Farewell, "Charlie bit my finger": The NFT gold rush is destroying digital history

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People who don't "get" the current NFT craze usually have the same question: why would someone shell out six figures to own something that's free for anyone to view online? The family behind one of the most popular YouTube videos ever uploaded understands this lack-of-scarcity skepticism and is doing something to inflate their meme's value. When "Charlie Bit My Finger" goes up for auction as an NFT on May 23, the video will be deleted from YouTube, where it's been viewed more than 881 million times in the last 14 years.

The Davies-Carr family is betting someone, ideally many someones, will pay handsomely for the privilege of queueing up the 55 second clip of one-year-old Charlie gnawing on his three-year-old brother Harry whenever they like. It'll kind of be like how Martin Shkreli paid $2 million to withhold Wu Tang Clan's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin from the public. Except the public already had 14 years to giggle at the micro-dramedy of "Charlie Bit My Finger" on repeat.

The boys are now 15 and 17, and they see the NFT boom as the logical next iteration of their meme fame. “NFTs is the new thing,” Charlie told the New York Post from the family's home outside London. “When we posted, YouTube was the new thing, but now NFTs is the exciting new thing.”

Memes like Disaster Girl, Nyan Cat and Overly Attached Girlfriend recently sold for eye-popping prices, around half-a-million dollars apiece. But other bits of viral content haven't fared as well on the crypto market. The highly-anticipated auction of David After Dentist fetched just $11,500, for example.

The Davies-Carr family knows that erasing the video that made them famous is a gamble. They'd lose whatever ad revenue they still collect from YouTube, for example. "We could come out of this badly. I don’t know what’s going to happen," Charlie and Harry's father, Howard Davies-Carr, told the Post.

Meanwhile there's bound to be other ways to watch the clip. Whoever buys the NFT will have quite the job trying to scrub re-uploads from the internet. But the co-founder of the NFT platform hosting the sale, Origin Protocol, didn't think that would detract buyers: "There’s a million copies of the Mona Lisa circulating, either as physical or digital images, all over the world, but everyone knows that there’s only one," Matt Liu said. "Even though there are still other digital copies, there’s one that’s basically been authenticated by the creator of this content."

Not to get super meta, but you could argue that the actual YouTube page for "Charlie Bit My Finger" is the real work of art. Who knows whether a relatively innocuous home video clip would hit the same way if it were posted in 2021 as it did in 2007? But destroying art in the name of selling it on the blockchain worked out for those people who burned a Banksy and nearly quadrupled its value. Deleting "Charlie Bit My Finger" from the internet might just pay off.