Defining constitution at the #EIP0 Summit

As it turns out, defining constitution is pretty hard. At the #EIP0 summit, 2018. 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.]

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — of debated coinage, attributed to Peter Drucker, and popularized by Ford CEO Mark Fields.

Just as a blockchain without a community is really just a database, a community without a constitution isn’t a community at all, it’s just an unaffiliated, unallied bunch of people who happen to be in the room together for the moment. Constitution is the soul of the community: it’s what gives a community its coherence, affinity, and energy: the ability to unite behind a common cause, weather storms of fortune, and achieve great things together.

In this context, constitution refers to “a body of fundamental principles” upon which a project is conceived, founded, operated, and governed. Whether or not those fundamental principles are recorded in a single document, such as a manifesto or written constitution, is just one question of many. Constitution may also include ethos, values, mission, goals, narrative, vision, or other fundamental ideas, written or unwritten, explicit or implicit. It’s all of the fundamental principles upon which the culture of a community is built: in other words, the social fabric. As with all forms of culture, it’s critical to get these things right from inception because culture is notoriously difficult to change later.

Constitution is not just about what you say, it’s as much about how you say it. Marketing is not one of the topics listed here because it’s a manifestation of culture, and cannot be used to define culture or constitution. The very best projects invest little to nothing in marketing because their narrative, a direct product of culture, is so compelling that it speaks for itself (think of Bitcoin).

  • What is your founding story? Who founded your community, how, and on what grounds? Was the community founded in order to achieve some mission? Was it founded on grounds of a shared vision, an ideology, or a set of values? Was it, instead, founded to promote a particular product or technology? Or was it founded on the personal strength of its founder, like a cult of personality? Understanding how, why, and under what circumstances a community came into existence is the first step towards defining or understanding its constitution. (There’s a reason so many large firms, and nations, have apocryphal founding myths!) A founding story defined by a worthwhile mission or vision lends itself naturally to a strong constitution. One defined by a product or a technology can as well with careful thought. On the other hand, a community founded around a personality will, almost inevitably, fail to scale or inspire followership. Be inherently very skeptical of any project that seems to prioritize a person above a mission.
  • Who is/are the leader(s) of your community? Values and narratives are important, but all communities also need protagonists, in the form of one or more leaders. What personal and leadership traits do they possess? For instance, are they charismatic? Are they well-respected throughout the community? What is the basis for that respect, and for their authority? Are they egotistical, or do they exhibit humility? Do they exhibit strong moral, ethical character? What do they stand for? What values do they espouse? How many leaders are there in the community? The healthiest communities have many leaders who, while they may differ in their preferences and leadership style, share many values and put the mission and the community first.
  • What is your core narrative? Is it something people are excited to rally behind? Do members of your community feel like they are part of something greater than themselves? Mission and values, as encapsulated in a core narrative, are to a large extent what bind a community together and give it a powerful sense of affinity and shared struggle. It’s trivial to motivate people when times are good, but a strong narrative can imbue a community with the grit it needs to endure, or even excel, in times of difficulty.
  • Does your community have an agreed-upon mission and a set of shared values, goals, and principles? Are they implicit or explicit, spoken or unspoken? How are they conveyed to new community members? Are there feedback mechanisms by which community members can express their thoughts and preferences regarding these ideas? Some in the blockchain community, especially in projects such as Bitcoin that place particular emphasis upon a libertarian ideal and eschew notions of community, would argue that this is neither necessary nor desirable for a platform to be successful. Speaking personally, however, I only want to be associated with a platform or community to the extent that its values are clear, and I align with those values. The human story a project tells, and what it stands for, is what sets it apart from centralized, hyper-corporate platforms like Facebook. In the face of increasing competition from these corporate giants, it is also the only way a project stands a chance of attracting and retaining talented people to develop the community, build the platform, and build apps on the platform—by attracting missionaries as opposed to mercenaries. It’s the only way a project can scale socially and continue to grow its community. Without such a human story, your community won’t stick together very long.
  • Do you have an explicit written constitution? A “wet code” constitution may seem counter to the tempting “code is law” mentality that many in the blockchain community profess, and indeed proponents of Szabo’s Law would likely oppose it, but there is a reason states have constitutions and it’s arguably the best way to lay out the fundamental, founding values and principles upon which your platform and community are based. An explicit constitution will serve as a major source of legitimacy in governance. The lack of such a document will have a detrimental effect on community: it will be more likely to fall victim to divisiveness and to fragment, earlier and more often, along ideological lines. What’s more, newcomers will be left in the dark as to what you stand for and what norms and behaviors are accepted, valued, and expected. A constitution can also be used to lay out explicit power dynamics and checks and balances. Without these, the tyranny of structurelessness will surely rear its ugly head. (The next section, Governance, addresses this topic in greater depth.)
  • How does your constitution evolve? While values change rarely, if ever, your mission, vision, principles, and other foundational ideas will likely evolve over time as your community grows and your project matures. What mechanisms exist to explicitly facilitate, or implicitly recognize, this evolution, and is there a way for motivated community members to participate in the process? If you have an explicit, written constitution, how is it amended? How do you communicate expected norms and behaviors, and how can this communication be updated? Without explicit mechanisms for evolution you risk your community and constitution stagnating and falling behind the times, repelling new arrivals and causing disgruntled, disenfranchised subgroups to splinter.
  • What do you stand for? Values are of course highly subjective and are definitely not “one size fits all.” Being clear about what you value, and being internally consistent, is more important than professing any one particular value. Nevertheless, in my opinion, there is a set of core values that most legitimate blockchain platforms do share. These are the sort of values I’m looking for in a platform that I want to contribute to.
    • Openness: Is the community open to all humans, from all walks of life, regardless of background, experience, know-how, or access to resources? Does the community feel that it has something to learn from everyone? Are active as well as passive measures taken to ensure openness and accessibility? Can anyone easily download a piece of software, mine or purchase some tokens, and begin to transact? As highlighted in Community, is the community welcoming to newcomers or are there substantial barriers to entry?
    • Permissionlessness: Does a user need anyone else’s permission to mine, purchase, or stake tokens; to contribute to the codebase; to deploy an application; to transact; to participate in governance, securing the network, or value creation; or to interact with the network in any other fashion? Note that this refers to both explicit forms of required permission, such as onerous legal paperwork and a KYC/AML process, as well as to implicit forms, such as requiring someone to sell you a token before you can transact, or needing arcane knowledge of where and when quasi-public meetings occur.
    • Social impact: Does the platform somehow, directly or indirectly, move the needle for humanity at large, such as by making progress towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals? Does it enable applications that do? Is consideration given to such metrics in the design, engineering, and governance of the network?
    • Humility: Do members of the community feel that the platform is “better than all the others”? Is the community willing to engage meaningfully and constructively with other communities to exchange knowledge and ideas? Is the community happy to adopt good ideas from other projects and communities, even those regarded as competing or not values-aligned? Does the community unabashedly admit when it needs help, and energetically seek professional advice, or does it hubristically believe that it knows everything and needs no outside help? Is it welcoming, or allergic, to new talent and fresh ideas? Most importantly, are the project’s leaders and contributors in it to burnish their own egoes, or do they put the good of the project and the community above personal interest?
    • Transparency: In my experience, transparency is a hard sell, which is why it’s especially important to install it as an essential principle from the very beginning. Many community members and contributors, especially those with more corporate than open source experience, often feel uncomfortable with debating or making decisions in public, preferring to revert to small, private groups of trusted friends. Unfortunately, such a decision-making progress is antithetical to the things blockchain stands for, especially the values described above: openness and permissionless innovation/participation. If it’s not clear how or why decisions are being made, by whom, and on what basis, many people, both current and potential community members, may deem the entire project illegitimate and refuse to contribute, or worse. All decisions made on behalf of the community, but especially those that involve voting or other formal decision-making and allocation of resources including funds, should be completely transparent. A record of these decisions should also be archived somewhere accessible to everyone, for free, indefinitely.
    • Accountability: This principle is just as important as transparency, and just as essential to install from the very beginning. Unaccountable governance is no better than a private fiefdom: a project’s leaders may take advantage of a project and a community to extract wealth and value for themselves and their cronies, without having to answer to anyone for their behavior. Needless to say, a lack of accountability is also antithetical to the things blockchain stands for; the whole point of building and transacting on an open, decentralized platform is that Facebook will never be accountable to its users, while we must be. To whom are the governors, developers, and other core stakeholders of the platform accountable? Is this accountability explicit? What system of checks and balances exists? Are leadership and core stakeholders ultimately accountable to all community members, tokenholders, and/or network participants? What’s the mechanism for this accountability? (The next section, Governance, discusses this idea in greater depth, in particular the critical question, To what, or whom, is everyone else ultimately accountable?)
  • How do you measure progress along these lines? It’s one thing to articulate an explicit set of goals, and very much another thing to make progress towards those goals, and to track and share that progress. The ideas discussed in this section are among the “fuzzier” ideas that are harder to track, which is why it’s all the more important to devise clear goals and milestones. Are clear KPIs established to track a platform’s adherence to its principles and progress towards its goals? Are these data public and available for comment? What sanctions might apply, and to whom, for deviations or failure to deliver?
  • Is your project open source? As discussed under Decentralization, open source code helps recruit a talented, diverse set of contributors. From the perspective of Constitution, it’s one of the boldest signals you can send as a community. To open source (and permissively license) your code is to assert that, even with total freedom to exit (e.g., to fork) at any time, you’re confident that come what may your community will stick together and remain united under the present leadership and value system. By protecting the freedom to exit, an open source codebase goes a long way towards keeping project leadership honest and accountable.
  • Is your project coherent with respect to its constitution and open to criticism? Is there internal consistency and honesty about the current state of affairs, even during challenging times, or is there hypocrisy, denial, and an ostrich effect? Are dissenting voices respected and honored, or silenced? Is everyone expected to toe the “party line,” or is there healthy debate about how to improve? A project and a community that isn’t internally consistent, or one that isn’t open to constructive criticism, will stagnate as dissenting contributors migrate elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, Constitution is closely related to Governance, the next topic in the series.

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: