Beyond Just Tokens: Community Legos
Internet communities have gone a long way since the early days of YouTube & Co. The future now belongs to the long tail of communities and the tools that will address them. The #CommunityLegos.
Welcome back to a new issue of this newsletter. Here we try to figure out the arcanes of community building using Web3 technologies. Join the Discord.
If you are administrating an online community or building tools for them, you will want to get a deeper understanding of where internet communities come from and where they are heading. Are people looking to form large groups or small circles? What is the past and future of community tooling? Templates or customization?
In this short post I go over big ideas on internet communities from a web3 perspective and tie them together into a single narrative. I first look back to legacy platforms of the Passion Economy and how they left millions of communities unaddressed. I then describe tokenization as a first step towards re-equipping the long tail of communities and from there I introduce community legos as the logical path forward.
1. Looking Back: Communities As Stadiums
Internet communities have existed since the very early days of the world wide web. However, until the rise of platforms and the Passion Economy, they remained mostly invisible to the mainstream. Passion Economy is a term coined by Li Jin and Adam Davidson and refers to the growing number of creators who have been making a living from platforms like Youtube, Twitch or Patreon.
The trend has been huge and accelerating since the early 2010s. Today YouTubers, podcasters and streamers are big business. Channels have millions of fans and podcasters sign massive deals. Of course startup companies have entered to address the needs of the market.
On Passion Economy platforms several creators have attracted very large audiences and the distribution in followers follows a power law. Only 1M out of 31M Youtube Channels have more than 10k followers, 16K have more than 1M followers. Nadia Eghbal, who recently published a book on open-source and platforms, calls these communities stadiums. Essentially, stadiums are large communities organized around a single development team or creator. If you think about it, Twitch channels really look like stadiums sometimes, with thousands of viewers flooding a noisy chat and the streamer in the center of the arena.
Stadium communities are the kings of legacy platforms. They generate a lot of traffic and ad revenues. Moreover, the more time a user sticks with only a few stadiums, the less she is subject to search fatigue (which tends to increase as one scrolls through too much content). In order to minimize fatigue for users, platforms do a lot of standardization. For example the UI on YouTube is always the same whatever channel you are browsing. The features -chat, like, comment, subscribe- are also identical.
"It is a fact of life that marketplaces have to commoditize the workers and inventory to a certain extent in order to function as a marketplace, to make it easier for consumers to search, reduce cost of search. Everybody on substack is commoditized." - Li jin observes
Stadiums are cool to browse and standardization is convenient, but the formula has its limits when it comes to addressing the long of non-stadium communities.
2. Re-Enabling The Long Tail
Legacy platforms offer very little room for customization. In the standardization process, everything is made to eliminate distinctions among communities and the only distinct factor is the creator herself. Because of that there are no switching costs between stadiums, those communities aren't sticky and lack boundaries.
"Define clear group boundaries" - First rule of Ostrom's 8 rules for managing commons
The absence of boundaries in a community prevents people from gradually accruing skin in the game, to build a reputation and to weave ties with other community members. For people to start contributing to a collective project or resource, they need a reason to do it. A non exhaustive list might be cultural motivations (sense of belonging to a country or religion), affective motivations (ties with friends & family), intrinsic motivations or financial incentives. Without these boundaries, individuals in the group simply don't work together.
Early open-source communities like Linux, Apache and the likes differentiated with various work environments, social networks and vibes. Contributors had a local reputation and leaving the community was not without downsides. As a result of these boundaries these projects have built lasting internal cultures and tooling.
Back to 2020, crypto projects are using tokens to recreate community boundaries at scale over the internet. Once a first membrane is in place, people stick around and start doing stuff. Things Happen. Take the case of Ethereum where governance systems, infrastructures and rituals have gradually emerged over the years.
In many parts of the internet, there is a desire for smaller size or more delineated communities. Wether it is to escape the internet of beefs, run away from incessant noise or to access more customized online environments like the bespoke social media Toby Shorin tells us about in "Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool".
At the very same time there is a growing demand for agency and ownership in the face of change and inequalities. Jesse Walden coined the term Ownership Economy referring to tokenized protocols like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Those protocols are living proofs that there is an appetite for a new kind of user owned organization. In this org model, wealth trickles down to all users for each additional person using the service, reinforcing alignment among members and network effects.
By allowing participants to have economic skin in the game, tokens are a cheap and easy way to delineate a community. Thanks to this first membrane, other longer lasting boundaries can emerge in form of social ties, culture and a customized collaboration environments.
Tokenization As The Lego Baseplate
JammSession is a tokenized community launched by Briann Flynn starting with his newsletter followers. It is now growing a universe of chats and products. People interested in joining can buy up some $JAMM tokens and join the permissioned Telegram or Discord.
The customized set of tooling JammSession is building for itself, coupled with the tokenized access to community spaces is enabling for higher quality interactions among members. As time goes by, people get used to each other through discussions and become more acquainted and productive, which compounds in a virtuous circle. Over time, I expect this group to become a great source of value for members and beyond.
"Squads are great at capturing attention, better than individuals. Higher rate of production, more multimedia. Even individual creators have teams. In a world where people fight for attention, you need a squad in place to be able to compete." Toby Shorin on Interdependence
Contrary to platforms in the passion economy where creators compete against each other for audience, in JammSession members are aligned through ownership of the $JAMM token. As a result competition happens less inside among members but more outside with rival projects or forks (if they exist). The focus shifts from individual competition, which is emphasized on legacy platforms, to intergroup competition. Think of the social media wars that happened during the Bitcoin, Ethereum or to a lesser degree (probably because Uniswap had no token and therefore few real supporters at the time) the Uniswap fork.
"Because of the newborn boundaries, groups can now prioritize collectively, curate and do more ambitious things than when separate" - Mat Dryhurst, Interdependence
JammSession is a great example of the new possibilities enabled by Web3 tools for organizing online groups. There are millions of niche use cases that are not properly addressed by the tools and business models of legacy platforms. This is acknowledged by more everyday, but Web3 is a very special ground for experimentation thanks to new tools and practices. Because of that Web3 advocates have a shot at making a difference and help unshackle the long tail.
Tokenization is a first step in a much longer march for more efficient and tailored communities. Obviously, tokens are shiny and drive attention. But beyond speculation, value is going to be actualized through equipping each community with the specific set of tools it needs to operate.
4. Beyond Just Tokens: Web3 Community Legos
And so if DeFi has "DeFi Legos". i.e. composable protocols enabling new financial use cases, the DAO space has its own perspective: Community Legos. A set of interoperable tools that groups can articulate in order to adapt their specific use cases and operations. Early entrepreneurs, community leads, artists, content creators, activists... Those are the informationists we want to equip with Community Legos.
"We need to find what templates work for creators on open platforms." - Brian Flynn
Today Discord is used as the main community organization tool even in advanced crypto projects. But as Toby Shorin puts it "unique functionality and bespoke interfaces provide distinct advantages that off-the-shelf tooling can never achieve.". Going deep with customization is antithetic with the idea of templates, but I think reality is already showing Web3 that what people need is 33% legos, 66% customization.
It will take time to discover and refine templates. Even more time to find the equally important social practices that work with them.
Web2 may remain the leading philosophy in various areas like software production, design or knowledge management, mostly for practical and technical reasons. But we can expect Web3 to infiltrate all sensitive areas of internet orgs, starting with the first piece: Tokenization and later spreading to other functions like memberships & permissioning, dispute resolution, communications, voting, financial management or content distribution.
I'm excited by all these use-cases left unaddressed. Wether its with energy, computation or transportation. Technology is always about providing cheaper, easier access. The reason behind my presence in crypto is to provide access to organizing. Thanks to the right tooling, anyone can launch and structure an initiative online.
Let's make community legos accessible to many.
I'm about to rebrand this newsletter to a new name: Soci3 and a new focus: Community Building using Web3 technologies. With content targeted at community admins dealing with 100-10k+ sized groups. I'll report on tools and techniques used in the industry and beyond.
I also want Soci3 to be a space for builders and users to share and try stuff. Send this newsletter to friends and community administrators in your project. And feel free to join Discord to discuss further!
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