Charlie and Harry Davies-Carr were just babies—one and three years old—when they became unintentional internet superstars. The “Charlie Bit My Finger” video, filmed and posted on YouTube by their dad Howard back in 2007, became an instant classic of internet culture. Matthew Liu, a product manager at YouTube at the time, remembers the company’s fascination with the early viral hit. “This video, in particular, really captivated the entire world’s imagination,” Liu says over Google Meet from Taipei, where he is now living and working. “It was really, really amazing to see that internally. It’s literally the definition of a viral video.” An entire genre of entertainment—the organic viral video—blossomed in its wake, the subjects becoming meme stars. Fourteen years later, it’s still one of YouTube’s most popular videos, with over 880 million views.
But if you want to see this seminal clip in full, you’ll have to watch before May 23, 2021. “Charlie Bit My Finger” is about to leave YouTube forever to be sold to a private owner during an online auction on May 22, when the video will join the ranks of many pieces of digital art cashing in on the recent craze for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. For the Davies-Carr family, who sought this opportunity themselves, it’s a chance to further capitalize on their accidental swipe at fame, establish themselves as a valuable piece of digital history, and—hopefully—secure extra funds to go towards educating Charlie and Harry, now 15 and 17, and their two younger brothers. “This could make the difference between them having cheaper student loans, nicer accommodation, not having to get a bar job,” says Howard Davies-Carr. Bidding will start at $1,000, but popular NFTs have sold for millions.
Charlie is running late from school, which means our interview is running a little late, but when the two floppy-haired brothers—sandwiching their dad—appear onscreen, it’s with the casual comfort of young people who have been in front of a camera plenty of times before. After appearing in the original video, Howard and his sons got requests to appear on everything from advertisements to talk shows. Over the years, they’ve reenacted the video countless times. (“And they’re actually not very good at reenacting,” Howard jokes; Charlie takes offense at that.) “We try to keep it on the side as much as we can,” says Harry, the eldest, of the way the video has impacted their lives over the years. They were just babies when they became famous, after all, and don’t know life without it. “When I first joined my secondary school, the first week, it’s the big thing. But then after that, it just dies down to a part of normal life,” Charlie says. When they heard about NFTs—a way to digitally stamp an image or video and affirm its authenticity on the web—they decided to auction off ownership of their viral video, situating it in a new digital space by selling it and removing it from public view.
Howard knows it might seem odd to sell the asset that has brought the family significant income over the years. But as the internet has shifted, he realized they needed to shift with it. “YouTube is always changing. The relationship we have with YouTube has changed,” he says. “You’re looking at this from a point of view that actually it should be there forever. Well, it might not be: they may change their terms and conditions in a year’s time, where actually uploaded, user-generated content is not important to them anymore.” Advertising revenue associated with the video has also dwindled. Making the video an NFT gives the family “a little bit more control.” Howard has long been an early adopter of new technology; he claims to have sent the first digital SMS over a satellite network in 1996. Plus, there’s a precedent for this kind of sale: Zoë Roth, the girl who appears in a frequently-memed image known on the internet as “Disaster Girl,” just auctioned the image as an NFT for nearly $500,000.
To former YouTube product manager Liu, who is now a co-founder of Origin Protocol, the auction platform that will host the sale for the Davies-Carrs, selling this video as an NFT just makes sense. Liu and Josh Fraser founded Origin Protocol in 2017 as a decentralized e-commerce platform directly connecting buyers and sellers, using blockchain as its currency. In 2021, they became a go-to site to host NFT sales: the musician 3LAU worked with Origin on the blockbuster sale of a series of original musical and art products that netted $11.7 million, setting sales records and making him one of the earliest and buzziest NFT creators. Already, however, some critics are suggesting that the NFT market is a bubble. Liu and Fraser see it as a similar scenario to the cryptocurrency bubble of 2017: when the hype dies down, the intrinsic value of this market will settle and, hopefully, remain intact.
Of course, “intrinsic” is a conceptually challenging adjective to apply to digital art or content like the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video. But the point is to assign clear value and ownership to items that before now have been floating in a formless ether. A painting with a verified signature by Picasso is worth more than a perfectly-replicated fake because the fine art community has agreed that origin matters. The NFT world believes that digital content deserves the same treatment and valuation, and by conducting auctions via blockchain, the authenticity and uniqueness of the NFT is guaranteed. Davies-Carr compares the eyebrow-raising at NFTs today to the quizzical early responses to British graffiti artist Banksy early in his career. “If I had said to you 10 years ago that someone’s going to go around doing graffiti on people’s buildings, and they’re going to cut those buildings out and put them in a museum? We would have said I was absolutely mad,” he says. “But things are changing all the time.” Plus, the buying and selling of virtual goods is not a new concept. In closed digital economies, like in video games such as World of Warcraft or Fortnite, real money is spent on virtual products. It’s big business. (It’s also the crux of a current court battle between Apple and Epic Games, creator of Fortnite, over Apple’s control over payments via the App Store.)
On May 22, there will be a certain satisfaction in seeing the Davies-Carr brothers capitalize on the global joy they spread as toddlers, and, for a moment, reclaim control of it. They won’t have control over where their video will end up, but they have one hope: “I’d like to think that maybe a purchaser is purchasing because they want to create a museum,” says Howard. Charlie and Harry plan to fly to meet the buyer and reenact their viral video in person one more time. After that? Back to school and, soon, off to college. Harry, the eldest, plans to study engineering. “But I’ll definitely be looking into, like, what’s happening in cryptocurrencies and stuff like that,” he adds. And he’ll keep an eye on NFTs, just in case one pops up that’s worth collecting.
Update, May 28
The NFT was purchased by Dubai-based buyer Farzin Fardin Fard and his organization, 3F Music. Following the auction, he decided to keep the video on YouTube after all. “The buyer felt that the video is an important part of popular culture and shouldn’t be taken down. It will now live on YouTube for the masses to continue enjoying as well as memorialized as an NFT on the blockchain,” Howard told Quartz.