The most powerful person in the world is a storyteller.
The storyteller sets the vision, the values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.
Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
In our busy lives, time is becoming an increasingly expensive currency. Human attention spans are decreasing, to as little as 8 seconds while scrolling through websites and social media (data from 2021).
Even when we actively consume content, the probability that we’ll remember any details about it is significantly lower than it was a few years ago. This is a result of the content overload that we all experience nowadays, throughout all media we’re exposed to.
However, when we are presented with an idea in the form of a well-crafted story, it becomes a lot more memorable. That happens because our brains not only activate the language processing and comprehension areas, as when presented with plain facts, but also our neural activity is increased by a 5-fold rate. Our brains use our motor cortexes, our emotions and visual images processing centers, imagining sensations and processing emotional reactions. Chemically, the brain releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that makes us care about the characters or the people involved in that particular story.
This attachment mechanism is determinant in making us remember the stories and, therefore, the products, people or projects associated with them. Similarly, bringing stories into the workplace, or into a community, can be a very effective way of connecting to collaborators or members, on a personal, emotional level, increasing motivation.
As a consequence, brands have increasingly internalized the need of having a well-developed brand story, as a way to connect to their audiences. Donald Miller, the author of the book Building a Story Brand, developed a marketing method based on the motto “all human behavior is motivated by the opening and closing of a story loop”. In this framework, a potential client is seen as the hero of a classic Hero’s Journey, and the brand is their guide and mentor while going through a life changing transformational journey.
When we enter the realms of web3, audiences become communities and storytelling takes up a somewhat different shape, with more or less overlap to the web2 storytelling playbook. And brands (either creators, projects, DAOs or other community-based businesses) begin to use lore as their main leverage. But what is lore, exactly?
By definition, lore is body of knowledge of a particular subject, designating learning or erudition. In this sense, it is a community’s shared intelligence.
Can lore be, indeed, a story?
To answer this question, we must understand the nature of web3 communities and, ultimately, what web3 stands for.
At the center of the philosophy behind web3, is the possibility of direct and transparent compensation that rewards contributors directly, eliminating the need of a middleman, through trustless and permissionless systems. These new structures also open space for true ownership of the value created, giving equity to the shareholders involved in projects.
In that sense, web3 is shaping new paradigms for redefining work systems and creating new forms of collaboration models, building on top of communities, more or less decentralized. Communities are no longer being formed around shared interests in a content consuming perspective, but, also, they are incentivized to develop autonomy and equity models, through decentralized value creation and shared ownership. Communities are now fertile growth ecosystems, where members are asked to engage, participate and contribute with their knowledge, time and creativity, and be fairly compensated for that. Even more, community members often have shared ownership of what they create on top of the existent intellectual property, thus becoming advocates for the projects or brands that lead those communities.
So, coming back to the subject of lore development and storytelling in a web3 environment, we must be aware of the several dimensions of its communities, that give agency (and often governance) to members.
I would, then, argue that lore crafting in web3 shouldn’t be “plain” storytelling, as community designers should aim to give their communities the autonomy to evolve and create value in ways that are not determined by the creator, the project team or the brand. Therefore, lore would be a framework where stories could unfold, a set of prompts and boundaries that would allow the community to contribute with their own inputs to that shared body of knowledge.
Lore has been proposed to be a millennial management science (Rao, 2022a) as the result of several works of organizational thinkers. It can be seen as a fictional extended universe, that surges in the cracks between the work blocks of an organization. Although we could look at it as the fuel of storytelling and world building within the structure, it is rather a raw phenomenon, and crafting lore is a complex process of acting upon it with intention.
Rao defines several types of lore, the first of which is raw lore, when it remains in a relatively natural way, not having design forces acting to try to shape it or distort it (Rao, 2022b). The gaps existent in our knowledge are what separate our felt and performed confidences about those subjects, glued with certain ambiguities and uncertainties, and there’s where lore is born.
However, lore can be shaped, and that process will depend on the nature of the lore. “Dark lore”, more negative in its core, seeding cultish subcultures, can be achieved by choosing the initial and the final points of adventure, leaving only the path open to exploration. It is typically more appealing to people prone to anxiety and doubt, that believe the illusion of autonomy with DYOR (do your own research) prompts (Rao, 2022c).
“Gray lore” is more prone to generate value when it’s well handled. It attracts a wider variety of people than dark lore, typically looking for a better and useful way to manage their own psyche. It is more persistent and more divergent, and the lore crafter can’t predict the outcome because people already go from a functional starting point. What makes it gray, and not light, is the fact that there are still risks of self-delusion. It is not lore that can shape world change, but it can play a supporting role (Rao, 2022c).
“Light lore” is, therefore, lore that fosters truly significant movements, and high-impact changes. However, the lore crafter has to be careful not to center those outcomes as a metric of success or an optimization target, at the expense of turning the lore into an epic story (Rao, 2022c).
In fiction, epic tales are what take central characters of stories to glorious endings, but tie them to their chosen roles, not giving them the freedom to act. Lore exists independently to this main narrative, as an inventory of archetypes, artefacts, side plots, supporting the timeless daily actions, as exemplified by Rao using Terry Pratchett’s Disc world novels (Rao, 2022d):
Wizards live their lives isolated from the outside world, dabbling in esoteric, epic magic, and witches practice deceptively ordinary everyday magic, assisting other in their lives as stewards of normalcy. With this approach, it is suggested that both groups are equally powerful in their own ways, but the latter exercise more agency in the world, not being distracted by delusions of grandeur.
In that sense, lore crafting is witch work, focused on every day’s actions and routines, helping to drive projects to their desired outcomes (or rather to a loose vision of the future), through their spellcasting abilities and resources.
As more web3 projects try to find the sweet spot in regard to their messaging, to reach and connect with their ideal community, more the writing and storytelling skills are needed in this space. Personally, I like to lean on this witch metaphor and think of spell work as intentional writing that guides communities through a magical journey of transformation.
Rafael Fernández developed an interesting mental model to work in DAOs (Rao, 2022a), from where emerged the concept that marketing, although it overlaps with lore in some sense, it’s another thing in its core:
Marketing is the story insiders tell outsiders to influence them in some way; Lore is the story insiders tell themselves to manage their own psyches.
Lore is a narrative communities and ecosystems use to manage the inside of their organization, and lore crafters work as gardeners to the emerging lore, rather than engineering stories in the way marketers do. This characteristic is even more relevant with the appearance of business models like headless brands.
Lore shapes the contours of organizations, rather than a design template, and marketing serves as a discovery tool for brands. Lore can, however, provide fuel for marketing, helping in its efforts to funnel new community members.
Since past times, symbols and iconography have been used by power structures and cults, like religion and paganism, to convey more or less complex concepts, leaning into visual, auditory and even kinetic representations of ideas and events. Works of art, texts and rituals help create a resonant mythos expressing a society’s values, teachings and bring their members closer to the inherent philosophy. In other words, to support the lore.
It is easy to see parallels between this and the utilization of web3 NFT projects as PFPs (profile pictures) in people’s social media presence. As before, symbols, or rather, some particular NFTs represent belonging in a community with shared value systems and contribute to the development of an engaged community. It is straightforward, to someone familiar with web3 musings, that a BAYC (Bored Ape Yacht Club) PFP represents a certain positioning and societal value.
This can be also true while using lore as a managerial system for communities, and imagery incorporation is done intentionally and not incidentally. In fact, in their essay Rao proposes that right-brained evocative imagery works both as a mean of communication and as cognitive anchoring, relying on empiricism with its array of myth-to-ceremony cognitive resources. As it is supported by these right-brain tools, it fosters rapid and intuitive decision making, rather than analysis-paralysis, useful in uncertainty-rich environments. As an example of this, Rao presents Krei Kreutler’s essay Eight Qualities of DAOs, where the arguments are successfully illustrated by Tarot Cards (Rao, 2022a).
For another dimension of lorecraft being an art-related characteristic, Rao gets inspiration from Jose Luis Borges, describing it as baroque, ironically incorporating its own absurdities.
Personally, I like to think about lore as a baroque opera aria. In that historical period, it was common practice to write music giving singers the space and freedom to exhibit their natural vocal abilities (or vocal fireworks). The piece was written within a structure, leaving specific loose points, particularly when approaching the end, allowing the singers to exhibit vocal stamina and range, and enrich it with their own creativity. More recently, we can find parallels with jazz music and its valorization of improvise, and rock guitar solos that make songs shine.
In all of these examples from the musical sphere, the scope is always the same: the musical piece (story) is crafted by prompts, the melodic elements, a structure exists to guide the development, and (informed) improvisation is used as a creative input and embellishes the overall work.
Being communities the base of a wide range of web3 projects (if not all), engaged and participatory communities are the holy grail of the web3 space.
So, tapping into members’ intrinsic motivation, through its vectors (purpose, autonomy and mastery) would be the best strategy to activate communities and grow sustainable projects.
Purpose can play a pivotal role in attracting people to a community. It can be delivered through storytelling, translating brand messaging into clear mission and values statements. As said before, a well-structured story arc can help members to project themselves into a hero’s journey and into a transformational route within the borders of that specific community. This is where marketing can play a pivotal role.
But is that enough?
Autonomy and mastery strongly share their values with web3, namely decentralization and co-creation. Cultivating contributions from members through sharing knowledge and create value from pre-existent and/or shared IP, are strong ways to motivate communities.
With that in mind, lore-crafting seems to be the right tool to engage and activate communities. Telling stories that are loose ended, shaping contours and world building through consistent and coherent actions can add value to a community in a way that simple storytelling cannot.
Quoting Keridwen, high witch of wit, co-founder and wordsmith of Crypto Coven (NFT project focused on decentralized world building and my personal favorite), in her latest interview:
For us, lore is retrospective, not prescriptive towards the future. A key element of decentralized world building is opening our doors and welcoming the community to collaborate with us on the narrative going forward. As an ongoing experiment, it leaves us with questions. How do we cement a narrative past while also keeping open a narrative future? And how do we ensure the narrative future is cohesive?
Community starts with intention (purpose), and it grows from the autonomy of its members to build the lore within the constraints presented by the lore crafter, through a co-creation process. Crafting lore is a sandbox approach to storytelling, that values experimentation and evolution (mastery).
Community starts with lore but also feeds it.
At the inception of a new world, where we are called to change our belief systems and build new foundations, we need new mental models that helps us frame our values and consequent actions.
Lore is all the mental models for effective action under conditions of imperfect knowledge.
Abbey Titcom, Head Community and Governance for Radicle, recently gave an interview for the DAOist, stating the importance of memes and lore in crafting a new ideological perspective around technology and how chaos magic can be the process to achieve it.
Chaos magic is, by definition, the magic that allows you to challenge and break arbitrary symbols and systems that govern the natural world and encode new beliefs and build new systems. As we are dealing with the invisible and the intangible, we need narratives to get these ideas into peoples’ minds. These narratives can come from fantasy, fictional worlds, that shape utopia and the new realms we want to see and live in.
In that sense, magic, through spellcasting (aka. intentional crafted world-building narratives), is in the forefront of these newly engineered societal constructions, where we choose our own definitions of success and belief systems. Imagery, either impregnated with symbolism or identity models, can play a part in this world building process, enriched by the narrative-rich prompts that can shape lore by inducing participation of community members.
In sum, lore crafting is sustained by clear narratives that shape the contours of the community, by illustrating mission and values, world building prompts that workshop an evolving shared vision, and a strategy that emerges from allocating existent resources.
However, this process can be magical in its essence, fueling paradigm shifts and emergent change. Intention is in the core of lore crafting, and the rest is trusting the process. It is very much like working with AI design tools: we give it prompts, get results, choose the result we want to build upon or pivot, iterate and re-start the process until it gives us what we were looking for, or allow it to pleasantly surprise us. We’re building culture, and that takes time.
In Keridwen’s words:
I like to think of lore as a narrative path to worldbuilding. Some people think of the latter as a sprawling, meticulous wiki that could tell you everything you need to know about a defined universe. In my mind, lore is more focused and narrative driven. It’s formed by writing, specific experience, and the culture built around art. It doesn’t give you everything at once. It’s oral tradition and sharing, folktales around a fire.
I grew up hearing an old saying that states that every person that tells a story, adds a stich into the narrative. It is a nice imagery to lean on, when designing a lore crafting experience in web3: let’s gather our communities around a fire and weave tales of future worlds together.