People seek belonging - not just an isolated conversation, but the ability to build and strengthen relationships across numerous activities. What people really need is community - especially in our increasingly digital-first world. We've written much previously about our increasing desire for connection and how the existing tools supporting our social life aren't cutting it. There is fertile ground upon which to construct better social mechanisms - especially digitally - to bring us back into belonging. What that looks like is what we've spent much of my waking hours exploring.
There are a few major inhibitors that prevent us from coming together like we used to - whether in previous generations or periods in our lives (the latter is a big foreshadowing of what we're working on).
It's a lot of work to be social, in general
We joke about how can we dread many of our social obligations, and prefer a night in, and there's a dark truth to it. The activation energy to be social can seem high when compared to contemporary shortcuts. Why bother going downtown and meeting a few friends, when you can tap a few buttons on your phone and have ramen appear at your door, and others will give you an endless stream of media, specially designed to keep you engaged? How does it make us feel when we do that?
We witnessed this first-hand in our early trials of Talk Social, our experiment in guided conversation. While people loved the ability to connect with others on a deeper level, and sought ways to build relationships in and around numerous shared experiences, we found it hard to get many to overcome the awkwardness of hosting or repeatedly attending, and the newness of hosting a tech-enabled social experience outside of Zoom.
One of the remarkable insights from research is, when it comes to the deeper relationships that we seek, we think it's unwanted and awkward, when in fact, that's what we have yearned for all along.
How did humanity solve this previously? Shared activities. Guided social experiences. The third place. These, whether provided in a purely social environment (clubs, teams, fraternal organizations, country clubs) or religious (churches, mosques, synagogues) became the place we could rally around, that provided numerous ways to connect.
Increasingly, we don't have those anymore. One could argue it's due to increased hyper-individualism, eschewing the institutions that bounded us together, often leaving us unnecessarily constrained. Or it's that they've struggled to maintain relevance, as we've become more nomadic, reliant on screens to connect, and increasingly sought out - and relied upon - a diverse patchwork of relationships and backgrounds. There’s a ton more we could talk about this.
OK, why not just create more relevant community?
It's hard to achieve the true nature of community
The solution to our increasing loneliness and societal concerns is to bring us back into community. Within any community, there's the desire to form multiplex relationships in and among the members. More often than not, that is the sole reason we join, beating out status, exclusivity, and other objectives we may have. We want to be part in a community, enmeshed in a web of relationships with whom we share both commonalities that bring us together and differences that allow us to grow.
But existing communities struggle to achieve that - especially in the increasing reliance on the web to connect a diverse and distributed constituency. Bridging and brokering relationships is an arduous task and often left to the managers of a community. One could theoretically solicit volunteers, but they are just that, volunteers - sacrificing their time for little to no incentives.
When thinking about how we move from online to offline, or even the centralized institutions we create online, we have to remember that the origins of religion were not established as hierarchies with massive temples. They were decentralized networks, tied together by a common story and language.
The existing tools aren't cutting it either - in terms of what we really seek. Yes, a Telegram thread is better than nothing at all, and Discord, the default choice for most modern communities, can be hacked to create some interesting experiences. But they are still asynchronous, 1D chat. They don’t scale as the community does. We seek something deeper and less ephemeral. No wonder why most communities quickly peter out.
The fundamental element that defines the quality of our lives is the people we surround ourselves with, and the conversations we have with them. - Jon Levy
Something needs to change - and there is no better time than now to wildly innovate on new models for bringing people together. Not only is there a strong need to break the downward spiral of society we sometimes feel ourselves in, but the convergence of forces between that and what's sprouting out of the ground to give us the tools. Yeah, it took me this long in the article to start talking about DAOs.
New possibilities for human cooperation have been opened up by Web3, the amalgamation of innovative ideas for the next phase of the technologies backed by the blockchain. The ability to design smart contracts that represent activities, assets and value is bringing wild innovations that are only increasing in velocity. The compounding nature, given the innate composability of smart contracts, combined with the zealotry of the early pioneers, is yielding a rapid acceleration of innovations. Let's click in to a few of these.
Tokens represent an asset of value to a group. It could represent an item, currency, credential, or some kind of reputation. The programmability opens up the ability to define how they are distributed, exchanged, represented, etc.
DAOs are the new organizational model, codifying cooperation, governance, and virtually anything else around the operations of a community and the roles of its members.
This has opened up a flurry of new innovations. DAOs are becoming the default organization type for communities or companies - intentionally blurring the line between the two. We’re particularly excited by DAOs, and think they have the potential to reshape our world, just as the introduction of the company as a primitive reshaped our society.
The landscape of tooling to create DAOs is, as expected in any new domain, nascent and messy. At a core, they are tapping into what programmable tokens are providing in order to aid cooperation amongst a group. Can members earn a token through their activities? And/or do they gain access to something by purchasing or earning said token? And can that token represent not only an item of value, but fractional ownership of the organization itself, bringing along with it the opportunity and responsibility for governance, promotion, maintenance, and revenue sharing? We focus much of our intellectual efforts on adversarial encounters, as author Brian Christian points out. But in the real world, collaboration is key. What if our competitive arenas judged our ability to come together? To find a collective path forward?
There are some big hurdles to overcome, as we think about how we rebuild a sense of belonging on and off-line. Does mixing incentives amongst our social belonging, while initially helpful, lead to perverse outcomes (e.g. "liking" a post providing support, but also leading us to only post things that we believe the world will "like")? Will giving ownership for participation and initiative lead to stronger communities, or the icky feeling that we're paid to be social? Can we build up trust networks and reputation that carries with us across the proposed metaverse, while not excluding marginalized communities and late adopters?
And how do we design social mechanisms that allow for easy onboarding, the right incentives, progressive decentralization for those who choose, but do not require a deep understanding of social contracts, governance mechanisms, and token bonding curves?
We’ve collectively dug ourselves into a hole socially, and it’s that same collective that has the responsibility to plot a path out using every tool and capability we have. Because what’s the alternative? We need to find a middle ground between the ultra-individualism, the "me before we" that we find ourselves in now, and the extreme "we before me" collectivism that history has witnessed. Instead of the lone ranger, instead of the faceless crowd, we see nodes in a network. Every node has distinct value, a creative, diverse being. But they see themselves as enmeshed in deep connection with others, for without both the individual and the link, what else are we here for?
Web3 and our desperate search for belonging and meaning are converging together - but what does it look like? We exist in a time where, more than ever, we need to embrace a sense of play and wonder as we explore these new technologies. Where we create a sense of play and wonder and joy without buying into the false mindset that every action we do affects what we're worth. Where we can depart from our preconceived notions of how we are supposed to act around each other and feed our individual egos, and just kick back with each other?
Maybe, in a small corner of the world (real or virtual), go back to our playful, warm childhoods?
Thanks to Brit, Alexis, Zlat for giving this an early read!