The Bored Ape Yacht Club is a virtual membership club. Images of these apes have become ubiquitous profile pictures (PFPs), with celebrities ranging from Jimmy Fallon to Stephen Curry, from Mark Cuban to Madonna showing off their Apes. What is behind this current 10K PFP craze?
The Bored Ape Yacht Club is a virtual membership club that describes itself as "a collection of 10,000 (10K) Bored Ape NFTs—unique digital collectibles living on the Ethereum blockchain. Your Bored Ape [token] doubles as your Yacht Club membership card and grants access to members-only benefits." Images of these apes have become ubiquitous profile pictures (PFPs), with celebrities ranging from Jimmy Fallon to Stephen Curry, from Mark Cuban to Madonna showing off their Apes. When Gwyneth Paltrow purchased hers, she had it custom animated to sport her recognizable golden locks. So what is behind this current 10K PFP craze?
To understand the current appeal of Bored Apes, we first look back at history. A company called LarvaLabs launched CryptoPunks in 2017 with 10,000 pixelated punk NFTs. Each image is a uniquely generated character, and no two are exactly alike. Originally, they were claimed for free by anybody with an Ethereum wallet, and each of the 10,000 was quickly claimed. Over the next three years, the punks grew in value as top influencers added them to their profile pics. Today, a single CryptoPunk sells for not less than $300,000.
When asked about becoming a standard template for 10K PFPs and essentially inventing a genre, the founders of the CryptoPunks project replied,
It was a strange feeling the first time we heard people using the term "10K project"! It's especially wild that this became the standard since we took a shot in the dark when we decided to make the Cryptopunks a set of ten thousand. We wanted them to seem plentiful enough so that each one wouldn't feel too precious (at least early on), but constrained enough that you could eventually get a feeling for the whole set. And it seems that that reasoning has held up! The three-quarter pose with a flat color background has also become a core part of the genre as well. And yes, it is now a fairly established genre of collectible, and in hindsight we can see why these types of projects have been so successful. When compared to traditional collectibles (sports cards and memorabilia, stamps, cars, etc.) they have a very fixed and immutable set size, less risk of fakes, no such thing as physical damage, and a worldwide, low-friction marketplace. Plus, you can show off what you own to the whole world as part of your daily online interactions on social media, and your NFT becomes a sort of membership pass to a club of all the other owners.
In early 2021, CryptoPunks was the only well-known PFP project. The NFT market was focused on digital art and NBA sports collectibles like TopShot. The founders of Bored Ape Yacht Club saw an opportunity. Going by the pseudonyms of Gargamel and Gordon Goner, they spent $40,000 and recruited two blockchain programmers to create 10,000 apes with unique expressions and streetwear-inspired accessories. Thus was born the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). Bored Ape’s art stood out compared to Cryptopunks and attracted collectors to the project. A few celebrities 'Aped in', and the rest is history. The stratospheric success of the project enabled BAYC to recently purchase the intellectual property for CryptoPunks and Meebits (another LarvaLabs project) and gave commercial rights to all owners.
Even more remarkable than this mega-merger of two iconic brands is the number of 10K PFP projects that have flooded the blockchain. People buy and sell NFTs of digital images for various reasons: because they appreciate art or culture, because they want to signal wealth or status, because they're hoping to get rich, or simply for fun. But these same reasons are true for 1-of-1 and 10K projects alike, and therefore cannot explain the 10K PFP project craze.
Instead, PFPs have emerged as a reflection of identity. In an increasingly digital world, we look for ways to express who we are, what we believe, our likes and dislikes, and what communities we belong to. PFPs have different 'traits', some of which are common and others rare, which are all relatable. About 3% of Apes wear sunglasses, whereas only 0.02% of Apes wear a King's crown; an Ape blowing bubblegum and an Ape smoking a cigar are equally abundant. Traits of PFPs provide owners an opportunity to be playful (e.g. sunglasses + bubblegum) or serious (e.g. crown + cigar), to be something you are or something you want to be.
One criticism of today’s social media is that there’s little space to express yourself. Thinking back to the early web, MySpace users spent hours customizing their profile page — adding music, art, and whatever background they could find. For better or worse (some pages were a nausea-inducing digital nightmare), users expressed themselves. Enter Facebook and the strict guardrails of today's online experience and we are largely limited to 👍 . Surely, the complexities of human emotion are more broad and nuanced than "I like this". The inability to make your online space your own could be why drag-and-drop website editors and hosting companies are thriving (e.g., Squarespace has almost 4 million subscribers and generates over $750 million in annualized revenue — a single company approaching 1 billion dollars annually simply for providing easy tools to build your digital home; that sends a strong message).
But as we leave our digital homes and go out into the digital world to meet and interact with people, users still want to carry with them elements of their identity. This may explain the recent craze around profile picture projects. As I described in Zero Marginal Effort, the technology to make 10K PFPs is trivial — my son and I made 10K robot cards in a weekend, where he drew the parts and I wrote the code to make over 10K combinations with varying traits.
New technologies coupled with deeply human desires to be unique and to belong are playing out in creative ways, like 10K PFP projects. Whether the future holds a Ready-Player-One-like-Metaverse, blockchain-enabled cities and towns, or something not yet imagined, community and identity will remain. So the next time you see someone flexing their Punk or Ape, or meet a fellow Cool Cat, World of Women, Lego Punk, Toadz, mfers, etc, the real person underneath is communicating something about themselves, and it's an opportunity to listen.