When looking at the success or failure of blockchain protocols, many times the role of the community is key. In this post, I’ll discuss communities, social media, and how community happens in this new virtual world. This is the second article talking about some of the basics, and is Part 1 of 2 about communities.
As I discussed in my last post, blockchain allows us to create trust, transparency, and value in places where previously there was none (or far less). It’s actually pretty remarkable the way that taking out the middleman, making everything transparent, and turning everybody into stakeholders creates shared responsibility and reliability… Almost as if this concept always existed… The community.
A word about community
Communities always existed out of pure self-interest. Some of our earliest human communities formed around 10,000-12,000 years ago when humans began to shift from hunter-gatherer societies to settled communities that grew and harvested their own food, in one place. This is what historians refer to as ‘The Agricultural Revolution'. There are arguments amongst historians as to what exactly started The Agricultural Revolution: climate change, tools, religion, culture, maybe a mix of these and other factors.
No matter the reason for the revolution, a large part of this revolution was more of a communal transition rather than a technological one. A culture developed around farming together. There was recognition that by working together, we may be able to grow more wheat, ferment more ale, or rear more cattle.
This is the breakthrough: Finding a better way to work together.
That truth, of self-interest, and working better together, is also at the base of most natural ecosystems. At some point, a balance between all the different players’ self-interest is struck, and the community is self-perpetuating and sustainable.
An intentional community is about finding ways to be effective as a group and achieve certain goals. It's unsurprising that community is important in the blockchain space. But like many early ecosystems, it doesn’t necessarily start completely balanced or organized.
Me to We
A mentor of mine, executive coach Tal Ronen, always says that we are living through a transition ‘From me to we’. What he means by that is that our global consciousness is undergoing fundamental shifts. In the past couple of centuries, looking out for ourselves and our family was honorable, and (mostly western) culture dictated that every person should look out for themselves and not worry about much outside of their neighborhood. This works pretty well to an extent and is just the same as any other ecosystem. Everyone is simply synced, looking out for their own interests.
As is painfully clear, we have undergone another shift in our lifetime. A shift in the scale of our personal impact. We affect our environment and our society in unsustainable ways. We extract, accumulate, and keep enormous amounts of wealth as individuals, and we are quite unaware of our impact. This is "the tragedy of the commons" in our time.
Part of what allows for this tragedy to happen is our global culture. This culture on the one hand allows us to be far from the effects that we create (we create emissions we don’t see and harm generations that are still unborn) and on the other hand, we bridge vast geographies, connect with different cultures and languages through the internet and grow our potential as a species.
We are at once gaining so much from this global culture, but also creating so much damage. Many are recognizing this. Either due to being personally affected by inequality, environmental disasters or just monitoring the global pulse of events. Many of us are taking individual action, changing course in our lives, taking positions on issues, and affecting change.
However, as with most things, a community of action is necessary. This is the shift from ‘me to we’ that was mentioned - and blockchain is a powerful tool to move this mountain with.
In everyone we trust
The internet has created new communities that don’t share geography, culture, or language necessarily. These communities are based on shared interests or beliefs. Blockchain communities are an interesting and powerful case because they don't just bring together people with shared interests, they create a financial stake around that interest. They literally combine the power of community and economics in quite a novel way.
These communities are not bound by nationality, geography, or culture – they are free to create (whether intentionally or not) their own culture. On top of the mix of internet culture and etiquette, a layer of self-interest is added. This layer is based on economic thinking and a bit of game theory and I believe it makes this phenomenon extremely interesting.
The real breakthrough in these blockchain communities is that until today, there was no real stake to be part of an internet community. Trust was not the name of the game because it was not necessary, and if trust was necessary, it was based on offline trust.
Blockchain flips this on its head and creates trust first. Trust that is not based on knowledge of the people involved in a given project, but rather in a bit of game theory. What I mean is that we don’t have to trust any one person; we just have to trust that same intrinsic truth of ecosystems: that most people will act in their best interest. And so, in everyone we trust.
Adam Smith referred to this self-interest as the invisible hand that moves the market. And so we arrive at this hybrid creature of our era, a hybrid, economic, online, community.
Trust and consensus are some of the basic tenets of most communities. In the past there was basic trust due to the fact that most people lived and worked together. Chances are, if you share a water source, you're not going to piss in the town well, and you trust that your neighbor won't either. We all share a stake in the game.
In these digital communities, it's similar, except without the geographic element. Different blockchains have developed different systems of trust. But they all have a "well" that they form consensus around.
Communities of Bitcoin miners for instance have a lot of equipment and digital assets they’ve accumulated so they can get Bitcoin. Their form of consensus is around "Proof of Work" (PoW). Even though miners are a community dispersed around the world, they don’t have to know each other to know they have shared interests and a shared value for the integrity of the system.
Similarly, Ethereum miners also make decisions and even adapt the whole blockchain with Ethereum Improvement Proposals (EIP). These EIPs literally change the nature of the blockchain. EIPs are what created NFTs and what will eventually move Ethereum from being Proof of Work (PoW) based to a proof-of-stake system (PoS).
Proof of stake is, conceptually speaking, nothing new. It may, however, be completely new to internet communities. When we trust those with the most skin in the game, it again relies on that assurance that everyone’s self-interest is our self-interest.
Consensus is the foundation of any community. In blockchain, it just happens to be put into code and is not based on the honor system that so often seems to fail us. The thing I find most inspiring about consensus-based communities is something that others might find disappointing, the ability to break away from consensus.
In our political world, when consensus or contracts (social or otherwise) are broken, we either mediate or fight. This plays out as revolutions, civil wars, or international wars. When a chain cannot come to a consensus, it forks, meaning, it splits off. A much more peaceful way of solving conflict.
The most well-known example of a fork happened after a major hack ("The DAO Hack") on Ethereum. Funds were stolen after exploiting a bug in a contract. Ethereum split between two chains, and essentially two opinions:
Ethereum - A chain where the stolen funds were returned by consensus, literally meaning the community reversed transactions that were meant to be irreversible.
Ethereum Classic - a chain that left the funds stolen, and stayed true to the ethos of the chain which says that the ledger is immutable (unchangeable) and code is law.
A new town square
Back in the good ol’ days, communities would meet in the center of town, in the village square, the piazza, and so on. This was where the shops were, where discussions happened, where we, the community, saw each other, shared ideas, and showed protest.
What's interesting to see is the places where community happens in the blockchain space. It doesn't happen "on-chain". There are three main social media platforms where thoughts are led, opinions are shaped and shit-talking ensues: Twitter, Discord, and Telegram. A word about these platforms and why I think they are useful in this context:
Telegram is an encrypted messaging app that affords security, anonymity (if necessary), and shared discussion groups. Telegram is usually used in this context as a space to have in-depth conversations and, of course, to "shit post" (a large part of the culture in some communities are completely off-topic conversations). Telegram speaks to the culture of anonymity and "off-grid-ness" that is prevalent in the blockchain space.
Discord is a shared discussion/workspace where one can join different channels/threads and discuss different topics, make announcements, share "dank memes'' (another large part of the culture), etc. This is where one can see the whole community and have a more nuanced/specific conversation via specified channels. Discord is more conducive to working together, assigning roles, having community calls and conversations live with voice feeds too.
And finally, Twitter. Twitter is basically the town square for the whole of the internet, but it is very much where a lot of trends and intercommunity chatter happens. This is where people show off their NFTs, make public announcements, and create a following.
A number of honorable mentions:
- Github, a platform for sharing open-source code and projects. Much of blockchain is open source and therefore Github is where the sharing happens. This is mainly for coding and tech-oriented communities.
- Youtube, where influencers shill their products and services. Youtube is also where much of the explaining is done. It is quite hard to wrap your head around a lot of things happening and updates in communities so Youtube provides a platform to share the "community sprints" (basically a rundown of what's happened lately).
- Instagram is sometimes used for brands or NFT focused creator communities. This is not one of the main places I've seen the blockchain space convene around, and it makes sense, as it doesn't have a place to discuss or interact.
Why Discord and not Slack? Why Telegram and not Whatsapp? I don't think that there's an exact answer here but I will say that this culture of community sprouted from internet, gaming, and anti-establishment culture more than it did from corporate, organized, mainstream culture. My guess here is that these are the platforms that were most intuitive to the users that established the foundations.
These spaces are quite democratized and even equitable. Everybody from the leader to the trolls has a voice. Being a part of discussions is overwhelming at times. Everyone can (and most do) speak their minds. Stupid memes are on par with the most important messages. The meritocracy of posting on Discord is an interesting sight. Someone shit-talking could get as many likes as someone discussing a core tenet of a DAO (more on DAOs in part 2).
Value ex machina
This new, equal, noisy, condensed, and intense town square is our new platform for community. It is still growing, figuring things out, reimagining discussion and participation in a decentralized world. I believe, it is still unripe, but also, still useful. Because these communities are still creating and deriving value from the conversations, still learning, still growing, and still creating participation and engagement that create and perpetuate value.
What is great about all this community talk is that it is the value layer to this initial economic layer of the blockchain. The infrastructure of transactions on the blockchain is the basis that started it all, but this additional layer gives meaning and value that goes beyond just exchanging monetary value. This is seldom discussed in crypto. We get so giddy with the idea that there is a way to exchange value without a middleman that we forget why would even do this. Put differently, we sometimes create the roads before we have cars, or before we have destinations.
Capitalizing on that analogy, we should define the value (destination) before we build the blockchain (road). But initially, we have seen the opposite. An example of this is DogeCoin, literally a joke that has turned into a legit blockchain with billions of dollars invested (and inspired other such "meme coins" and spin-offs). Funny enough, this has a lot to do with the community behind it that believes in it. Not actually in the "destination", but just believe that due to the sheer amount of people in it, it might be valuable to actually build destinations for it.
But I digress. Currently, most blockchains seem like the highways of Burma. Paved for everyone to drive, except there aren’t many drivers or places to go to. Some of these highways are paved with the best intentions, some are paved with none. All are maintained by 2 things, a vision for what kind of destinations these roads will lead to, and a community that believes in that vision.
In part 2, I'll look into the culture behind these communities, what are DAOs, why open-source is foundational, what communities feel like right now, and what they can become if we infuse some purpose into them.