This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.
It’s a tool for thinking about particular communities by considering different power dynamics, informed by Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity which I’ve been reading lately.
Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.
What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?
This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.
The second post, here, is the practical one – if you’ve read the below and just want to get straight to that again.
May you live in interesting times
This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.
To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.
There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.
Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.
Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.
Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.
Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.
That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.
Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.
The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.
As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.
Generations of the Web
‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.
Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?
(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)
In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.
Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.“
I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?
For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.
Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.
As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.
Web3 or Web Free?
Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.
To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.
Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.
Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.
Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.
There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?
From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.
As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.
The Dawn of… Something
David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.
Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.
First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.
Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.
These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.
As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.
Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.
In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.