How to use the Community Power Compass

The recap

You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

1. Freedom to Disobey

When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?

Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.

“This is different from the abstract or legal concept of freedom of speech: you may well be able to talk as much as you like, but if nobody’s listening then it’s not really a social freedom”

David Wengrow,
Real Review, Spring 2022

The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.

The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.

It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?

The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.

Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?


2. Freedom of Movement

Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.

In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.

The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.

When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.

As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).

The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.

Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?


3. Freedom to Reorganise

The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.

It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.

In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.

There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.

The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.

It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).

I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.

Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?

Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?


4. Control by Influence

In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.

Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.

Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….

If you listened to Matt Damon, you’d have lost 63%

What better way to bring the masses flocking than bringing in the movie, sports and music stars to front your idea?

This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.

Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here? How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?


5. Control of Information

The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.

We know something about this you don’t. “What do you mean, you don’t know ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’..?

Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.

Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.

And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.

But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.

Unless, of course, you do it in a way that gets you an insider trading charge for your trouble.

(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)

At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.

But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.

Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?


6. Control of System

Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.

The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?

Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.

But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.

I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:

“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.”John Quinn, Forbes

Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?

It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.

An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.

“I’m sorry, we’ve decided to stop your access to your things, but for your own good”

Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?

Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?


What’s next then?

Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:

At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?

At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?

At what point is this not really a community at all?

I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.

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