Assembling a Tulip: Can you engineer thriving Web3 communities of humans (DAOs) using code?

Or maybe they're just machines made of people...

A few years ago, I was a member of a co-working space. The community norms and values of the space had been carefully nurtured by the three people that started it. Generosity and appreciation was encouraged and everyone knew it was important not to do anything that infringed upon anyone else’s enjoyment of the workplace.

Over time, some members moved away, while others moved in. People took jobs that forced them to go back to regular offices and others spent more time at home with their kids. Little by little, our numbers were dwindling and we found ourselves under the number of people we needed to pay the overhead. We wanted to stay in that physical space, so we wound up merging with a startup who needed at office. There were about ten indie coworkers from the original community and ten employees of this startup.

The vibe of the community started to come apart quickly. What we realized was that while our coworking crew all self-selected to join this communal space, the employees of this startup were just kind of dragged along by the founder and told to work here. It was their office. They didn’t choose to work here versus at a WeWork. They were told to report. They had no prior reasons to care about the community or the space other than for its pure utilitarian purpose of being a place to work.

Dishes started piling up, bathrooms got dirty, and a few other things started happening that forced a community meeting to discuss it. One thing I’ll never forget was that one of the startup employees, an engineer, couldn’t quite understand what we were asking when we said we wanted them to be better members of the community.

He said, “You know what would be easier? If you just wrote up a list of rules for us to follow. That would make everything a lot more clear.”

That’s the moment we knew it was never going to work. On one side, you had people who thought you could boil what being a good neighbor meant to a set of rigid rules anyone could follow—and on the other side you had folks who had built a community with a strong sense of culture through a combination of member curation, care, engagement, and community activity.

In other words, they planted a seed in good soil, watered it, gave it light and grew a flower.

They didn’t open up a box with a manual of instructions entitled, “How to Assemble Your Tulip.”

I’ve been a part of a lot of different types of communities—but the one I think I’ve learned the most from is the volunteer kayaking boathouse I started on the East River in 2010. Last year, even during a pandemic, we helped nearly 7,000 people experience human powered boating on the Brooklyn waterfront. We’re volunteer run and managed and in developing that community, I’ve learned a thing or two that makes me a bit skeptical about whether DAOs as we’re witnessing them today are going to make great organizations.

Purpose

The best organizations start out with a reason for being—and that reason can’t just be to be an organization. We’ve seen lots of startups like that—a bunch of people who really want to start a company so they form a team and go looking for a problem to solve. That rarely works out.

Our purpose at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse is to expose our local community to the waterfront—to a new activity build around an ecological resource that should be publicly enjoyed for free. If you don’t like the outdoors or people, and you’re not patient, generous or hospitable, we’re not for you.

Too many DAOs are just experiments in crowdfunding or forms of financial marketplaces. These mechanisms are amazing ways to raise a boatload of money quickly or trade it, especially given how much untaxed wealth is locked up in crypto without enough utility—but the “what are we going to do with the money once we raise it” part has left a lot to be desired. Massive sums are sitting on the sidelines just waiting to be more than just money, or cynically, waiting to be able to be money just without the whole capital gains part that comes with converting it back to fiat.

Meanwhile, the world is awash with complex problems that demand complex and coordinated actions seemingly too thorny for DAO 1.0 to get a handle on—or perhaps those in the community just aren’t interested.

Speed

Our Boathouse started out with four founders and went through several stages of growth. We didn’t go from one day per week of kayaking over the summer to seven overnight. We started small and grew organically, taking on new dates and times when we felt our organization was ready both in terms of people power, but also in terms of maturity. Our program relies a lot on trust and teamwork—things that don’t come out of a rule book. They come from shared experience, personal engagement and familiarity.

You can’t write down how to do every single job well. You have to learn it for yourself and then teach it to a wide variety of people. Then, you look at the people you’ve got, and you make iterations on whether or not the people you have is who you want. You want to understand who you need, how to attract them, and how to make the most of the people you have. This just takes time to do well, because the bottleneck isn’t tech. It’s human relationships. Call me old school, but I don’t think they can be so easily distilled out to token based voting and rigid rules.

Of course, that all presupposes you’re actually trying to build an organization. If you’re just trying to build a marketplace, then sure, everyone can work within the marketplace as an interoperable commodity—but communities of humans tend to abhor commoditization. That’s why experienced lawyers tend to get pretty bored when you make them hand out water at the cancer walk. It’s the only way the cancer walk organizers can manage 500 volunteers at once, but you’re really wasting a very valuable legal mind in there if you don’t figure out how to treat everyone individually. It takes time to get to know who is good at what and how they can best contribute.

If it didn’t, the company culture part of hypergrowth would be super easy.

On top of that, one of my biggest issues with speed is hype. Great communities often take time to be underground for a little while—like a seedling building up its roots before it sprouts. That time has now been shrunk to zero. We went from no one ever hearing about a DAO to trying to buy the Constitution in like a year. The conference circuit has swarmed on the DAO and NFT worlds far more swiftly than it took Deloitte to discover SXSW. That brings all sorts of bad actors or just people creating noise, making it difficult to grow strong and organically.

Some People’s Opinions are Bad

When’s the last time you were in a big group of people and you came to the best outcome by saying, “Let’s all vote on it!”

The reality is that people come to various problems with a wide variety of experiences and knowledge levels and so, for any given problem, you probably don’t want everyone voting on everything. There’s such a thing as expertise. There’s also a thing that big communities are often known to vote against their own collective self interest. Why? People are selfish, short term minded, and they don’t always see the big picture.

Sometimes, you do need to work out thorny problems in closed door committees—because solution finding shouldn’t always be a public popularity contest.

I can’t tell you how many people join our kayaking Boathouse and immediately have opinions about how things should be run on their first day. I’m happy to actively listen, but I can tell you that 99.9% of the ideas they have they would learn aren’t that good if they spent more than two weeks volunteering.

Bias

“DAOs are an effective and safe way to work with like-minded folks around the globe”.

That’s how the Ethereum Foundation describes them. They’re, by definition, bringing you together with like-minded people. Is that the best way to work towards a goal? Is it the best way to be a better person through your work and to learn how to negotiate and respectfully disagree?

It’s not surprising to me that a crypto centric company like Coinbase simply couldn’t figure out how to deal with the lack of like-mindedness in humans in a healthy way so they decided the rule was just keep your mind on your work and nothing else.

That sounds like a pretty shitty organization if you ask me—one that asks me to check who I am at the door and become a commodity. Is that what we want DAOs to be?

Communities self-select and bring with them in their development their own biases. I’m quite sure that our kayaking community, despite being free to the public and fairly diverse in both its leadership and its participants is somewhat ablest in its approach. Basically all of the people who participate can propel themselves in a kayak, albeit at various skill levels.

Similarly, right now, the tech required to participate in a DAO represents a significant hurdle to diversity—a problem the technology world already had. It’s not that anyone can’t access a crypto wallet. Regardless of how easy or hard you think it is, everyone hasn’t—and what I’d argue is more of a barrier than even the knowledge or the broadband access.

It’s time.

Free time is a privilage that you don’t necessarily have if you’re a single parent trying to raise three kids—or you’re someone trying to work multiple jobs to put a roof over your head.

We run the risk of magnifying the problems a bunch of mostly straight white guys who had the wealth of time to learn to code built into social networks and Web 2.0 exponentially.

Web3 talks about democratization but it’s amazing how quickly decentralization, libertarianism, and generalized lack of concern for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups go hand in hand. I find that most of the people trying to get government out of the way of things aren’t exactly the biggest champions of equality in actual practice.

Hope?

This all being said, we’re getting better and better at growing living tissue in labs. One day, we might be able to assemble a tulip rather than need to grow it organically. I’m not sure that analogy will necessarily translate to human coordination. I think more of humans than I do of tech—and I don’t think we so easily get fit into just being cogs. When technology learns how to treat us humanely, individually and actually makes us better people to each other—maybe we’ll get there.

I’d like to see DAOs where joining actually influences me to act better when I’m not participating in the community—and ones that incentivize generosity over my own self interest (which would be hard if I have financial ownership—which always kind of makes me a bit of a speculator if I can ever cash out).

Moreover, I’d love to see DAOs built by people who have built really healthy and diverse offline communities that create positive change in the world.