SCRF Interviews | Culture and Incentivization - Abbey Titcomb and Nathan Schneider (Ep. 1)

The first episode of our “Culture and Incentivization’’ mini-series featured a conversation between Professor of Media Studies at CU Boulder Nathan Schneider, and Radicle’s Head of Community Abbey Titcomb, moderated by SCRF’s Head of Operations, Eugene Leventhal.

Video

Audio (available via Apple and other podcast players)

Transcript

At issue:

  • With so much focus on incentivization in web3 communities, what happens to culture? How much emphasis should decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) place on creating mandates and developing a shared sense of community or vision?

Takeaways from the discussion:

  • Web3 allows us to create an economic layer in internet communities but it risks economization. In other words, it risks reducing every activity in a community to one that is crass and incentive-seeking.
  • Culture is a potential bulwark against this tendency, but it needs active management, particularly with respect to conflict resolution. Codes of conduct and shared standards can help encourage openness and accessibility.
  • Web3 is a chance for making explicit what has previously been hidden within communities. People are more than just economic entities.

“Culture does the hard thing,” Radicle’s Abbey Titcomb says. “It gives [communities] a vision and allows them to build against traditional institutions.”

An easy way to see this is in the glorious proliferation of meme culture in the crypto community. “There’s a shared lore that people align their values with, and that’s why you see so much tribalism,” Titcomb says. “Culture is deeply powerful and embedded in the technology we’re designing.”

Some of this culture is planned for and mandated, but a lot emerges on its own. Incentivization techniques such as airdrops and openly rewarding contributors can harm this culture and muddle a community’s shared vision.

“Think of how anthropologists define gift economies,” Prof. Nathan Schneider explains. “Send grandma back the cash equivalent of her Christmas present to you this year, and see what happens to your relationship. The moment something is quantified it ceases to become a gift.”

Generations of research has demonstrated that incentivization changes the way people behave “If we design everything around incentives then everything we design becomes economic,” Schneider says. “You need to figure out the non-economic spaces.”

Which isn’t to say that incentivization shouldn’t be used in a community, just that it needs to be planned and counterbalanced for.

“My hot take is that financialization can stimulate culture and adoption,” Titcomb says. “Some people believe we can wield these tools to create new cultures. It’s chaos magic. I flip between agreeing and disagreeing with this sentiment every day.”

A community’s shared culture needs active thought and deliberation. “Culture can appear very quickly. There’s ideological culture, but there’s also working culture,” Titcomb says. “It’s how people communicate when they work together, how they share values…You have to reflect on it and how it’s contributing to a project’s success.”

She advocates for ensuring that openness and accessibility are inscribed as shared community values. “If you have a mandate,” Titcomb says, “then you’re able to craft the social spaces within a community and layout social infrastructure in a way that’s open.”

These mandates, in the form of contributor covenants, are beginning to spread. A big difference between web3 and the occasionally hostile-to-outsiders open-source software movement that preceded it is the spread of a set of shared cultural norms in the form of codes of conduct.

“Uniform rules allow norms to spread between communities,” says Schneider. These rules can keep communities safe while preventing the kind of rift that has driven some communities to hard forks or dissolution.

Both Schneider and Titcomb are eager to see what happens next in web3. They each see web3 as a chance to make explicit what was once hidden from view in communities.

For Schneider it is the hope that new tools will offer greater transparency and allow a community to hold its economy accountable. Titcomb agrees with the need for transparency, particularly when it comes to analyzing which early governance decisions are most important.

10 Likes

Thanks for an invigorating podcast. I listened to it several times.

The conflict you isolate between incentives and culture seems a stand-in for a much bigger question: How will crypto/web3 operate within the economic injustices of capitalism? America in 2020 displayed a yawning gulf of inequality, with the top 1% of U.S. households holding 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. That statistic (and the steadfast denial of it) gets worse every year—much like the facts around climate change. Competing political systems (socialism, etc.) have aspired to correct such social ills, but most crypto enthusiasts seem apolitical at best if not blatantly right-wing. Does crypto have a soul (“culture”), and if so how can its soul be saved from the believers in “incentives above all else”?

5 Likes

@Tolulope and @Muhammad, if you get a chance I’d love to read some of your observations from yesterday’s conversation in this thread.

Question for @ntnsndr who has been very generous with his time: I’d love to hear how this relates to some of the projects you’ve been discussing here at SCRF. How might CommunityRule and Modvol help steer culture and incentivization in communities?

3 Likes

Thanks—those projects are really palettes—spaces for people to explore new kinds of combinations. Both are designed to be as expressive as possible. Neither has really centered incentivization in their design; I tend to assume that every community should design its own incentive structures, rather than having incentives built into common-good tools.

2 Likes

Thanks to everyone involved in the podcast. Well done!

Historically, we’ve seen the broader culture change over time and with the introduction of innovations that alter perceptions of society. Years ago, Web2.0 was described as this freeing social space; now those systems have matured as have their earliest adopters. Successful Web2.0 organizations may have grown or died based on their initial setup, but how they are viewed today is at least in part influenced by how they managed cultural shifts and technological innovations (eg: de-platforming) and (eg: emotional experiments) .

Today many feel differently and hype up Web3. So much of our conversation today is about establishing a great culture and adopting governance principles. It’ll be interesting to see how these new communities, having invested in an initial set of principles, are forced to adapt over the next few years as these experiments play out, new technologies and organizations arise, and when/if incentives change.

3 Likes

@rlombreglia I think the inherent pitfall for the argument that communities require a soul (“culture”) is that communities are first and foremost made up of individuals and not how individuals are made by communities. Of course, I am not arguing for the capitalistic approach of single-minded “incentives above all else”. However, individuals may not be the most tangible variable in the formation of decentralized communities. I think it is also important to stress what divides communities as well as what unites them. I think so because individuals are unique entities where each and everyone has their own thoughts, experiences, hopes, and dreams that set them apart from who they actually are.

To allow for the coexistence of an individual’s status quo as well as the privilege for an individual to hope for a better future, certain ambiguity, falsehoods, or injustices needs to be allowed. Social media as this kind of ambiguous medium has lots of individuals who project their desired identities or way of life through it. The subject of governance has a set of rules or theorems that defines what is good or bad governance, but each country’s constitution will be very different depending on a populace’s strategic needs, cultural needs, geographical needs, hierarchical needs etc… The invention of fiat coinage is another very good example of what individuals use to symbolize a value hierarchy of differences. Although the intrinsic value of a discipline, material or superficial ideas have fundamentally different inceptions, transactions between these can still be possible through fiat. And I think having these dynamic differences within a group of people is a very healthy thing.

So apart from the differences between each party in a community, there are also differences within the party itself. I think it is a way better model to be able to articulate to the finest unit of understanding each and every uniqueness so that there can be growth first for the individual and then for the community. Incentives are one very rudimentary topic that propels an individual’s behavior but it is not the only element that defines a person. I think an individual can be so dynamically and abstractly curious just with the individual him or her self and that is also where i think the emphasis needs to be put more upon.

1 Like

I think web 3 communities will undergo expected and unexpected cultural shifts in response to mandates. One way to manage culture shifts could be rolling out mandates in phases with reflection points on how it impacted individuals and the community. I also think its everyone’s job to manage and shape culture but in terms of conflicts, I feel there will be cases where resolutions or encouragement to leave are most appropriate, but Im not sure what that process would or could look like. Lastly, it’ll be interesting to see how the function of incentives expands to express the non-economic impact on a community ie joy, closer connections, etc but of course, that’s only if individuals see value in this kind of impact.

2 Likes

I found this podcast episode very interesting, a few thoughts that came to mind was how do we ensure inclusivity when creating new communities (Jargon, Memes, Language) especially considering African countries and regions. Lastly considering that financialization can stimulate creativity and culture how can specific knowledge gaps be considered before creating said communities and embracing new cultures and technologies.

3 Likes