Whiteboarding at the Web3 Summit

What an engaged community looks like. Web3 Summit 2019. Photo by the author.

[This is part of a multi-part series on the key ingredients to a better blockchain. I recommend starting with part one, Tech and Protocol. See the full list of articles in the series.]

Nearly every blockchain project invokes the term “community” from time to time, but not every project takes the time to think about community or invests in building a robust community that is values-aligned and feels that they have a meaningful voice and a stake in the network’s success. Indeed, the essential difference between a blockchain and a database is community: in the most fundamental sense, a blockchain is a database that’s managed by an incentivized community. Without such a community, the project would be better run as a private company with a centralized database.

  • Is it easy to join the community? How fast and easy is it for a brand new community member to get onboarded? This includes learning the relevant cultural norms, setting up the necessary tools, acquiring the first tokens, sending the first transactions, and beginning to add value to the network. A welcoming community may take several forms, from a positive social media presence, to calls and events, to good documentation (in multiple languages!), to enfranchisement in governance, to good tools, to the ability to participate permissionlessly in cycles of value creation. These all go a long way towards making your community accessible to as many humans as possible. There should be no gatekeepers, no requirements and, in general, few impediments for newcomers looking to onboard and begin to contribute. This promotes diversity, vibrancy, community growth, and permissionless innovation. Even something as innocuous as a Reddit karma point requirement has the effect of turning off many newcomers!
  • Are there lots of good events? Do events occur frequently and in a wide range of geographies, and do they cover a range of topics, both technical and non-technical? Are they accessible, affordable, and well-attended? Is anyone free to launch an event using the brand without permission?
  • Is there a strong community of developers? This is especially important today as blockchains are still in a nascent, “early adopter” phase where developers are both our most important advocates as well as those most likely to add value by developing both the platform itself and applications on top of the platform. Developer community relies heavily upon open source best practices, good tooling and documentation, having active, welcoming online communities, and having high-quality, developer-focused events such as hackathons.
  • Does the community have a shared narrative? While tangibles such as documentation and events are important, intangibles are important to community too: things such as shared principles, values, goals, and a shared vision for the future. Without a shared narrative the community will be less cohesive and more likely to splinter along ideological lines, earlier, and more often. It will also struggle to unite behind critical initiatives and to weather the crises that will inevitably arise. (More on this topic in the next section, Constitution, to come.)
  • Is the community open-minded? Are community members welcoming of diverse perspectives and opinions, or does the “community” more closely resemble a hivemind fraternity of maximalists, tribalists, and goon squads that immediately attack any perceived deviation from one received party line? In blockchain, as with any early, long term, complex technical undertaking, it should be fairly obvious that we don’t have all the answers yet and that much innovation is still to come, which means that we must admit the limits of our knowledge and progress thus far and be open to new ideas and perspectives, even those that may seem radical at first. I feel strongly that communities that attempt to silence dissent without encouraging meaningful debate will fail to escape local maxima in the solution space, and will ultimately fail to scale or attract much interest.
  • Is the community collaborative? Are community members engaged, friendly, and constructive on social media? Do teams and projects in the ecosystem collaborate closely, or do they prefer to interact transactionally and compete in zero-sum fashion? Are community members more interested in being tribal, protecting the slice of a small pie they already hold, or in growing the pie together? This includes collaboration within the ecosystem, as well as cross-chain collaboration: witness Ethereum’s growing collaboration with the Ethereum Classic community as one positive example. Collaboration is especially important at this early stage because we risk all blockchain innovation being captured by big companies that are not values-aligned, or blockchain simply never developing into something that ordinary people care about, if we fail to grasp this opportunity, stand up for the shared values and goals that unite us, and work together to envision and build this future.
  • Is the community diverse and inclusive? Diversity is a complex, contentious, subjective topic that deserves much more exploration than this article can do justice to, so I will just say the following for now: the degree to which diversity matters to your project is directly proportional to the project’s scope and ambition. If you are building a small, private network for yourself and a few trusted friends, then it’s absolutely fine if you and your friends design and build the entire network. On the other hand, if you contrive to build a network for all humans, as some platforms do, then it’s essential that your community consist of humans from many geographies and walks of life. In addition, there is an important difference between passive and active diversity: the mere act of not erecting obstacles to participation by certain groups of people, or claiming to be “neutral,” is insufficient as diversity is not something that comes about by accident, and by the time you realize you have a problem it will probably already be too late.
  • Is the community enfranchised? This is primarily driven by governance and economics. Is governance explicit, and are there legitimate, well understood means by which community members can participate meaningfully, make their voice heard, take on more responsibility, and gain influence commensurate to their contribution? Communities that lack such explicit governance inevitably fall victim to the tyranny of structureless and to capture by a small, enfranchised group of elites, which disenfranchises everyone else. On the economic side, do all community participants stand a chance of participating meaningfully in value capture in exchange for value creation, regardless of who they are and when they join? Are rewards for early participants balanced against ongoing rewards reserved for later arrivals? If not, the project will repel late arrivals and fail to scale socially. (More on this topic in the Governance section, to come.)
  • Are there lots of community-driven initiatives? Does innovation occur “at the edges of the network” as opposed to initiatives launched “from the center”? Do community members feel empowered to conceive of and launch projects, events, and sub-communities under the auspices of and with the blessing of the community at large, and can they do so in a permissionless fashion? The canonical example of community-driven experimentation and innovation is the meme, which is decentralized and permissionless by nature. So, another way of looking at this question is to ask, does the community have a healthy memesphere? (More on this topic in the Decentralization section.)
  • Is the community vibrant? Vibrancy is hard to define, and this is intentionally a bit of a catch-all item. Are events well-attended and are participants engaged and friendly? Is the community active online as well as offline? Does the community rally together when bad things happen? Is discourse throughout the community mostly civil and constructive? Is there a constant flow and churn of new ideas, new people, and new initiatives? You know a vibrant community when you see one!

This article is part of a multi-part series on the key ingredients to a better blockchain. Check out the other articles in the series:

Special thanks to Greg Colvin for valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this article.