How Do You Define the Word "Community?" A Deep Dive Into the World of Ethereum
Proving an Idea 💭
You can build in your mind the greatest, most revolutionary piece of technology ever, something which would change the world, improve lives, potentiate other amazing technologies, and recalibrate the course of history. Ideas created in a vacuum are isolated sparks of creativity; if you are only discussing them with yourself, or individuals who have a vested interest in them being 'good,' then that's all they'll ever be, concepts without real-world context.
In order to see if an idea is worthwhile, it is necessary to take it out into the wider world and expose it to criticism from a range of different people in order to prove its utility, and to sculpt it into something which will gain adoption, fulfil a purpose, and embed itself into the lives of real people.
But how do you go about getting unbiased feedback? The answer to this question is certainly not pitching your idea directly to people, as they will likely react with an overblown sense of positivity or negativity to an idea which is given to them wholesale. To compound the counterproductive nature of this approach, giving someone a fully-sketched-out idea doesn't allow the space for active co-creation. Differences of experience and opinion are a feature, not a bug when it comes to building things.
Tell someone your idea, and they will react; regardless of if this is positive, negative, or somewhere in between, it is unlikely that this reaction will engage their minds to the degree that is needed for high-quality, idea-sculpting research.
On the other hand, ask the right questions, and not only will you get an implied yes or no to your proposal, you will have the wriggle room to get much, much more...
Over the past few months, we have been undertaking some research in order to ensure that we are not making assumptions, but rather, being led by the successes, failures, wants, and needs of the communities that our actions are intending to elevate. In the spirit of openness, and because we knew that some of the findings of this research could feed into things that other people or organizations are currently building, we decided to open source some of the most pertinent of our findings.
We hope that this information helps you, regardless of the quest that you are currently on.
Trying to learn from customer conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. The truth is down there somewhere, but it’s fragile. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument. - The Mom Test, Rob Fitzpatrick
Taking this advice to hand, we developed the sharpest of implements that we could possibly think of, a list of questions which in no way pointed to what we are currently working on (more on that in time) but which allowed us to gain a deep insight into the pressures and pains of being a part of the Ethereum community today.
The interviews allowed us to create a relationship with our interviewees, gaining a far more intimate insight into the other person's way of thinking, valuing their opinions and thoughts far better than a questionnaire to hundreds of projects would have given us.
These questions were asked of a multiplicity of different interviewees via Zoom; we talked to developers, organizers, artists, academics, businesspeople, and more, with each interview concluding with a question that allowed us to press a little further:
Given the questions that we've asked you today, is there anyone else that you'd recommend we talk to in order to gain deeper insight?
The rhizomatic nature of human relationships and the distributed formation of communities means that there will always be another interesting individual who is just an introduction away from passing over some deep, heretofore unthought-of insight. Our method sought to play with the concept of six degrees of separation as best we could, and it was by virtue of this way of doing things that we managed to talk to as many interesting individuals as we did, stretching from California to New York, from Madrid to Berlin, and to many, many places in between. In total, we clocked in 30 individual calls. Obviously this is not the greatest number, but we are just two people with limited time.
You can view the questions at the bottom of this article
Defining Community 🤔
One of the most (ab)used terms in the space seems to be the word community. In order to get a better picture of exactly what it is that we mean by this, we asked interviewees on how they would define this word. This question did double duty, as it framed people for questions which came up further into the interview surrounding the (hopefully now-defined,) concept of community.
The answers to this question can fairly easily be split into three groups, the interoperable, the positive, and the negative.
The interoperable answers were ones which could be used to describe any community, here are some examples:
- community is a process - not a state, it's a feeling that we have when we feel supported/loved/acknowledged and in the right place;
- [the number of] people [that] are needed for rules/law to exist; and
- any group of people coming together around a common interest or goal.
The positive answers were ones which instantly framed the question in terms of Ethereum, and talked about the things which we get right, the themes here were vision, values, and acceptance, exemplified by quotes like:
- anyone who identifies as part of the Ethereum community is a part of the Ethereum community;
- a bunch of people sharing a common vision;
- people with a genuine interest in the technology, people working in the space on real use cases, not shill-y traders; and
- people who have a shared story that they're enacting.
The negative answers were ones which also framed the question in terms of Ethereum, but talked about the things which could be done better, this section included:
- the community sometimes forgets about users, the community needs to open to non-community users;
- we have a lot of work to do on educating people on what wallets are, what crypto is; and
- there is a tendency to think that everything can be embraced, not everything will work though. What are the core values and actions that bring the community together? We are still figuring this out.
We asked interviewees these questions on the subject of communication:
How do you find out about upcoming events and recent developments/news?
How do you get the word out about things you are personally involved in?
Are you using multiple tools in order to facilitate coordination and/or communication?
These three questions sought to find out what the most-commonly used tools were for our interviewees when it comes to coming together physically, as well as getting the word out about projects, concepts, and interesting developments.
For events and news, Meetup.com, Twitter, and Newsletters are the main platforms that the community uses to keep itself informed.
Twitter, Telegram and Newsletters/Email all rank highly for getting the word out about things.
Telegram and Discord were the top two tools for coordinating and/or communicating.
Here we can see that Twitter, Telegram, and Email play a big role in facilitating the spread of information and organizing that goes on within the community. It is, however, clear that there is fragmentation when it comes to communication streams, with a few respondents remarking that the spread of different communications channels is mentally exhausting and deleterious to synergy and progress within the community. Notably (and in our eyes this is a positive note) Facebook did not play a big role for any of the interviewees.
dapp Usage 🧮
How many dapps are you using?
It is important to note here that our interviews were conducted in a way that aimed to build a relationship. Thus our methodology is not the most stringent when it comes to inferring numbers in a systematic way and they should be taken as “semi-quantitative” at best. We did not provide a specific lists of dapps that we asked interviewees to check; this method would probably have provided us with a more reliable final tally.
As a result, many respondents did not mention some tools they use. Also the definition of what a dapp is or is not is not well defined, with some respondents taking dapp to mean any kind of privacy-preserving, secure, or open-source replacement for an application. MetaMask had a contentious status as a dapp to our participants, being included by some, missed by others, and remarked upon as not part of the category by at least one person. Status.im was also mentioned a few times as a tool for communication, but then was not brought up as an answer to this question.
Here we have taken what participants have given us by way of an answer to a direct question, rather than adding in tools they mentioned using when we picked them up. We believe this is valuable because the distinction between someone knowing they're using a dapp and not knowing but using a dapp, is important.
50% of all people we interviewed did not use dapps
This was a factor that required further investigation, and so we followed up the above question with: what's bad about them? or similar. What follows is a selection of different quotes from answers to this question.
"I do not use dapps. Look at stateofthedapps: this ranking is dismal."
“Onboarding beyond the crypto space seems to be not ready. Many dapps exist only in echo chambers.”
"They work well - but no-one is there, learning curves are pretty steep"
“The network effects - almost no users and also among my peers no-one is using [them] really.”
“The most common suck factor is that the dapps don't make any sense, no utility - just toys, games that are not fun to play, the bulk of dapps are stupid useless little things that there is no reason for me to use.”
When looked at as a whole, comments on dapps were less about UX, bad design, and a lack of utility, and more about the absence of a user base to give a reason to be within an ecosystem, this was further compounded by the difficulty of taking action on this and helping to get more people onboarded. Save for a few, it would seem that a lot of the individuals that we talked to thought that dapps can provide valuable functions, improving people's lives, but are hampered by network effects.
The most common answer to the question was MetaMask, with a good portion of respondents using Decentralized Finance and Decentralized Autonomous Organization dapps.
We asked our interviewees this question:
How are you making sure your activities are sustainable
We are aware that there are a lot of different ways that respondents could take this, and preferred not to steer people unless they asked for further clarification; the majority of responses took the question to mean financial sustainability.
Among event organizers most work for free, with some getting sponsorship - covering a room and drinks but not much else. There are also some companies and people getting paid to organize events, but on the whole this was a rarity. There are several examples where community organizers were able to secure highly-paid positions due to the size of the communities that they had helped to grow, and the networks that this had given them access to.
A good slice of people that we interviewed work other jobs outside of the activities/projects that they are working on within the Ethereum community. The field organizes itself in a traditional commons-based peer production way - voluntarily for no direct financial reward.
Startups are VC financed or operate in a service-oriented business model.
A lack of transparency in the awarding process for grants was raised by some. This is of concern in the longer term as a mutual trust is lacking and it seems from the feedback that things are often the opposite of original intentions. There looks to be a healthy learning process required and good role models may even be found among some of those institutions that we aim to disrupt. Better to not reinvent the wheel and review all our ways of operating. We should be vigilant and open for critique to create long-lasting trusted institutions with fair and transparent governance for everyone. After all this is one of the big reasons why people are drawn to the this community.
One of the disadvantages of fragmentation of communication/community building when it comes to Web 2.0 platforms is the fact that they are not interoperable by design. A community built in Facebook cannot be ported in its entirety to Twitter and then over once again to create an email list.
This issue creates a power dynamic when it comes to the bigger platforms that are used to organize and coordinate online; if Meetup.com decides that you have violated their terms, then they can take away your access to their platform, and then with it goes all of that effort put into building a community. To get a feel for if this is a worry which is shared across the community, we asked:
To what extent are you concerned about lack of interoperability of the social graph?
When highlighted that a platform may withdraw access to the connections, everyone agreed that this is a problem, some were in fact prompted to immediately start measures to collect their contacts in another form in order to avoid this becoming an issue.
Further discussion took place around the fact that this interoperability also increases the amount of work that individuals have to undertake in order to push out information about things that they're working on, as well as generating further conversations.
For a lot of our respondents, this was an extra stress that meant they had to gain skills in an unfamiliar area, with some of them working a day job, working on a project, and also acting as a de facto community/communications/marketing manager. When managing a large variety of different platforms is your job, this kind of thing is par for the course; when having to do so in order to achieve something else, it's just an impediment to progress.
Pressing challenges 🧗
What are the current most pressing challenges for your involvement in the Ethereum community when it comes to coordination?
The responses to this question were very heterogeneous. However there was a clear desire for an increased focus on adoption, communication, and coordination. Many people spoke to the difficulties of governance and organizing within decentralized communities and projects, as well as expressing an interest for finding tools which could allow communication to be less fragmented, and information easier to spread around the community - one of these desired sources of information, which came up a few times was a global calendar for events.
On top of this, real-world utility and use cases were mentioned, as well as tokens and ICOs often being seen as a sub-optimal way of solving coordination problems, with one person stating that they were driving communities apart.
It's useful to remark here that this was actually our opening question, but we felt that it sat better here in the write up.
Puzzle pieces 🧩
What we are missing in the Ethereum community?
This question was asked near to the end of the interview, situated just before our six degrees... closer. Below we've put these answers into two categories.
- Involvement of people/project coordination:
- Attracting people from more diverse backgrounds, the social sciences, older people, different people for different people, not only developers.
- The core community is too tech-y, they love to use their technical terminology, it makes them a bit isolated from the real world.
- We need to have educators to share the tech in a simple way.
- Providing guidance to a shared goal.
- The Ethereum community feels insular.
- There seems to be little interest to interact with other projects.
- We need a dedicated medium of communication outside of crypto Twitter.
- We lack a coordination for the complex dynamics of the community taking finance and social behaviour into account.
- The acknowledgement that there is more than one community.
- Funding and futureproofing:
- Sufficient funding for people to be able to do work.
- People get burned out if they're not getting paid. There's a perception that people don't want to demand money for work, the way that it is right now is unsustainable, space is anti-corporate - intractable problem.
- We lack understanding of which approaches and projects will actually mature.
Further interesting quotes 🎤
- On decentralized education opportunities: Education is changing very fast, MIT are launching online programmes around the world about blockchain, ML etc., this means that something is happening, microeducation is becoming a big thing, we can expect big changes in this field. All of our students now come from MOOCs/free education platforms/low price platforms, when they want to go deeper they come to us. We have to help people to develop projects.
- On funding and sustainability: Sustainability is another way of saying subsistence, folks who work on open source should be able to thrive and be fairly compensated for their labour, it's important for humanity to figure out open source funding, we want people to thrive, sustainability in open source means middle-aged white males being able to give away free software, if we don't change that then we're done.
- Communication and collaboration breaks down a bit around funding, this is an interesting area, I like thinking we could get beyond money, we're so focussed on money to obviate the need for money, if we could design the right systems then we could help this (DAOs).
- What we are missing: We are missing coordination. The Foundation has a lot of power in its hands, but it always has the ambition to be transparent, lean and open... what we are missing (which is hard to put in words) is a mix between following the principles of decentralized technologies, but also giving guidance towards a shared goal. Many initiatives try to do this, but we are missing those parts of the community to lead have more channeled efforts to make sense.
- Coordinate efforts. The whole space is optimized for intrinsic motivation, visionary individuals, people who are strong in what they want to do. We need to include other motivations: A robust community that incorporates financially motivated people, corporations with pro bono capacity, a community that is robust to take these benefits without being negatively impacted. Make it easier for people who are less experienced, followers and team-workers rather than leaders. Too much thought-leader dominance. Structure and onboarding and guidance for more introverted people to work in a team would help channel efforts. We need "workers" not only those with strong vision and ideas.
There were a few recurring themes that came out through this research, problems to which solutions are currently not provided, not decided upon, or in their infancy. Here we will highlight five in order to aid anyone who skipped through the meat of this piece to find out what we discovered in a more succinct form.
- Onboarding - in many interviews we found that there were big issues around getting people involved in using things because they were too esoteric. People flagged a significant amount of times that an expansion of the community as a whole, via some kind of process of educating and demonstrating value to the unconverted, would do a great deal of good.
- Funding - a lot of the community works for little or no compensation, with event organizers mainly doing things for the love of the technology, and a lot of projects in their infancy being driven by values, ideals, and vision, rather than having managed to secure monetary flows to allow them to step outside of having two jobs in parallel.
- Governance - this frequently came up as an issue, whether it was mentioned by name or not. Organizing in spaces wherein an ethos of decentralization permeates everything that is undertaken can be an issue, and respondents who had a particular focus on governance were very interested in the possibility of experimenting with different forms.
- Interoperability - whether between Web 2.0 platforms or between dapps, forms of siloing which have organically occurred within the community are seen to have a negative effect upon our ability to make the kind of radical change that we'd like to see in the world.
- Network effects - as with the issues of interoperability and onboarding, in order to facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence, you first have to have a collective. A lot of discussion took place around the issue of adoption, with many people wishing that it was easier to grow usage of their particular project in order for it to reach its potential.
There may be some mystery surrounding why we undertook this research; it may seem that our questions to not point to anything very specific by way of an idea that we are sculpting and attempting to prove utility for. It's also possible that it is patently obvious what we are doing... either way we will be making a big announcement very soon, so watch this space.
To all those of you who gave your time after receiving an email from us, a friend, an acquaintance, or a business contact, thank you! One of the most unique things about this community, or this intertwined mesh of communities - depending upon how you view it/them - is the sense of openness and warmth that runs through everything that it does, and everyone that is involved with it. Having had to do 'market' research before, in a different setting, we were astounded by the willingness with which people gave up a part of their day to allow us a window into their world.
And it's this which is probably the biggest takeaway outside of the analysis which we have undertaken above. Together we are creating a new world, one which replaces closed, proprietary systems with open, decentralized ones; one which questions hierarchies and digs deep into new forms of governance; one which looks at why we do things, and asks if this is for our own good, or a product of the structures that we have developed with little thought about where we are going.
There will be further announcements to come as a result of this research, but for now, if you're interested in the things discussed here, why not get in touch?
AKASHA Research Questions 🙋❓
- What are the current most pressing challenges for your
involvement in the Ethereum community when it comes to
- Have you looked into tools solving this?
- Define “community”
- How many dapps are you using?
- How do you find out about upcoming events and recent
- How do you get the word out about things you are
personally involved in?
- To what extent are you concerned about lack of
interoperability of your social graph?
- Are you using multiple tools in order to facilitate
coordination and/or communication?
- How are you making sure your activities are sustainable?
- What is the size of your average event or audience?
- How do you keep your attendees engaged?
- How do you get interesting speakers/organizations
- What is, in your mind, the value of an event?
- What are we missing in the Ethereum community today?
- What is the greatest pain point for your personal
involvement in the community?
- Is there anything else I/we should have asked?
- Is there anyone else that I/we should talk to?