On Saturday night, the Ponsonby bar hosted a sticky, internet-y party in celebration of Fluf NFTs. Shanti Mathias went along for IRL to get a sense of the scene.
The NFT partygoers have to look enthusiastic for the third time. Entrepreneur, minor celebrity, and now blockchain hypeman Brooke Howard-Smith yells over the crowd. “Just once more, guys! Just do what you were doing but maybe gather a bit closer to the stage.” He wants the scene to look both organic and orchestrated.
He walks backwards across the lit up stage, cameraman following, every attendee clustered around him – it’ll look packed on the screen, though there are only about 60 or 70 people here. He reels off his monologue: Flufhaus LA is just the beginning, they’re taking over, big things are coming. I missed the first attempt at filming this clip, which is to be broadcast on the bar TV, spliced with scenes of the virtual party in LA we are theoretically here to attend. It’s a party to celebrate a party somewhere else; it’s a party to validate the people who have invested in NFTs.
On the second take, Howard-Smith gets to the end of the monologue, then swears. “Oh shit! I’ve forgotten to mention South by Southwest.” This third time is nearly perfect – “Again?” Howard-Smith asks hopefully, but the partiers are more enthusiastic about free drinks and real conversations with people who share their love of blockchain, and the cameraman wanders off.
After a career hopping from rollerblading to TV presenting to influencer managing, Howard-Smith is convinced that the metaverse is it. Fluf is an NFT project created by New Zealand company Non Fungible Labs, of which Howard-Smith is a co-founder. They’re one of the top-selling NFTs at present, at the forefront of the digital movement which uses blockchain technology to authenticate ownership. The tokens, unique digital images (which also come with a 3D dance animation and musical soundtrack), are anthropomorphised rabbits, called Flufs, in the vein of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, an NFT project that’s reportedly made a billion dollars and attracted the attention of high profile US celebrities like Jimmy Fallon.
And the Flufs are making big money: Howard-Smith tells me the tokens have made $200 million in the six months since they’ve launched and a Snoop Dogg-collaboration charity auction last month raised a million dollars for the Auckland City Mission. “While we’re creating digital burrows for the Flufs, why can’t we be helping the Mission house actual people who just need a place to call home?” asked Howard-Smith rhetorically, in a press release.
But this party isn’t about that. It’s a celebration for the true believers, those who have spent thousands of dollars to buy Flufs, all to get a gold lanyard around their neck and an invitation to this party in a tiny room at the back of Longroom in Ponsonby. The notorious bar, once a hotspot for C-list celebrities, has aged with its clientele: it feels like the perfect place for Howard-Smith to host a party for something that is simultaneously avant-garde and uncool.
Outside, it’s late on a muggy Saturday afternoon, but inside the bar the air crackles with hype. “Where is Chad?” someone yells, but for the moment, no Chad emerges. I talk to two women in black dresses with bunny ears. “You need some too!” they tell me fervently – someone was handing them out at the door. Rap music pumps out of the TV from across the Pacific Ocean.
A few minutes later, I meet Chad himself underneath the American football-shaped paper lanterns hanging above the bar. The party is hypothetically Super Bowl themed, except the opposing teams are Fluf and the Party Bears, another NFT project. Chad is having a good time. “We’re here to unfuck the world,” he says. “House prices are going to crash, but Fluf is unstoppable.”
Howard-Smith has promised to answer all my questions, but he’s a man in demand – people keep coming up to him and asking him to sort out problems. He asks me to meet him outside, where people in Fluf t-shirts are vaping and eating hot chips.
I strike up a conversation with Chris, a buff white man with buzzcut hair who seems to have come alone. He is wearing a carrot around his neck. It’s funny because the NFTs are rabbits and this is a carrot, get it? He has liquidated all his bitcoin stock to buy Flufs. What does his Fluf look like? “It looks like me,” he says, and indeed he and the Fluf are wearing the same grey shirt, which reads “suck my carrot”. “Did you customise it to look like that?” I ask. His brow furrows. “No, the traits come with the NFT.” He has dressed up to match his digital rabbit.
For many in the Auckland NFT community, this is the first time they are meeting in person. Does Chris like the community? “Oh yeah… the community just jumps on anyone who says something wrong,” he says, but this is not a problem, because it’s still “really inclusive”. He’s not in the Discord because that’s “next level”; it’s the Facebook groups that consume him. “My partner keeps telling me to pay attention to her because I’m just scrolling through messages,” he says. There’s a lot of information to keep up with – new NFT collections are launched every day, and then there are the accessories and updates for the ones he already has. So will NFTs change the world for the better? “NFTs aren’t good or bad, they’re like drugs. Are drugs good or bad?”
But I can’t linger and discuss the morality of NFTs – or drugs. Howard-Smith, now clutching a USB cord as if he wants to charge his phone, has remembered that he was going to talk to me. It’s a stiflingly hot evening, and his synthetic green American football uniform is gathering sweat. “Our digital life is probably overtaking our real life, that’s a whole thing we need to tackle,” he begins.
As we talk, someone tickles him from behind with a cheerleading pom-pom, which he brushes away. NFTs are going to transform the creator economy, he says; if a musician can convince 5000 fans to give them $200 for access to events and an exclusive community, that will raise a million dollars. “There are musicians who would kill for a million dollars to take their art to the next level,” he says. Howard-Smith is an optimist, and he is certain that the metaverse is unlike anything he’s done before. Another person rushes up and asks him to fix the sound system. “Just one second!” he snaps, answers my last question, and dashes away.
Back inside, I start talking to Fluf investor Joanne, who has perhaps committed hardest to a costume out of all the people here. She’s wearing a glittery black leotard over tights and thick eyeliner. The idea of the metaverse isn’t strange to her, she says, because her kids – who are 17 and 22 – have grown up playing in the world of Minecraft, and isn’t that the same idea?
Besides, it’s not really her who manages her blockchain investments, it’s James. James, wearing a black hat, edges closer, goes halfway to the bar to get a drink, then realises Joanne still has some wine. He reaches for her glass and sips it shakily. James is quite drunk.
The party started an hour ago, at 4:30pm, to synchronise with LA, but the room is almost empty now, everyone outside seeking refuge from the stickiness, and the walls – one decorated with a vinyl poster of one of the more exclusive Fluf burrows – vibrate with the sound of the party on another continent, which no-one seems particularly interested in watching.
How will the metaverse be different to today? “You know there’s going to be a huge sex industry,” Joanne says. “Virtual fucking. There was a Black Mirror episode about this. It’ll be like the Matrix – we’re going to plug in and tune out, tune out, tune out.” James keeps trying to join in the conversation, but in a state of inebriation isn’t able to get the timing right, and the result is that there are two people leaning in on each side of me, yelling to have their opinion heard over the music.
I ask Joanne what the large rubber spider strapped around her wrist is. “Oh, it’s my Thingie!” she says. Thingies are Fluf pets. It’s crazy that Flufs have pets; it’s crazy that there are metaverse houses you can pay for with metaverse mortgages, something that still feels more sure than Aotearoa’s housing market. So is the metaverse going to be good? She’s not sure, but she does know that it’s making her a lot of money. “Well,” she caveats, “a lot for me.”
At the party in LA, with a turnout dwarfing the Longroom’s Red level sub-100, everyone is filming T-Pain’s performance. The absurdity of this: me, flesh, blood, and a silky top that doesn’t really fit in, standing on a deserted dance floor in Ponsonby, watching a screen filled with the bodies of strangers across the world, who are in turn capturing the moment on their own screens.
Nearly everyone is outside now, saturated with free drinks in the early evening, the bar vacated but for a few tired bar staff in olive green shirts and pearl necklaces. The partygoers are preaching the gospel of the converted: how they doubted NFTs, until they didn’t. I watch a man with a plastic gold dollar sign looped around his neck drink beer. As a symbol, it nearly seems too obvious.
But I am still costumeless, conspicuous with my lack of rabbit ears, and Anna, the PR person, has realised. She summarily fetches me a synthetic headband, one of the ears already bent at a rakish angle, and hands me a pair of legwarmers. Do I want a snout? But the snout is a step too far for a journalist who is only a voyeur in the NFT world, not really a member at all.
Is Anna enjoying the party? “It’s like online dating,” she says. “Suddenly meeting all these people you’ve been chatting with for months. Someone says their name and I’m like, ‘I was on the phone with you last week!’” She works part time – completely remotely – for Non Fungible Labs; in fact, a lot of the people in this room do. Everyone here, whether they work for Non Fungible Labs or not, is evangelical about the possibility of it all.
I’m suitably attired now, so Anna introduces me to Seba, who also works for NF Labs – I’m not sure in what capacity. One of her earrings says “Yeah” and the other says “Nah”. “Talking online is just the same, we all know each other so well,” she says. “It’s just that there’s this energy when you meet in person.”
How does she feel about critiques levelled at NFTs – the scamminess, the theft, the energy waste? “It’s no different from any other hobby, like going to gigs,” she says. “People think it’s a scam because you pay so much for a picture, but you’re not just paying for a picture – yeah! Aaron!” She’s been distracted by the livestreamed party, where NF Labs co-founder Aaron McDonald’s face has filled the screen.
Everyone is finishing their drinks; there’s another rush for the bar. I’m surprised by the number of brown people at the party, relieved not to be the only one; the leadership of NF Labs is mostly white. I talk to a woman who got into crypto when she went on a date with the NF Labs CFO. Now all her savings are in NFTs. How does she feel about the volatility of the market? “It’s a little bit quirky,” she says. “It’s a little bit risky. Everyone else just puts their money in the bank.” But she’s done her research – all you need is Yahoo Finance and a Girls That Invest course. The complexity of setting up a blockchain wallet is a barrier to entry, she says, but surely everyone knows someone that can help them set it up?
“Shhhh….ayna?” I turn. Chad is behind me again, and he’s trying to remember my name. He sounds out several versions before I take pity on him. “This is not a party party,” he says, not like the ones he normally goes to, which involve meditation and maybe magic mushrooms. He wants to tell me more about how crypto can be used for good, so I follow him and we perch on bar stools by the window, watching clouds of vape smoke drift across the dreary carpark.
Howard-Smith grabs someone’s hand – I think she works for NFT AI company Altered State Machine – and twirls through the room. “You know, he only sleeps three hours a night,” Chad says admiringly, of Howard-Smith. “He’s going to die young. Hopefully we can upload his AI brain to the metaverse so we can keep partying.”
It’s the clarity of the Fluf vision that has attracted Chad to the NFTs. He shows me his two bunnies. One is called Monkey Parrot, and has multi-coloured fur – kind of like Chad’s sequinned rainbow jacket – and 3D glasses. “Those are rare,” he tells me. His other Fluf is wearing a propeller hat. How does he feel when he looks at them? “I feel like laughing at myself,” he replies. The bizarreness of it all has not escaped him, but this is an opportunity to rebuild social media and make it better – I know about The Social Dilemma, right? It’s surprisingly intimate looking through someone else’s camera roll; Chad pulls up some videos of him with a Fluf Snapchat filter, which he’s used to win prizes, the synthetic animal body at odds with an ordinary backyard.
He is momentarily distracted by two men in yellow shirts reading “Whose Haus? Fluf Haus”, carrots laced around their neck, coming up and humping him. “No idea who they are,” he says, then laughs. “Nah, they’re my poker buddies. I convinced everyone to get into NFTs. I want to spread my knowledge and wisdom.” It’s the potential of it all that thrills him.
He’s a man who has been waiting for an audience, and I’m providing. “Decentralisation will save the world from big corporates,” he says, although he’s not sure how. Do I know about how the banks control everything? There are some documentaries about it, although Chad is reluctant to tell me their titles, and I can’t tell if he’s really watched them or just heard about them. He’s a great documentary watcher though: if it makes headlines and is on Netflix, he’ll watch it. “It’s like Seaspiracy, Cowspiracy – have you watched Kiss the Ground?” he asks. I haven’t. Never mind: the point is, the blockchain will somehow make all kinds of solutions to big problems possible.
I find myself profoundly attracted to this idea that institutions are failing many people and that we need new forms of relationship and community to counter this. New, decentralised, forms of network technology, changing the way computers relate to each other, are certainly emerging from the vision of NFTs and the metaverse. But the parts that appeal – getting to be in an exclusive group, getting to look at pretty things and call them yours, getting to make lots of money – are the same things that have drawn people to new ideas for centuries. Nobody can quite say – yet – what makes this time different, and why patterns of inequity and poor resource management won’t play out again.
But back to Chad. He is making money, yes, but he wants to use it for good. “I want to give the children smoothie powder,” he says, “because they’re all malnourished, they’re eating pies and drinking Coke.” He is momentarily distracted, again, by the humping men. One puts his arm around my shoulder. “Who are you?” he asks. “She’s a journalist, she’s talking to me,” Chad explains, trying to regain his train of thought. “Right, smoothie powder. My goal is to sponsor the children with low priced sachets of smoothie to make them healthier. That’s charity with the blockchain, I can unfuck the world as I see fit.”
Fluf World, and NFTs more broadly, are a ticket to places where big decisions are being made about AI, about finance, and about the future, and if he gets in now, Chad says, he can be part of the deciding. Look where a world of centralisation has gotten us: decentralisation has to be beneficial, it has to. I look into his eyes, thick stripes of black kohl along his cheekbones, perhaps a nod to the Super Bowl. I find myself compelled; I find that I cannot yet believe.
Outside, the two women I met at the beginning of the night recommend that I buy Party Bears, not Flufs, since they’re cheaper. The man who put his arm around me earlier shows me his carrot, the end nibbled off. “I haven’t taken a bite of this,” he says. “It’s all other people. Do you want some?” I think of rapidly rising Covid cases; I think of idioms about carrots and sticks. The livestreamed party echoes noisily into an empty room. The man leans forward, pushing the carrot towards me. “Just a little bite,” he says. “No,” I reply, and leave.