This is the transcript of a talk I gave as part of the Summer of Protocols series hosted by Venkatesh Rao on February 14, 2024. Watch a video of the talk here.

Thanks for inviting me to speak. I’m excited to detail the journey Metalabel has been on the past two-plus years. This process has been a practical lesson in the tensions between technological determinism, human experience, and what happens when the means justify the ends.

This talk and our journey are broken into five sections. In them I share our experiences and some of the conclusions we came to. I want to stress that our experiences, our values, and sense of what’s important are our own. Others will and should have differing opinions. 

What’s most important is that all projects go through a process of trying to deeply understand what they’re trying to do, then make sure the technologies and approaches they’re using can get them there.

This story starts seven years ago. I’d stepped down as the CEO of Kickstarter and written a book called This Could Be Our Future. The book introduced a new framework for thinking about self-interest called Bentoism, which I soon found myself teaching in workshops in people’s living rooms and online.

As is always true of community management, building and supporting the Bento Society community took a lot of energy. I was constantly creating content and hosting space for members. This was something I chose to do and often loved, but at the same time was draining. I was continuously giving. What was I receiving? It wasn’t always easy to tell.

Eventually I reached a point of burnout. I hit pause on everything to figure out what I should do. To clear my head, I read extensively and came across multiple texts that spoke to what I was experiencing.

First was a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that detailed the story of how punk and hardcore began — groups of kids starting noisy bands, then starting their own record labels to put themselves out and be heard.

Something special happened when bands put themselves out on their own labels: it invited others to follow in their footsteps. The act of releasing was also an act of manifesting. Putting out a punk album manifested more punkness in the world because it exposed audiences to their sound. The label was how that sound found its way to an audience, and was a path they could follow and even participate in. Putting out a record and starting a label inspired others to want to do the same.

The second thing I read was a series of essays about the history of a group called the Royal Society, which started in 1660. The Royal Society began as a club of academics who believed facts should be proven through evidence rather than the decree of the king or church, and who started meeting in a pub every week to explore their common views. They decided to try manifesting this belief, so the group began publishing a journal called Philosophical Transactions — arguably the first zine — which would go on to feature the writings of Isaac Newton, the first images of the microscope, funded the making of the Babbage Machine, and published Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment. The Royal Society’s iterative publishing manifested the scientific method, peer review, and modern science as we know it.

On the surface level, a punk label and a group of Victorian academics couldn’t be more different, but in both cases a small group of people who shared a common worldview aligned to release work that reflected their values. I came to see these and many other, similar projects in a wide range of fields as having the same underlying structure: a group of people with a common worldview who release work together. I called this structure a “culture label.” The same framework that was used for music or fashion — the two industries where the label concept is most common — could be used for groups of disparate people to release work together in any medium or form.

My initial instinct was to try and see myself as a label. I tried creating my own catalog of what I’d made. I went through my past projects and saw thematic throughlines and frequent collaborators I hadn’t noticed before. Seeing myself as a label was a breakthrough. I saw my work in a larger context.

I began looking for a solution online that would let me express my work with the taxonomy and care that I wanted. I tried Squarespace, Wix, Cargo. All were miserable at treating my data with any kind of care. It was just CSS and HTML on a page – nothing durable, no knowledge of what it represented. They were obviously faulty and wouldn’t create a legacy that could outlive me. The second I stopped paying $150 a year, everything I’d done would vanish.

I put the idea on the backburner while exploring other projects, but the observation continued to simmer. A few months later, a new word to describe this category appeared while talking with a friend. The form was a metalabel.

My search for a way to better create a durable catalog and label led me to the blockchain. It was 2021 and crypto was the intellectual rage. Its permanent storage solutions, collective governance, interoperable data, and artist royalties seemed like they could provide the kind of underlying architecture that would allow the way I’d thought about labels to exist not just for me, but others too.

I’d first became interested in blockchains while researching my book This Could Be Our Future, which called out how society had come to see financial value as the only value worth making decisions based on, and tried to imagine how a wider spectrum of values could compete against finances in swaying our judgement. One practical example of a shifting metric system that I wrote about in the book didn’t involve blockchains, but felt spiritually related.

Whenever the pop star Adele went on tour, her tickets immediately sold out and were put on secondary markets where their prices were inflated by hundreds of a percent. But back in 2015, Adele experimented with a loyalty score based on people’s social and listening history to determine who was the most deserving Adele fan, then distributed tickets to them. The experiment was a success — less than 10% of these tickets were resold compared to more than half in a traditional open market, saving her fans hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more) across the tour and ensuring that Adele performed for the fans she most wished.

An individual having the agency to change the metric that would be used to grant access to an experience felt like an exciting revelation. If we could pinpoint other metrics beyond financial outcomes, a whole new world of decision-making could open up. Especially with blockchains, where it was possible to turn basically any numerical value into a gating mechanic, and where one could immutably inscribe their values into a smart contract that could then secure a specific set of values and outcomes that the designer wished from that point forward.

I became more and more excited by the potential of exploring the reinvention of the label concept with blockchains as the underlying infrastructure. This, I thought, would be the way to not just allow me and others to express and manifest their values, it would be a way to secure them for the long term.

During this time the Metalabel project began to gather momentum, and over the next two years we focused on developing a product that would make the label structure possible with blockchains as its rails. In March 2022 we put these ideas to the test with a series called Quality Drops that let groups of creators sell bundles of work like zines, books, art work, concerts, film screenings, and whitepapers by groups of people working together, with transactions happening via crypto and blockchains.

Starting with the very first drop, however, things got weird. In the first release, Gitcoin re-issued the original Quadratic Funding whitepaper written by Vitalik Buterin, Glen Weyl, and Zoe Hitzig as a collectible fundraiser. The project raised a quarter-million dollars in six days of funding, but in the very last hours before the drop closed, a frenzy erupted: people started buying as many editions as they could because it was being hyped as the first-ever NFT by Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin on Twitter. The release suddenly became the most traded NFT on Ethereum, and its initial context as a way to celebrate an academic whitepaper got overtaken by a new narrative.

The creators as well as Metalabel were flooded with messages demanding we take certain actions to drive the value of what had become a speculative asset. The original context was lost. In a tweet that embodied the moment, someone angrily wrote to us: “I own three and don’t even know why?”

Earlier in the crypto boom artists benefited from these speculation frenzies through royalties, typically receiving 10% of proceeds if their work was resold. But in late 2022, a new NFT platform named Blur found a way to negate the requirement that artists get a royalty when their art is sold. They did this to attract a bigger collector audience, who would be wooed by not having to pay an extra 10% to those pesky artists when flipping NFTs.

It worked. Blur quickly built a substantial audience with traders and considerable market power. They then told creators that Blur would sometimes honor artist royalties, but only if an artist blocked their work from being sold anywhere else. Blur’s strong-arm tactics caused OpenSea, until then the clear industry leader, to change its policies too. Within months, artist royalties — the most promising new creator income stream since crowdfunding — was on life support.

Just to underscore how wild this is, imagine if Spotify said we will no longer pay any artist royalties on music, thus our service is free for anyone to listen to. As they used that to build marketshare, they would then say “okay you can get royalties but only if you delete your music from every other service out there.”

Last year Spotify did announce it would no longer pay royalties on tracks that get less than 1,000 plays. If this had played out like the Blur/OpenSea battle, Spotify would have then told artists that they would get royalties on Spotify if they chose to block their music from being sold on other services in an attempt to concentrate market power. But that did not happen. Other services are sufficiently independent that they could make choices of their own.

I belabor this point because it’s instructive. What Blur did in web3 — using the interconnectedness of the blockchain to change behavior in competitive platforms — wouldn’t fly in a traditional web setting.

  • First, in music, royalties are a legally enforceable contract and courts exist to protect rights holders. Crypto says “code is law,” but that clearly isn’t the case. Law is law. Code is an executable suggestion that does not give artists real protection. 
  • Second, in many ways Web2 platforms are more decentralized than crypto. They each use their own tech stacks, their own data schemes, their own offerings. This lack of interoperability can be painful, but it also prevents the kind of lockstep market demolition we saw with artist royalties, where a switch could be flipped off or on in one instance, impacting the rest of the web.

This was our first strike in the crypto world. There would be more.

A month later another Quality Drop was scheduled for an art book from Japan with zero connections to crypto. But the same week we planned to put out the work, a memecoin called Pepe went wild on Ethereum, driving up transaction fees to astronomical levels (it would have cost more than a hundred dollars in fees to buy a $30 book). There was nothing the artists or we as the platform could do about it.

As a business looking to deliver a reliable service, this was devastating. If people couldn’t trust the basic infrastructure we used to process payments, how was anyone supposed to make a living? We pivoted and added a Stripe commerce option to all future drops, beginning to integrate Metalabel into the traditional financial system where at least we could rely on things to work as promised.

A few weeks later, there was a third strike: my wallet was drained via a fake account on Twitter. I’d been very security conscience, and yet here I was after a simple lapse. Law enforcement called me not long after to explain they’d found a suspect — someone in New Jersey — but they were unable to retrieve what had been stolen. It had already been resold, and blockchains didn’t allow for reversing transactions. There was nothing they could do.

In that moment all I could think about was how a creator might have felt — whether it was the degen community putting pressure on them to meet their financial expectations or if what they’d raised had gotten drained without any hope of recourse. It was one thing for me to deal with this, but what about our future customers? My doubts began to grow.

The series of events prompted many conversations within Metalabel about our dependence on blockchains. When we went back to the original ideas that sparked this project — punk rock, the Royal Society, culture labels — crypto and blockchains were nowhere in the picture. Were we sure they needed to be now?

Feeling stuck between the promise and reality of our experience, I decided to go on a crypto diet, consciously limiting my exposure to crypto dogma while sorting out where we stood. I unfollowed crypto accounts on social media and changed what information I took in. I went on a crypto cleanse. The experience was revealing. While crypto had felt like an inevitable fait accompli while in the blockchain bubble, once we stopped looking at Twitter we never heard a single person talk about crypto. It existed in this one corner and nowhere else.

I encouraged my fellow squadmates to go through a similar process of giving their feeds a crypto diet to see what they found. We all experienced similar revelations — getting the world onchain felt hollow once we actually were taking in the world at large. What problems was crypto meaning to solve? How real were those problems? It all felt much less urgent.

Friends in the space heard about our experience and asked how they could do the same. We wrote a piece detailing what we’d done and privately shared it. We didn’t want to publicly critique crypto because we weren’t out, necessarily, but we did think being honest about our experiences had value in private where we’d found people were more open and critical in their thinking. The Google Doc of our thoughts, called “Climbing out of the rabbit hole,” gathered more than 100 comments both for and against as it privately circulated group chats.

With this added space, we looked at the project with fresh eyes. If we stepped back and asked what was most important, what stood out? What we wanted to build was clear:

  • Infrastructure for groups of people to co-publish and sell work together
  • Infrastructure for groups to have shared finances
  • Open data structures for cataloging creative work
  • Provenance that establishes authorship and history of a work
  • Portable data and identities
  • Physical and digital work worth paying for

While most of these functions were possible with blockchains, the breathing room let us focus on the experience we wanted to provide. The ends rather than the means.

In contrast, it became clear that the blockchain path was one where the means justified the ends. What matters is not the end user experience. What matters is the fact that data is stored in a specific database structure. It’s the means that matter more than the ends in crypto.

Because the means justify the ends in crypto, certain consequences come with the territory that are extremely difficult (and maybe impossible) to change that those of us in the space simply accept because the means force us to.

  • Security is a huge problem because blockchains can’t roll back. We call this being permissionless and say code is law. In reality it’s a hostile consumer experience where people’s personal property is easily stolen without recourse because of the technical construction of blockchains.
  • There is a defacto potential for financialization built into everything because that original use case drove blockchains’s creation. Any piece of content can be wildly financialized without its creators benefiting or giving approval because of the open, financialized nature of blockchains.
  • Because blockchain space is so limited, people pay microtransactions to do everything. Transaction fees have been rebranded as protocol rewards and referral bonuses, when we’re really service fees so ubiquitous they’d make Ticketmaster salivate/blush. We accept them because the means justify the ends.

In all of these cases the means outweigh the ends for the true believers. Since the industry is obsessed with the means of blockchains as a nascent technology, the end experience is not as important as the tooling that created it. But for people outside the space, it’s the ends that matter. This is what makes crypto feel like such a hostile and unwelcoming space.

Blockchains aren’t the only example of the means justifying the ends:

  • Food being organic is a favorable example of a product category built around the means more than the ends. As a result of those means, organic food is (theoretically) healthier and tastier, and thus worthy of more money.
  • The same is true of things that are handmade, which clearly implies a means — as well as certain limitations — that a purchaser will understand and be familiar with.
  • Mastodon and BlueSky, both built on the promise of decentralization, are similarly means, not ends, focused. So long as this is their dominant goal, both services are limited in their relevance to the wants and desires of the public at large.

When we stepped back and looked at the end user experience we wanted, we discovered we could provide a service exactly like we had envisioned while also allowing our customers to use existing tools and financial rails they were already comfortable with. Metalabel’s journey into the crypto rabbit hole and back out again produced something unique: a product stack that’s very much inspired by crypto, but with zero blockchains underneath it.

A few weeks ago Venkatesh Rao wrote a great post called “Brains, Trains, and Vibesmobiles” that plays out a similar line of thinking.

Venkatesh sees three major paradigms of human activity: planes, or people in power; trains, or core infrastructure meant to efficiently move goods from one big area to another; and automobiles, used by people to get where they need to go.

Venkatesh compares these to technological paradigms:

  • Planes carry elites (“brains”) who manage systems (likely AI brains in the future)
  • Trains are equivalent to blockchains providing core infrastructure
  • Automobiles are “vibesmobiles” — how we actually get around and do things in the nimble and bespoke ways people need

Metalabel is in the vibesmobile category. We’re the last mile experience meant to support human agency and bespoke desires more than mass efficiency. It’s all about the ends.

Next week Metalabel’s tooling will launch, introducing a new space for releasing, selling, and exhibiting creative work across all mediums. Think of it as Bandcamp for everything. Etsy for creative goods.

The platform runs on a vibesmobile stack that we believe can deliver a post-platform and sovereign experience for creators that includes:

  • An operating system that lets groups of creators start groups and publish and sell work together.
  • A redesign of the existing payments architecture to allow for shared financial outcomes and tools.
  • An opinionated data architecture that preserves creative work as a portable, downloadable catalog raisonne.
  • All identities in our system are Decentralized Identifiers that empower creators to own, control, host, and manage their own identities, taking them around the web. We issue our own centralized Decentralized Identifiers that are portable and trustless, and we’re setup to support people bringing their own identities in the future (like BlueSky, Privy,, etc).
  • Cryptographically signed data and operations that allow anyone to prove their identity and which work is theirs that can be verified without our servers, and even offline.
  • Open APIs, open data schemas, and public access to data.

Most of these are already well-established standards that we’re taking advantage of. Others, like some financial innovations we’re introducing and Decentralized Identifiers, are newer, but we believe very promising. This tech stack lets us provide a very predictable user experience while allowing for very different outcomes than we’ve seen on web2 platforms. Because it’s architected to be so open, we can easily integrate with other pipes and services if and when we choose (including blockchains). And if Metalabel were to go out of business, these catalogs and identities can live on with the same levels of authority and integrity even without Metalabel’s servers because of this infrastructure.

When Metalabel launches, we’re not going to emphasize these post-platform functions. Instead we’re focusing on what creators can do with them: publish and catalog creative work; start groups with others; and share resources in pursuit of larger shared goals. This is the end result that matters. The means are the fine print that gets them there.

Underlying all of this is a reimagining of the label structure. This platform will let groups of creators come together to co-release work in ways they wouldn’t have been able to previously.

The very first release is case in point: a new book by myself; Venkatesh Rao; Maggie Appleton; Peter Limberg and Rebecca Fox of the Stoa; Joshua Citerella and Leith Benkhadda of Do Not Research; Arthur Roing Bear and GVN908 from Trust; and Caroline Busta and Lil Internet of New Models. We’ve come together to make a book called The Dark Forest Anthology of the Internet that brings together our individual works into something larger than any of us on our own.

More releases will follow on a curated, weekly basis. We’re very excited by the work and new model we’re helping put into the world.

Many aspects of the Metalabel experience heavily relate to and were inspired by crypto — open and interoperable data, portable identities, provenance, shared finances. Crypto’s influence is considerable. We’re translating what we find most compelling into what we think our customers (creative people) need and will use.

This is what inspired me so much about Adele’s ticketing algorithm. Here I was a writer swimming in theories about what would happen if value systems changed. And here was an artist who found cause to do just that. Not because of some philosophical or theoretical concept. But because she urgently needed and wanted it in her own practice.

Our search for peer relationships with other creative people comes from the same place. Our own experiences as lonely creative people trapped in the Creator Economy lit a fire that made us want a new context and experience. The old ways stopped working. We needed something new.

The design space of crypto opened up a new path, even as we’ve chosen not to adopt its plumbing for now. Our goal is to provide a fundamentally better outcome than the status quo, and this is how we feel we can best fulfill that. It’s the ends, not the means, that really count.