Rate of change for communities

I just finished reading Molly White’s review of Read Write Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet by Chris Dixon. Mr. Dixon is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz[1], which is an incredibly successful venture capital firm that backed, among many other startups, Stack Overflow. Not having read the book myself, I was struck by this paragraph:

Attempts to create alternatives [to the web] have all failed, he says, before going on to describe several projects that are very much still in use, such as the RSS and ActivityPub protocols, or federated social media projects like Mastodon. RSS is dead, he repeats endlessly throughout the book.

I found the review via Mastodon, for the record. You can get an RSS feed of just about every page on this site by adding .rss to the end of the URL. If you listen to podcasts, you have depend on RSS to get new episodes. Discourse is testing an ActivityPub plugin for publishing across sites that support the protocol. The review indicates these pronouncements might be more a matter of desire than a reflection of reality.

There’s some obvious self-service here as his company invested heavily in web3 startups that seek to replace large swaths of internet technology with projects that fall under the “crypto” banner. Somewhat bizarrely, I found some of these companies while looking for community manager jobs. Crypto projects often point to a community of fans as a sign of their success.

It can be hard to explain the crypto phenomenon. The technical core of these projects uses the same mathematical principles that power source code repositories and secure password storage. But that’s not what got people excited about it. To explain, consider an image I found in Gardening Platforms, a presentation by Alex Komoroske:

Pace Layering|591px;x452px;

Think of the things that change most often as “fashion”. In high school I was accidently fashionable because I wore flannel shirts and jeans. But when grunge became passé, I was returned to my natural condition. Keeping up with fashion requires constant responsiveness.

In order to provide consumers with the latest fashions, companies do need to make adjustments. A good deal of success in fashion industries comes from anticipating trends soon enough to consumers before they move on to the next thing. The next layer, infrastructure, is slower still. It just takes time to build the structures business require to deliver fashion to fickle consumers. Once built, however, infracture can produce steady profits, so web3 companies want to be in that business rather then fashion.

Yet to an outside observer, the crypto phenomenon looks an awful lot like fashion. What else can explain all those Super Bowl ads featuring celebrities hawking crypto? Larry David rejected the wheel, the lightbulb, coffee and crypto, but you know better, right? The the message is “Don’t Miss Out”, but Larry David[2] was right. By the end of the same year FTX filed for bankruptcy. Easy come. Easy go.

Building communities that last

Obviously a community built on a fad will fall away just as quickly as it’s formed. Lasting communities are built on foundations that don’t change very often. Referring to the “Pace Layering” diagram, I see a lot of community management focused on fashion and commerce:

  • NFT/coin communities
  • Brand communities
  • Support communities
  • Game communities

There is nothing wrong with short-term communities. Occasionally people do form long-term relationships in these communities. But it’s Sisyphean work unless and until the community finds a deeper reason to gather. And that means meta discussion about governance, culture and the fundamental realities that ground the subject of a community.

In everything moderation, of course. Meta discussions can become tedious.[3] If you don’t have them from time to time, however, you won’t ever find a more permanent foundation to weather the inevitable storms.

  1. Often shortened to the numerical contraction “a16z”. ↩︎

  2. The character, if not the actor himself. ↩︎

  3. Though if you made it far enough to read this, maybe you don’t agree. ↩︎