem that were starting to merge together. Then I realized that it could be a good idea to test the use of NFTs to fund my media project. As we were exploring this space with my co-editor Daisy Alioto, we also incorporated more crypto coverage into the publication itself.

I think Dirt is the very first NFT-based newsletter. Did a specific event lead you to take this route?

Some other projects related to crypto probably did it before us, but I think we're the first to apply it to a mainstream publication. I was seeing all of the energy around NFTs on Twitter and was maybe a bit jealous of just how much was going on. I also wanted to go beyond the Substack model of paid newsletters. Digital subscription is a great model for solo writers, but I don't think it can support a whole publication. Since we work with many contributors and have the ambition to build a bigger company over time, we needed a more scalable solution to fund our development. And of course, the NFT model felt newer and looked so much more exciting.

In July, you wrote an article for the New Yorker that criticized some aspects of the creator economy. One of your main arguments was about the “gig-ification” of creative work. Do you think that you can avoid falling into these traps by taking the Web3 route?

The big problem of the creator economy is that a small number of centralized platforms like Substack, Patreon or OnlyFans have a lot of power. The Web3 ecosystem wants to reverse this situation by giving more control to the creators and their audiences. Crypto tools give you the ability to create an economy around anything. And this is happening right now — creators have started to do that around their content. And I think that being able to control the whole range of one’s work is what everyone can hope for in the future.

I recently read an article about how hard it is to find an exit strategy as a newsletter writer. Some are getting hired by companies like The Atlantic or get their publications acquired, but it’s rather the exception than the norm. Having paid subscribers also involves a certain mental load. There's a lot of talk about burnout in the industry. But with Web3, the people who support creative projects can have ownership and governance rights, along with higher expectations in terms of their return on investment. And so, I was wondering: do you think the crypto model tends to increase or decrease the pressure on creators?

That's a really good question. I think that it's a big quandary going forward. A certain number of solo writers jumped into newsletters because they thought they could make a lot of money from subscriptions by accessing their readers directly. I believe that many of them were not prepared to scale and didn’t manage to grow beyond one person. Burnout often happens when you have too much work to do on your own. That's why some newsletter writers went to The Atlantic or the New York Times or whatever. They realized that they wanted the safety and stability of a larger infrastructure behind them and to not be on their own anymore — which is ironically the point of doing an independent newsletter (laughs). To be honest, I feel a little confused about those people. So I think that you have to design your publication to scale beyond one person, even if it’s only about three or five people. The project needs to go beyond you as fast as possible. Otherwise, you risk getting burnt out.

Crypto tools can provide a much faster and more scalable revenue source in certain ways — way more than subscriptions. Let’s take a high-profile picture NFT project like Bored Ape Yacht Club. Most of the recurring revenues are generated by royalties on the secondary market, not by putting out more content. Their creators don’t have to create NFTs or even interact with their community every day. I don’t think these guys are burnt-out. They have the time to develop a long-term strategy and their lives don’t look like those of creators who have to publish content on a daily basis. So I think that NFT-based (or token-based) projects have the potential of generating positive recurring revenue more quickly, which puts less pressure on the content production itself.

What about Dirt? I know that you have been creating NFTs and social tokens to fund the publication. Can you explain us how it works concretely?

We designed our NFTs as collectibles, so they are a kind of content in themselves. Collecting them is a fun way to support the project. We don’t have a very active secondary market for these yet, but it might happen in the future. Our social token ($DIRT) will enable our community members to get involved in the project, functioning as a governance tool. Soon, $DIRT holders will be able to commission articles, help us decide if we should publish more essays, reviews or interviews, and indicate to us which topics they most want to get covered by the publication.

As a journalist, how do you feel about the prospect of people having a say in your editorial decisions?

We are trying to design the model of our publication to work with crypto. It’s hard to answer since we are building in public — just like anyone in Web3 right now. Also, we cover entertainment and it’s mostly about letting our readers tell us which topics they want us to write about. It would be very different if Dirt was a publication about politics or investigative journalism. In that case, I’d never let people have a say on what we cover or how we should do it.

Also, our writers and editors have veto power over anything we publish. From a personal perspective, I don't want people to tell me what to write about. But at a publication level, it’s different. If our readers want us to write about Emily in Paris season two, well, we’ll find someone who will be happy to do it.

Okay I understand better now. Last year, you wrote a book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, and now you are into crypto. The funny thing is, one of the popular terms in the industry is “maximalism”. Your book thesis criticizes “airspace”, that is the interior design trend of refined aesthetics influenced by companies like WeWork or Airbnb that took over the world. Beyond the maximalist term, the crypto world can be characterized by a certain extravaganza — especially with NFTs. So I was wondering, do you see any connections between these two seemingly opposite movements?

Part of my argument in the book is that, while our digital lives are still more immersive, even maximalist, our physical lives have become more minimalist. As we enjoy many experiences on our phone screen, we tend to want a simple and soothing physical interior — not a heavily decorated one.

So I believe that maximalism online drives minimalism in real life. And I can relate: when I see how crazy my Twitter feed is, I don’t want to look up and see the same mess in my physical space.

Another connection I see is the popularity of minimalism in NFTs. So in the case of the most famous collection, CryptoPunks, that started the profusion of simple pixel art projects. And I think this follows the kind of fetish for minimalism in culture.

One of the characteristics of this kind of crypto-NFT extravaganza is the sheer optimism of the people in the space. My Twitter feed sometimes looks like a big cocktail of hope, belief and determination that crypto is going to make the world a better place. Meanwhile, the coverage of the industry by the press is often more pessimistic. As you have a double hat of journalist and creator involved in crypto, where do you place the cursor?

There isn't a lot of good journalism on crypto and Web3. Most mainstream publications are still lagging behind. I think this is why you see a lot of super negative or overstated articles. Journalists don’t see what is going on because they haven't been in this space for long enough. So you have cranky reporters on one hand. On the other hand, you have super hyped-up 19-year-old guys who just made millions of dollars by flipping NFTs or selling tokens they bought early. It's easy to be optimistic when you make a ton of money overnight. I think that this kind of optimism is overstated too.

But there has to be some room in the middle where we're realistic about everything that's happening. Realistic that some people are making absurd amounts of money overnight. Realistic that some companies have interesting and sustainable projects. Realistic that other companies are doing things that are completely illegal and not sustainable in any way. And finally, realistic that there are many scams with serious financial consequences for the people who have been tricked. All of those things are happening at once. So when talking about it, we have to consider each segment. The hardest challenge is not to conceal any of them.

What are your predictions regarding the adoption of crypto by the media industry?

What I'm observing right now is that the Product departments of every major media company are trying to figure out what to do with NFTs and social tokens. And rightfully so: it’s a no-brainer for anyone producing digital content.

With Dirt, we have the advantage of having launched a crypto-native media company. We built the project with the tools of the ecosystem and that gives us an edge when covering the industry. But it’s only a matter of time for journalists to catch up: everyone is hiring crypto reporters and editors at the moment. So the tone of coverage should get better soon and also more realistic — which is actually good news for everyone.

We’ll also see more experiments from mainstream companies in the coming years. But I think that most of the innovation will come from crypto-native companies. Tech people are still ahead of the game and they are turning their businesses into media companies now. I mean, Bored Ape Yacht Club is a media company. They make tens of millions of dollars a month in royalties only. Who doesn’t want that model?

It has become such a fascinating brand. And I have the feeling that brand is the most valuable asset for any company going into NFT right now. I think this applies to personal brands too, with the growing importance of social capital in the space. As a journalist working for traditional media, your transition into Web3 is very inspiring for writers and other people who may consider themselves outsiders in this ecosystem. What are your recommendations for people to enter this space, eliminate their biases and build social capital?

I do think social capital plays a huge role in crypto, which is unfortunate. Web3 presents itself as a very democratic space, but it also privileges the people who can spend 24 hours a day online and gamble big sums of money. By definition, the community cannot be as inclusive as the industry thinks it is.

But Web3 does reward participation. Being in the conversation, engaging with people on Twitter and taking the time to reflect on what’s going on make a huge difference. Everything is being built in public, everything is happening just right in front of our eyes.

When Loot blew up the NFT space this year, it provided this whole new framework for everything. And yet, there was maybe like one mainstream article about it. We need more conversation about what all this stuff means, what the future models might look like.

The question of eliminating bias is super hard. I think that you have to participate in some way. You can’t understand the appeal of NFTs if you have never bought one by yourself. Otherwise, you just cannot understand what's going on. So I think that writers have to participate in the space to some degree, even if it's not with their own money.

I read an article by Motherboard about what was going on in the Constitution DAO Discord right after they failed to win the auction. And I thought it was great that the journalist [Jordan Pearson] clarified that he got a budget from Motherboard to buy the $PEOPLE token, then joined the Discord and experienced the whole thing before writing the article. I believe that this kind of experimentations will be essential for quality coverage in the future.

Motherboard has this long-running coverage of hacker culture and a history of doing that really well. But I think that overall, the crypto coverage in the mainstream publications hasn't reached the level of finance journalism — which is where it should be. I'm excited for more development in the discourse about this kind of topic.

Beyond Dirt and your freelance work, you are currently writing a book about the role that algorithms play in our lives. In the crypto ecosystem, you can have this feeling that individuals want to take the power back against the institutions. It also applies to the algorithms, by claiming back the control of their data and privacy. And I was wondering, how does your experimentation with Web3 influence the writing of your book?

People are exhausted with algorithmic feeds and recommendations. Automated feeds on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram cause enormous problems for the public discourse. I think that people have been turning away from that kind of passive automated platform experience. And it’s true that crypto and NFT are one way to get a little further away from it.

Still, the crypto discourse exists mainly on Twitter… which relies on algorithms. Discord is the other main player and works with real-time discussion. No algorithm there, but following all the activity is exhausting. So sooner or later, you might opt for algorithmic Discord summaries — which ultimately lead to the same problems.

So while we're moving away from the direction of algorithmic feeds, crypto still exists very much within that at the moment. But it does provide you with a certain feeling of ownership, a sense that, at least, you have some data or content that escape Big Tech. So I do think it's progress, at least on the user experience side.

When doing my research, I listened to your interview in the Means of Creation podcast by Li Jin and Nathan Baschez. You said something about crypto giving the right incentives to reward human curation and good taste. But how does it work exactly? Don’t you think that incentives can also lead to the opposite effect and put people’s own interests before the quality of curation?

In the past, the incentive of good curation was essentially about growing your follower base, which can lead to financial and advertising opportunities. But in crypto, being early into an NFT collection or a social token distribution has a direct benefit when the value of these assets rises. So there is true leverage associated with your taste and identification of such projects. That can be a good incentive when you are genuinely interested in broadcasting something great. But it can also be bad when you just want to pump and dump shitty stuff.

So the incentives align for the curator, but not necessarily for the content. You can make just as much money curating something terrible as curating something truly worth people’s attention. The big difference is that blockchain technology gives you this kind of stamp that attests that you were early in the project. And I find that very interesting on many levels.

Taste and discernment have become such valuable skills in crypto!

Every area of life becomes digital content. Then having good taste in digital content can be a life-changing skill. I wrote this essay on the meme economy that says that you can make more money by betting on the right meme than you can make in the course of an entire career in certain jobs.

But overall, being able to broadcast that taste and create an audience around it helps you build social capital. And I think it’s more interesting to see people gain influence by curating great content rather than by, say posting selfies every day.

Definitely! I think it’s a good illustration of how Web2 and Web3 differ in terms of driving people’s behaviours. Coming back to your thesis on airspace and minimalism, it’s like taste has somehow become more valuable in our digital life than in real life. It’s a very thought-provoking idea and a great conclusion to this interview. Thanks a lot, Kyle, I enjoyed a lot this conversation and I can't wait to see what you have in store for us next with Dirt.

Kyle’s 4 personal favourite Dirt newsletters:

  • Are NFTs Status Symbols? “W. David Marx, a cultural critic whom I love and can never read enough of, wrote this essay considering the utility of NFTs as status symbols, something the crypto scene seems to take for granted.”

  • **TikTok and Suburban Gothic: *“***Daisy Alioto wrote this meandering essay on the aesthetics of suburbia as seen through TikTok, and it kind of blew up the internet. I think readers loved it because they could recognize themselves in it.”

  • **Uniqlo is Sally Rooneycore: *“***Dirt exists to run the kind of short cultural criticism that doesn't really have a home anywhere else. This piece I wrote on normcore vibes in fashion and literature is half images and honestly couldn't go anywhere else.”

  • **Chill Tokyo Vlog: *“***The title says it all.”

Read my other interviews:

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