28 OCTOBER 2021

Forms of attribution have been part of creative economies for centuries, from the loose referral systems of folk tales – “once upon a time” –, to more formalised and institutionalised versions, such as referencing in academia.
To map why attribution through blockchain can be a subversive anticapitalist practice, and the economic inclusivity it can bring about – as well as some angles of criticism to it –, it’s valuable to first outline a selective history of attributions in creative economies.

Folktales and their verbal referral models are an early form of attribution in cultural production. Folk narratives conveyed verbally, through what Wittgenstein called “language games”, place little to no emphasis on the author of stories, as illustrated by obscure openings that position the ownership of these cultural products to an external, often non-existent or abstract, entity. These openers place the listener in the position of addressee, while the narrator in a position of “proxy-knower”, by association to the actual “knower”, the external entity. Lyotard (1979, p.9) summed this up in the following way. ‘A denotative utterance… positions its sender (the person who utters the statement), its addressee (the person who receives it), and its referent (what the statement deals with) in a specific way: the utterance places (and exposes) the sender in the position of “knower”…’. In the English language, the “once upon a time” opener denotes an abstract time in the past, so long ago that the author of the story is not denoted, as they are perhaps not even known (which is often actually the case). Other languages, such as Iraqw in the Tanzania region, place attribution onto a semi-abstract, materially more tangible, father figure, with the traditional folktale opening being ‘I remember something that our father told me and that is this: …’. In both these instances, the owners of creative products were not culturally significant to know, or weren’t possible to keep a record of, hence attribution wasn’t and isn’t required at all.

The emergence and ubiquity of academic attribution – citations – mark a significant change in the economy of attributions. Citations have an ambiguous history, and until relatively recently (in the context of the existence of universities) there were no standardised systems. The Harvard system originated in 1881, the Chicago citation style in 1906, and the Vancouver system in 1978. The cementing of citations in cultural production signified the importance of the individual author in culture. The “knower” is now a concrete figure, and it’s a form of social contract to refer to them and to be referred by others. This system established an economy of “being seen” (exposure), which

in itself

doesn’t carry any material and monetary form of attribution to the referents.

Increasing this economy of visibility are Web2 referencing models.


links are widely highlighted on websites, usually signified by a change in colour and underline on the linked words, embedding attribution into the very fabric of the content, alongside which, in a similar way, social media platforms’ tagging systems link to other users, locations and products. Digital attributions create a larger and faster network of citations, although they remain without any


monetary backing for the visibility they generate. Web2 is an economy of optics, both for the sender, addressee and referent.
Web3 disrupts this by backing the attribution economy materially, in a way that is just as native to it, as links are to Web2. Since the form this takes is not (yet) standardised, let’s examine how it takes shape on the decentralised publishing platform,


. In May 2021 Mirror introduced its native “splits” feature, which allows users to ‘route funds continuously to an unlimited number of Ethereum addresses, according to a set of percentage allocations.’ (Mirror, 2021) An example Mirror gives of this feature is an

NFT artwork

by Jack Butcher, where the proceeds from the


sale are redirected to people who previously supported the artist’s work. ‘Collaboration then extends to who inspired your idea and to what extent.’ (Mirror 2021). Influences can now receive monetary attribution. ‘Splitting is the new tagging, and it’s just as easy. If Web2 was about social graphs – where a tagged photo connects each participant who attended last night’s dinner party – Web3 is about economic graphs, connecting entities whose influence is baked into a work. It’s not only cool that those entities get money, but that it begins to create a fascinating ledger of where ideas from different sources intersect.’ (Mirror, 2021) This form of attribution then allows for a creative economy where exposure is tied to a monetary facet, which is then


distributed automatically through smart contracts.

This fundamentally disrupts production and exchange relations in capitalist economies. Since production and exchange are decentralised, power dynamics can emerge that exclude the exploitations of previous economies, where material products of labour can be more justly distributed. This also makes Web3 radical in its recognition of a wider range of activities as worthy of economic compensation – although does simultaneously risk commodifying the everyday further. It is also heavily skewed towards those with influence built on


or Web2 networks, with some platforms actively excluding those without already established connections or wealth.

The potential to reduce economic injustice is present, and there have already been thousands who benefited from Web3 attributions.
To avoid this and the violent commodification one’s leisure time, an underlying support structure needs to be present, that ensured material security for all, where creative networks and economic graphs can flourish, without a survival or profit incentive.

The use of blockchain technology for attribution could be a turning point for many creators. As the upholders of traditional economic structures are in demographic decline, Gen-Y and Gen-Z will have more flexibility to alter rigid economic structures, building futures that socially and materially benefit them.


Lyotard, J-F. (1979)

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

. Reprint, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Mirror (2021)

Introducing Splits

. Available at:

(Accessed: 26 October 2021).