Say What?! Rewards for Communication in Internet Communities

Incentives matter. We do what is incentivized, avoid what is disincentivized, and ignore what is not incentivized. A key way to set incentives is through rewards. Give someone a trophy for winning, and they’ll try harder to win.

“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.”

Charlie Munger

Rewards shape everything we do, including communication. Since internet communities are built on interactions between people, communication is critical. Members must be able to say what they want, understand what others want, and share information seamlessly. Without proper rewards, this happens less than it should. Good communication, such as high effort posts, often are not rewarded enough (if at all). Other times, poor communication, such as troll comments, is rewarded too much. Both create bad incentives.

To understand how to improve the rewards, first, we have to understand their makeup. We can then understand how to improve them by looking at areas with high-quality communication using similar types of rewards. We’ll find that using rewards to tighten feedback loops and increase stakes leads to better communications. The rewards used are a combination of the community’s platform and culture. Both are levers to incentivize different behaviours.

Platform

An internet community’s platform provides options for rewards. Features like reactions, upvotes, top posts, awards, likes, and comments are all examples of what a platform provides. A community almost always combines these features with its unique culture to create rewards.

Examples of reactions with varying levels of “culture customization.”

Core platform features rarely change. A community may be able to modify them (with bots or automations), but there are only so many ways to react, upvote, or send a message. Members can do a lot with the limited options they have.

Types of communication not rewarded by platform features are not done. For example, many platforms do not reward longer posts any differently than they do shorter ones. This incentivizes members to post many shorter ones. This not only impacts rewards but shapes the entire culture of the community.

Culture

Culture represents the unique aspects of a community that are combined with platform features to create rewards. Examples include the content of comments, messages, praise, custom emojis, and support. Culture is shaped by the platform then created by the members.

Community managers and members control culture more than they control the platform. Culture does not require product changes or coding knowledge, only changes to people, rules, or incentives. It is more flexible and, as such, allows for more experimentation. A single member can shift an entire culture by introducing their own rewards, such as a style of response or an emoji reaction they like.

Culture requires more effort to maintain and decays faster than platform features. It disappears if people do not care about it. Parts of culture must be continually reinvented and reintroduced. Members must serve as examples and creators for the maintenance of culture. Without all this, the cultural aspect of rewards decays.

Improving Rewards

Communities can improve rewards once they understand that rewards exist. Improved rewards make communications better, and that makes communities better. Platform features and culture are the levers for improvement. Communities must figure out how to pull them to create beneficial incentives.

To figure that out, we can look at areas with similar levers and communicate well. One area that stands out is video games. Over my many years of playing video games, I’ve heard friends and strangers communicate in service of a combined goal better than nearly anywhere else. No coaches or coordinated practice was needed to improve. The key is that they leverage the platform and culture to create high stakes and tight feedback loops.

Take “Call of Duty: Warzone” for example. If you communicate well, you obtain the instant reward of killing bad guys. If you communicate poorly, it is more likely you will die. This makes the stakes feel high. There are many situations where a player will have to communicate, so they get lots of practice doing it. The feedback loops are short and clear. If you communicate well, you and your team are rewarded by being more successful.

(To get a sense of what I mean, I’d recommend watching 10-20 minutes of team Warzone gameplay on Twitch. It is a bit chaotic, but just listen to the communication between players.)

Video games have the same platform features as communities. All communication is done through voice, “pings” (setting notable points on the map), chat, and in-game feedback. It is largely the culture that creates the rewards for good communication, and this is good news for communities.

Gaming culture is shaped in a way where the stakes feel high, you get repeated opportunities to communicate, and clear feedback for doing well or poorly. There is no reason communities could not do the same. Although the communication stakes may not actually be so high, rewards can be put into place to make them feel high.

A way to raise the stakes is by making communication scarce. Communities can take advantage of tools platforms give them to slow down. Slower communications will likely be more thoughtful and force members to prioritize and reward them more. Longer posts or messages can also be the norm. Internet communities have the flexibility to do what they want, and the defaults aren’t always the best options.

For example, a chat-based platform like Discord incentivizes short, rapid-fire comments. This is not ideal for many communities on the platform. They could use slow mode (setting a time restriction on messages, e.g. one per minute) and threads to allow for more thoughtful communication. It requires platform and culture changes away from the defaults.

Another way similar communities could improve communication is through tightening the feedback loops. They could do this by encouraging more reactions and replies. This helps sort good messages from bad and makes it clear what members want faster. It increases the pace and density of rewards within the community.

Increased reward density helps members show what culture they want by serving as taste-makers for the community. Examples of taste-makers are moderators on broadcast channels, members who browse new posts on forums, those who write guides, and more. Tightening feedback loops requires members to learn and teach each other what is good, bad, and ugly, and provide rewards accordingly.

Better Rewards, Communications, and Communities

Every community should think about how they can leverage platform and culture to improve incentives for good communication. Platforms are rigid but often not optimally utilized. Culture is more flexible but requires higher maintenance. Both platforms and culture combine to create rewards and guide communication within communities.

Many members and managers do not realize what they are rewarding within their community. Their actions may show that good communication isn’t even important. Being conscious of the rewards and what a community prioritizes can shift it in a better direction. Understanding how other areas (like video games) leverage the same platform and culture levers provides examples of what to be conscious of. Communities can learn a lot from each other about what to reward.

As a member, you do not have to wait for the managers to change the rewards to have an impact on them. You can shift the culture yourself. You can react, reply, comment, and message people who are moving in the right direction. You can create new communication norms. Rewards are yours to create.


Thanks to Derek van Pelt, Rohan Pal, Tom White, Amrita Mishra, and Beccy Lee from Foster for the feedback. Also, Thomas Holland for the initial conversation that inspired this piece.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

The Community Clock

Communities, at their core, have a series of events that keep them moving. These events can be news, rituals, actions, announcements, and more. They create a community clock (imagine the numbers replaced by these events), and keep the community ticking. Without them, the community dies.

The clock must be powered by either external or internal sources. Externally powered clocks are reliant on organizations, companies, and people outside their community. These events are independent of the community and would happen without it. An example is the many community “cults” with leaders who do an excellent job at powering the clock. Examples include Kanye West, Elon Musk, Vitalik Buterin, and many more. Everything they say and do become events their followers amplify to power the clock.

Other clocks are powered internally by the actions of key members. These members must create events needed to power the clock. The events depend on the community, and wouldn’t happen without it. This causes the community to become reliant on the members creating them. For an individual, this may weigh heavy, but teams can manage it. You see it succeed in subreddits, creator communities, hobby communities, and more. All are reliant on their members to provide the power.

Things happen between events but they are unimportant in moving the community forward. It is anticipation and busy work towards the next event or debate and reviews of past events. The time in-between events doesn’t matter to the long-term survival of the community. As long as the clock keeps ticking, the community will keep going.

An individual can have an outsized impact on a community by identifying the clock and helping it tick faster and louder. Instead of focusing on the between time, help the clock. Most members will not discover the clock or realize its impact. Others luck out on discovering it and be rewarded. With extra effort, this can be you.

Without people working to power the clock, the ticking gets quieter. It is a common problem for growing communities. Newer members fail to see the importance of the clock. They grow distant from the original series of events. Idle chatter and unimportant communication drowns out the ticking. Fewer people work on powering the clock because they see it as less important.

This leads to one of two paths. The good path is the clock is replaced by a better clock. Because communities grow and change, what is relevant at 100 members is not the same at 10,000 members. A new clock, better suited to the community, can replace the old clock and keep ticking.

The bad path is a worse clock or no clock replacing it. A community can reject a clock replacement like a body rejecting an organ transplant. The community loses its core. Members become less drawn to the community. More time is spent off-topic. Nothing happens, and that is a problem.

Communities prevent this by defining their clock early in their lives. They must understand where the events come from and who is responsible for creating or translating those events into power. Everyone must be wary of when the ticking is getting too quiet, and make changes to strengthen it. Work is always necessary to keep the clock ticking, ensuring this work is done and rewarded is a key task.

Like in the real world, a community clock that is built right and well maintained can tick for a long time. All communities are looking for this in some way or another. Those that build it and keep it running will be the strongest in the long run.

The 10,000 Year Clock

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The Infinite Remix of Kanye West

People want infinite amounts of the content they like. We want more episodes of the series we like, writing from the authors we like, and music from the musicians we like. The internet improved a creator’s ability to do this. The price of publication and distribution is basically zero, the only cost in this instance is in the creation. Ideally, creators, artists, or companies can leverage the power of the internet to give fans what they want: infinite remixes. These are new versions of the work not officially released by them. Kanye West is a prime example of this process.

One of my favourite albums recently is Kanye 2049. It’s not an official Kanye release, but many of the comments on the album are “if you told me this was created by Kanye himself, I wouldn’t be surprised.” It’s a fan-made remix album created by Toasty Digital, whose work garnered millions of views on YouTube and nearly a thousand patrons, paying at least $3 per month, on Patreon. He announced recently that he is working on Kanye remix content full-time. There are many similar remix projects to this, so how and why do they happen?

To start, a creator needs fans and then feeds those fans’ need for content. Kanye does this by releasing and performing a large amount of high-quality music, designing shoes and clothes, and other entertaining antics. He’s created a strong reputation and passionate fanbase. At some point, all of his official work fails to satisfy his audience. Fans always want more.

Although Kanye cannot create infinitely himself, he can develop the taste of his fans. He does this through releasing multiple versions of songs, iterating in public, leaking songs, and performing live. This subtly gives fans insight into what is right and wrong. His taste, what he thinks is good and bad, rubs off on fans.

Take the Donda album rollout as an example. Kanye played in-progress versions of songs over three live events. It can be understood as a taste-making process. Fans got to hear songs refined through the events. They heard different combinations of lyrics, instrumentals, features, and performances, and decided which versions they liked and disliked. All of this helps Kanye influence fans’ tastes to be closer to his.

With this developed taste, fans remix Kanye’s work themselves. They create alternate versions, remixes, rankings, mashups, leak compilations, “finish” leaks, chronicle live performances, and more. The internet is incentivized to do it. Fans who create and release content that feeds the infinite remix are rewarded with attention, praise, and often, money.

Fans want more so badly they pay thousands of dollars for leaks. Leaked music is teased by leakers who say they are willing to release it in a “group buy” where fans collectively pay. There are many examples of multi-thousand dollar group buys and a subreddit dedicated to them has 1900 members. More money leads to more leaks. More leaks lead to more attention on leaks. And so the flywheel turns.

A successful group buy.

Leaks are just one of many areas where there is supply and demand for infinite remixes. A search for Kanye West remixes on YouTube leads to thousands of videos, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views. A search for “Kanye live” leads to thousands more. 647,300 TikToks have been made using a cover of Kanye’s “Ghost Town.” A fan-made “unreleased” song tracker currently stands at 1103 entries long. People want more.

The unreleased Kanye song tracker

To give them more, Kanye is not only developing fans’ taste but providing them tools. The recently released Donda Stem Player allows fans to remix the work themselves on a small physical device that controls parts of the music. A few buttons control vocals, drum, bass, samples, change speed, loop tracks, and save them for later listening. The standard tools to create an infinite remix are always more complicated than this. Kanye is again innovating a way forward to feed the flywheel of infinite remixes.

The Infinite Remix Flywheel

The infinite remixes of Kanye make up a classic flywheel, a self-reinforcing loop of behaviours that builds momentum over time. It has five distinct stages:

  1. New fans are attracted to his content;
  2. Those fans explore the internet to find remixes; 
  3. Those remixes get more views and listens;
  4. People are incentivized to create more (and better) remixes; 
  5. The more and better remixes attract and create more Kanye West fans.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

A true sign of a creator’s cultural power is whether their fans can keep the flywheel going infinitely. Travis Scott, Drake, Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar, and many more have infinite remixes, but not the quantity or quality of Kanye’s. Other artists fail to create the flywheel because they do not successfully pass along their taste to fans. They don’t release the volume and quality, they don’t give insights into the process, and they definitely don’t provide the tools to remix the work themselves. Kanye is uniquely successful because he has such strong taste and provides the knowledge and tools for fans to develop their own.

This skill provides Kanye with more cultural influence. Everything he does, such as his shift towards Christianity, is amplified by fans through infinite remixes. This is how mass culture shifts happen. A talented artist creates a cultural flywheel that builds momentum into a mass movement. When supercharged with the internet and a hyper-talented artist like Kanye, the potential is limitless. Expect to see (and hear) the infinite remix of Kanye West for many years to come.


Thanks to Tom White from Foster for the feedback.

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Every Point Matters

An annoying fact about tennis is that every point matters. There are no “rest points.” The next point is always important. This is true for good and bad players, and regardless if you are winning or losing. 

Writing is no different, it turns out.

In tennis, a long point is worth the same as a short point. You can run around the court and make great shots, only to lose by slamming a return straight into the net. You can try your hardest, win points, and still lose every set. You can fall behind quickly if you are frustrated or give up. For novices, games are often lost because of errors, not won because of brilliance.

Writing is the same. A good idea can bounce around in your head for a long time, but fail to come together on the page. An idea can take shape quickly but never feel complete. A seemingly bad idea, with work, can turn into something good. Some sentences and posts are good on the first pass, others are never good enough. Sometimes, writing just doesn’t work, and it is frustrating, but you have to believe it matters to continue doing it.

Both tennis and writing are mental games. It is you versus yourself, and you can betray yourself easily. Much of the time it is about not losing rather than winning, especially for a novice like me. I constantly need to remind myself that every point matters. If I don’t believe every point matters, I’ll lose more points than I need to. You can’t waste points and expect to win.

Believing every point matters allows us to stay in the game for longer. Staying in the game matters because both are long games. Although you may not win this point, set, or even game, there are future points, sets, and games to be played. Your effort and belief that points matter now impacts your ability to compete (and win) future points.

The only way to “lose” the long game of tennis or writing is to stop. You convince yourself the next point doesn’t matter, and you believe it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I may lose at tennis and suck at writing now, but I’m not trying to win only this point. I’m trying to win a lot of points in the “big game.” The more points I play, the better I’ll get and the more points I’ll win. I’ll continue to improve while others choose to quit.

The ability to go from a bad tennis player or writer to a good one rests on your belief that every point matters. It makes you stay in the game, and in the long run, win more points. Believing every point matters makes it true.


Thanks to Kushaan Shah, Stew Fortier, and Allie Crawford from Foster for the feedback.

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Clubhouse Is a Cargo Cult

Nothing anyone says on Clubhouse matters. The whole point of Clubhouse is to be seen. It doesn’t matter who speaks or what they say. It matters that they are seen as high status people.

Clubhouse rose to prominence when no one could be seen in person. Everyone was stuck in their homes. Someone with a high reputation, credibility, or value to a group couldn’t flex their status in person. They couldn’t brag in person about the work they were doing, signal how smart they were, or tell you about their role at some cool company. Clubhouse was a way to be seen with other high status people, especially in circles like tech and crypto.

Now that high status people can be seen in person again, they are spending less time on Clubhouse. Lower status people are left trying to be seen amongst themselves. Without high status people, Clubhouse is not serving its purpose of helping people be seen. It is a cargo cult: low status people recreating the actions of high status people, after they have left, thinking it will cause them to be high status.

The Relics Left Behind

The relics of the status games are in the design. Even before you enter a room, Clubhouse shows you the people you follow in it. A user can judge the status of a room based on its size, the status of the speakers, and the status of any people they follow. High status people are often the most followed so they guide the discovery. Without these people, discovery is gamed and less relevant.

Each room has status games being played within it as well. If you look at other live social apps, audiences generally do something like chat or react. On Clubhouse, anyone not talking has nothing to do except listen and look at other members of the room. When you look at the screen, you’ll see every room is a hierarchy. The important people on top, their support in the middle, and the audience on the bottom.

The important people are on stage. It is the highest form of being seen. In big rooms, if you are on stage, everyone’s attention is on you, even if you aren’t speaking. These people literally are at the top and take up the most space, having the largest avatars only three to a row. Their status increases by being there with high status people. This is the ultimate goal of a status-seeking Clubhouse user.

The next level of the hierarchy is the status support group. It is a designated zone for the group of people who the speakers follow. If high status people are here, it means the people on stage must be very high status. They provide extra credibility for those on stage and help the room get discovered by more people.

For example, a startup founder is speaking in a room and a prominent venture capitalist is in the audience. If that VC knows the company, there isn’t any new information going to be shared, but there is status to doing it. It is beneficial to the status of both the speaker (founder) and the status support member (VC) to be there. The venture capitalist’s authority rubs off on the speakers, making them seem more legitimate.

The lowest in the hierarchy is the audience. These people are so far down the hierarchy they are rarely ever seen in large rooms. Anyone who wants to be seen and gain status should try to leave this area. People are here because they are truly interested in the conversation or are trying to move up the hierarchy so they can gain status. Low status audience members rarely get a chance to engage in big rooms. They are status fodder for people up the hierarchy.

Fighting to Be the Place to Be Seen

Now that the high status people are mostly gone, lower status people fill all levels and try to recreate the dynamics. The design of Clubhouse is still the same. People try to be seen on stage in popular rooms. Organizers try to optimize their room to be recommended. Users fill their bio with interests and topics they care about. All of this is diluted because the people with status aren’t there anymore. The status and recognition people want is not there.

There are fewer “must-listen” rooms with massive audiences. Rooms are smaller and driven by interests or topics, rather than the people involved. The recommendation algorithm, which is driven by people you follow, is less relevant. Following lists are increasingly filled with low status people who are active on Clubhouse rather than high status people from the real world. The exclusivity from launching as invite and iPhone only is wearing off now that anyone can join including Android users. Clubhouse is not the high status place to be seen anymore.

A way to illustrate this is the decline in fear of missing out on Clubhouse. Few people think they are missing anything by not being there. Compared to its peak when people were buying invites, sending them to their closest friends, spending hours on the platform, and talking about it on social media, Clubhouse doesn’t have the same magic it once did.

High status people can now be seen together in exclusive places in real life. In person parties and events are impossible to compete with. It also doesn’t help that Clubhouse is being copied by seemingly every other big tech company. Everyone wants to recreate the magic Clubhouse had.

Can Clubhouse ever recreate the magic of being a high status place to be seen? They can try. For every category of people, not only in tech and crypto, they must become “the place” to be seen with other high status people. High status people must want to flex their status and share it with others on the platform. If this happened, the low status cargo cult members would gain the status boost they’re looking for.

The other option is to embrace the lower status people. Many interesting rooms and behaviours are happening outside the big ones. Recent releases like messaging give hints they are moving away from only being a “place to be seen.” The app has the potential to be the mass audio social network. This was likely the plan all along, and they had a lucky break with the “place to be seen” diversion.

Either way, people always want to be seen. Clubhouse, for a moment, captured that need. To succeed as once thought, they need to do it again at a larger scale or embrace the behaviours of lower status people. If not, the cargo cult of Clubhouse will continue.


Thanks to Jesse Germinario, Steven Ovadia, Padmini Pyapali, Diana Klatt, Kat Dee, Stacey King Gordon, and Christine Cauthen from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Winning The Crypto Status Game

Crypto is one giant game where people transfer both money or status to projects (coins, tokens, protocols) to try to win more money or status in the future.

You’ve learned all about the money part, but not about the status part. Status is a combination of a person or project’s reputation, credibility, and value. It represents how important a person or project is in the crypto economy. People want high status because it provides them with opportunities, power, and the feeling of success. Projects want high status because it attracts attention, investment, users, and developers. Having status constitutes winning the crypto status game.

When trying to win, people often transfer their status to the wrong places. Each person’s status is unique and non-fungible (not able to replace or be replaced by another person’s status). The popular projects they transfer status to, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, are fungible. This creates a misalignment.

People think the way to win is by copying someone like Elon Musk. Elon is a high status Dogecoin advocate. Every time he tweets about Dogecoin, he is transferring some of his status as a successful entrepreneur. People perceive Dogecoin as more legitimate because Elon is advocating for it. He raises the status of Dogecoin and this causes people to invest.

Many people try to copy Elon and fail because they are low status. They think their status can impact the market but are wrong. The status of these projects is made up of its participants and the actions of a low status person cannot impact the status of a large, fungible project like Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Dogecoin. Low status investor’s dollars are valuable, their status is not. Investors’ status can only make an impact on the project as part of a large group (like we’ve seen with WallStreetBets and Dogecoin).

There is no way to win the crypto status game in large, fungible projects unless you are ultra-high status or part of a large group that creates a collective status. You are stuck investing your money and riding the wave.

To win the crypto status game, you have to start at a level similar to your status: a smaller project, or more likely, a non-fungible project. Non-fungible projects create better alignment on status than fungible ones do.

Non-Fungible Games

To best leverage your status, you must look for areas where being unique is a benefit. You must find a market you can influence yourself. Even small, fungible crypto projects might not allow this. An area that does allow people to win is single, unique tokens aka non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Transferring status in tokens is direct as there is a single place your status goes, while still benefiting from a larger network. An increase in the status of a token increases the collective status of the network. This creates individual incentives combined with network effects.

There is a market and status for the overall network of related tokens, like other crypto projects, but also a market and status for tokens. A token’s ownership, aesthetic value, and story all become relevant. Just as people perceive Dogecoin as more legitimate because Elon is advocating for it, people perceive tokens as higher value based on the artist, athlete, or creator involved.

To connect people to tokens requires verification. Verification involves transferring real-world status into the project. It connects activity in real life with activity in the project and vice versa.

Projects like NBA Top Shot, CryptoPunks, or Bored Ape Yacht Club use centralized verification. A centralized group creates the tokens and ensures their relation to the network. Centralized NFT projects usually have a theme across every token. This centralization causes the network status to be stronger and a larger factor in token status.

Other projects like Mirror, Foundation, and Bitclout rely on decentralized verification. People create tokens and verify them with some mechanism like tweeting a code. It doesn’t require a central authority to create tokens or approve them. It creates a one-to-one status connection between the verified person and the token. Decentralized verification also causes the token status to be more independent from network status than centralized verification.

Both types of projects allow people to create or buy an NFT connected to a network, transfer their status to the token, raise the token’s value, and cash out. In this case, their status investment is higher, but their monetary investment is often lower. It is a better way for people to “win” with status.

The higher importance of status in non-fungible projects creates better alignment between people and projects. It creates another area for people to contribute value to a project. You can better understand by looking at the evolution of these projects:

  1. Create a network of connected but tokens
  2. Connect people with those tokens either through investment or verification
  3. Owners attract new people to invest money and transfer status to the project
  4. Create utility (avatars, writing, content) or community to retain and attract more people, generate status, and attract investment
  5. The network and token value increase. Win-win for projects and people

The Future is Utility

The successful projects and networks do well with steps one, two, and three so far. The innovation will come from step four as people come for the network but stay for the utility. Initial hype and investment create liquidity early that can be invested into creating utilities. The projects also benefit from a better connection to user-owners who want to see the network succeed. The users are better aligned to provide valuable insights into what the utilities will keep them active with the project and attract people like them.

For example, projects like Bored Ape Yacht Club, CryptoPunks, and Cool Cats are art NFTs that provide avatar images to their users. Instead of sitting unseen in a database, people use them on Twitter, Clubhouse, and Discord to signal their membership to the group and attract new members to the projects. It is a simple yet useful expressive utility.

The projects that will win in the long run are the ones that create the best utilities for people. The people who win the crypto status game are the ones who transfer their status with the right projects early. Finding the next great utility is a path to winning that doesn’t require high status or high investment.

The non-fungible and utility-based projects of Web3 create more opportunities for average people to win the crypto status game. Being a high status billionaire isn’t the only way. Anyone can pick the right project early, connect their status to it, and contribute how they can. Find the right one, and you may come out a winner.


Thanks to Jesse Germinario, Tom White, Rhishi Pethe, and Alex Azoury from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Social Media Is as Social as You Make It

People complain social media is “anti-social.” They are partially right; popular social media platforms optimize for “engagement.” There are many ways to create engagement without being social, and that is what happens. You become a tool that creates engagement for social media rather than using it for your own good.

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok show us the most engaging content, which keeps us scrolling endlessly. It also makes us forget our purpose for being there. Is the point of our time on these platforms really to look at content (and ads) from random accounts? We forget that the original purpose for users of social media was “to be social.” As an individual, you can take this purpose back.

Everyone can be more social on social media. Just because a platform is optimized to keep you scrolling, doesn’t mean you can’t use it another way. Your social media experience is in your control.

You can force social platforms to be more social. Unfollow, unlike, block, and mute every non-human account you see. Use the messaging feature more (Instagram Threads is underrated). Use social platforms that don’t optimize for engagement (Discord, Clubhouse, Telegram, Snapchat, Signal). Remove every platform with a feed. Don’t feel any loyalty to one platform over another, whatever lets you be more social is better.

To battle against social media’s engagement optimization, you must have a purpose of your own. One I’ve found useful is the idea of developing “modern friends.” The internet can be a primary way you make friends and be social with people. Many people who are active online would be happy to become friends with someone they share interests with.

Modern friends are those relationships that primarily originate and develop through digital channels (forums, email, reddit, twitter, etc).

Modern friends typically discover one another via shared personal interests, “professional” (personal development) collaboration or friend-of-friend introductions.

Ryan Dawidjan

If you’re acting like an engagement tool of social media, developing modern friends requires change. Once you escape the engagement trap, opportunities to connect open up to you. Instead of liking someone’s content, you can message them. Instead of waiting for someone’s opinion, you can ask them. Instead of approving content with a like, you can tell them why you approve. Social media becomes a way to create connections with people rather than consume content.

Use social media as a tool that works for you, rather than you working for it. New ways to interact and create relationships with people online are constantly being created. Escaping the engagement trap requires new ways of thinking about these platforms, but it is entirely up to you. So do it.


Thanks to Dani Trusca, Chiara Cokieng, Stew Fortier, Dan Hunt, Christine Cauthen, and Amber Williams from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Saints, Knaves, and Moralists of Internet Communities

Do you ever wonder how internet communities persist despite trolls, grifters, bullies, and other undesirable characters?

How do members persevere and remain positive despite these bad actors? Most communities don’t have employees to manage or create content. Most people are too busy or distracted to contribute, yet many communities still function well. Why doesn’t everyone’s self-interest break them?

In his book War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin explains group coordination. People aren’t driven purely by self-interest. He argues there are three categories of people: knaves, saints, and moralists.

The self-interested, rational agents which Turchin deems “knaves” never contribute to the common good and choose to free ride unless forced to do so by punishment. Examples include trolls, grifters, people who don’t add to discussions, and others who “take” from the community but never “give.” They beg you to sign up for their app, buy their product, or read their article without contribution to the community.

Second, there are “saints” who contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most tend to do it less). These are people who contribute actively, moderate, write guides, manage, organize events, and more. They are far beyond self-interested. They might contribute because they enjoy the subject, love the people, crave praise, connect with the mission, or many other reasons.

Finally, there are “moralists.” This group constitutes the largest number of people. They prefer to contribute so everyone is better off, but in the absence of a mechanism to punish knaves, become disgusted by opportunistic behavior and withdraw their cooperation. When punishment is available, such as suspensions, banishment, fines, and scolding, moralists use it on the knaves (which forces knaves to contribute). They range in activity from moderation and active posting to lurking and mild trolling.

The key to group coordination is the dynamic between them all. When saints and moralists do something, it puts pressure on knaves to do the same. When you are contributing actively and supporting the removal of off-topic conversation, you help set the example of what you want the community to be. In other words, saints and moralists hold up social norms. Applying this framework to internet communities reveals some interesting insights.

Balance

The goal of any community is survival. It wants to continue to be active, provide value, and facilitate interactions for its members.

Too many knaves in a community can cause its collapse. Knaves can overwhelm saints and cause them to leave. Without punishment, moralists also stop contributing and the community will rapidly decline. If there is a punishment option, moralists will punish the knaves to save the saints.

“Remember that a moralist not only behaves according to the norms, but also detects and punishes cheaters—people who break such social rules. A “second-order” moralist also keeps track of those who shirk by not punishing cheaters, and punishes them.”

There are never too many saints. A community full of saints would be great, but unsustainable. As Turchin writes “a group with more saints wins out in between group competition but saints lose within group competition.” This is because the benefits from prosocial actions are spread evenly among the group, including knaves, but the costs are borne entirely by the saints. A group of saints rapidly fills with non-saints.

You often see this in public communities with good distribution, such as Reddit. A subreddit starts with people genuinely interested in the topic. A large proportion of members are posting high-quality content. That content attracts people less interested in the topic, but value attention. They post lower-quality content, troll, and argue with existing members. If the knaves aren’t punished for this behavior, saints will leave, making the community worse.

Saints can become burnt out from carrying the group, especially when other people hear about how good the group is. Communities change faster than civilizations because people can join and leave rapidly. Behaviors that work for saints in one day can leave them overwhelmed on the next. The saints’ natural tendency is to care about the group but they can become overwhelmed with knaves at the wrong time.

When you see knave behavior on the internet, you become accustomed to knave behavior. It moves you towards thinking knave behavior is normal behavior, especially when it goes unpunished. When you see someone make off-topic posts or troll in the comments, you are more likely to do it yourself. It might encourage you to be a bit more knave-like, and this isn’t a good thing. So is there a good way to prevent knaves and attract more saints?

Fewer Knaves and More Saints

Because internet communities are smaller than civilizations, they have more options for maintaining the fragile balance of saints, knaves, and moralists. They do not require demographic or cultural change when they can adjust incentives, enforce different rules, or change their structure.

A community does not need to be free of knaves to work. They do not need a large number of saints either. What they do need is the capacity to remove knaves and attract saints. This capacity shows that a community remains vibrant.

Removing knaves is easier online than in a civilization because you can ban them. Most communities are oligarchies, having a small group of leaders able to ban people easily. For example, I’ve seen Discord servers and Twitch channels with one-word permanent bans available to moderators. Compared to something like a ban request form, a one word ban command makes it easier to remove knaves, which means it will happen more.

A community with a strong capacity to remove knaves likely has the capacity to make changes elsewhere. It shows the community wants to maintain quality of interaction and membership. It has standards and rules that are understood and enforced. All good signs.

Removing knaves is not the only area a community can show capacity. It is also vital to attract saints. The best communities have the largest and most active group of saints. Communities with saints win out in competition between communities. We all love saints and want to spend time with them.

The ability to attract saints shows the community is good at something. It may appeal to the saint’s interests, be entertaining, or informative. More saints amplify these qualities further in a positive feedback loop. If a bad community can attract saints it will improve because they “contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed.” Without saints, a bad community won’t have many contributors and won’t improve.

For you as a member, it is most valuable to find an area where you want to be a saint and spend time there. You might be interested in other areas, but only as a moralist. You are less active than you can be. A good way to test your fit with a community is to ask “would I be a saint in this community?” If not, there may be a better one for you.

An interesting way to both have fewer knaves and attract more saints is through paid communities. They prevent people who aren’t serious from joining. The penalty for getting banned is real money lost. Paid communities can also hire saints. For example, Foster hires editors to edit members’ work. Before doing this, it was done mostly by the saints of the community. This lightens the load of saints while maintaining community quality.

We all want to be a part of communities with more saints and fewer knaves. There are many more ways than what I explained to do this. Some are up to the community, and others are up to you.

Be a saint if you can.

Don’t be a knave if you can help it.

Just that would make communities better places.


Thanks to Tom White and Marko Ayling from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How Dunbar’s Number Makes Or Breaks A Community

We think of internet communities as one collection of people all interacting with each other. This isn’t true. People can only maintain a certain number of relationships with others. They have limited time to gather information about a group, build relationships, and stay engaged. This limits the size of the group they can interact and form relationships with, and that limit is Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is the cognitive limit of the number of stable relationships someone can have. It is commonly known as 150, although the practical number for a community is lower because people always have relationships elsewhere. 150 is the max where a large amount of time is being spent on “social grooming.” Christopher Allen’s hypothesis on the consequences of varying group sizes states:

the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups—as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages—hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50. Anything more than this and the group has to spend too much time “grooming” to keep group cohesion, rather than focusing on why the people want to spend the effort on that group in the first place—say to deliver a software product, learn a technology, promote a meme, or have fun playing a game.

For in-person communities, Dunbar’s number isn’t a major problem because of physical constraints. For internet communities, it is. Through the lens of Dunbar’s number, internet communities become a collection of many groups under one banner, space, or identity. Growth causes changes to community dynamics which need to be handled to maintain quality and functionality.

A History of Communities and Dunbar’s Number

Before the internet, communities were physically constrained, both by geography and space. First, there had to be enough people in your city or town who shared the same interests. Those people had to discover each other then coordinate events or meetings. This is a lot of work, so people rarely ventured away from the communities they were a part of. If they did, they likely joined previously established ones.

When someone did manage to create or join a community, members were still constrained by space. Everything happens in person. Only so many people can fit in a space, and few spaces are designed to hold more than 150 people. Members likely interact with only a small number of the meeting attendees each time.

All of these put natural limits on a community, helping it grow sustainably and avoid problems with Dunbar’s number. The internet disrupts them.

Without physical constraints, communities can be created easily and grow rapidly. They can quickly reach and pass Dunbar’s number without realizing it. In-person communities can see and hear problems through overcapacity, noise, and complaints. Internet communities often don’t have these signs. Members leave without a reason, and problems don’t get handled.

Handling Dunbar’s Number

A common problem caused by Dunbar’s number is the quality of information degrading. A common way solution is “splitting” the community. This might be by topic, interest, content type, or permission. This happens because platforms give the option to do it and it is what others are doing. For example, take two Kanye West-related Discord servers:

You can see the evolution of a community over time. It is likely the “Kanye” server had a similar amount of channels as the “West Server Ever” when it was smaller. The “West Server Ever” has started to split, separating “general” discussion from “(kan)ye” discussion (same as “Kanye” server). They are also starting to split up less relevant topics like “politics” and “ddt-hate.” It is easy to foresee future splits as the server grows.

Splitting is an example of passively handling Dunbar’s number. It doesn’t create a significant change to the community. The structure, behaviors, habits, and policies stay much the same. Minor rule changes, roles, and stricter moderation are all similarly passive solutions.

The problem with passive solutions like splitting is that they may not solve the problems the community is having. Splitting still lowers the quality of main channel discussion as it causes the community to grow away from its original area of focus. More channels distract from the main focus. These non-focus areas are likely lower-quality because members didn’t join for these areas. The more a community splits, the more it moves away from its original purpose.

Not handling Dunbar’s number well hurts member experience. It causes members to be less satisfied and spend time elsewhere. A “sense of community” is broken. Whether they realize it or not, members will look for other communities that better handle Dunbar’s number to provide a balance of connections and knowledge.

Communities that are valuable for their members spot and handle challenges with Dunbar’s number. They continue to create connections while facilitating interactions to benefit members and create collective knowledge. A passive solution may not be the best solution, it may require a more active approach.

Handling Dunbar’s Number Actively

Although the internet has caused more communities to face challenges from growth, it also provides more solutions. There are many options beyond splitting, rule changes, and stricter moderation. Communities can apply more active solutions by changing their structure, limiting their size, and developing means of making connections.

Structure

Choosing a platform is important, among many other reasons, because it provides structural solutions to growth. The structure of the platform creates the behavior that happens there. Some platforms have more options and customizability than others. Certain structures allow for better conversation at larger sizes, better overview of activity, or better facilitation of connections. As a community grows past Dunbar’s number, the structure becomes especially important.

The most common space for internet communities to exist is the channel, whether that is a group chat, Slack, Discord, or somewhere else. The problem with channels is they isolate information into silos. It can be difficult for members to find areas that may be of interest to them. There is rarely a way to see historical activity or get an overview of what’s going on. Those silos also aren’t information-dense, when compared with forums or posts. A conversation between two people can quickly take up the whole page.

Low-density Demand Curve Growth Slack channel

Posts and forums are more information-dense. With them, members can see a variety of conversations happening at once, and figure out what is popular. They provide better access to “best-of” and historical content. Take a look at the supertalk forum. Their homepage is dense with information, with forums branching off forums. Members can, at a glance, see the areas of focus and the active areas.

High-density supertalk forum

Every structure has a trade-off. Communities must ask themselves if their structure reflects what their purpose is. Channels might be the right decision if the goal is real-time and create casual conversation. They work well when topic areas split easily. If neither of these is the case, exploring another structure may be a better option. Luckily, there are many platforms and options to explore. Being able to tailor these platforms to specific use-cases is becoming easier, meaning better structures are being found.

Size

A second way of handling Dunbar’s number is best explained through the online education industry. In the early 2010s, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage. Millions of people took them on a range of topics. The problem is few people complete them, causing a lot of potential learning to be lost. A cause of this is the failure to solve Dunbar’s number for their community. They did little to create connections between students which motivate and help them learn more.

Recently, many courses have found success with cohorts (cohort-based courses). Rather than being “massive,” they are small to medium-sized. This allows students to build connections with other students and creates motivation to continue in the course. It also adds new ways of interacting and learning from the course materials. Since cohorts are smaller, they handle Dunbar’s number better than MOOCs and are more valuable to the average member.

Communities can learn from this example by changing the way they look at their current size and their growth plans. Being as large as possible doesn’t always align with the goals of the community or its members. Paid membership or required expertise/credentials are often more sustainable for managers while providing more value to members. On top of paid and credentialed communities, other ways to experiment with size include:

  • Limit size with DAOs and tokenized communities by forcing ownership. Align incentives through the creation of owner-members.
  • Create copies/cohorts of the same structure of the community. Add every 150 (or less) members into a copy of channels private to them. Engage each set of members separately.
  • Maximize exclusivity with the nightclub approach. Put a low cap on the number of members, let in high-status members who loudly promote the community, remove inactives or trolls, keep a waitlist, charge more. It isn’t inclusive but makes sure every member is serious about being there. It also increases loyalty through the prestige of being included.

The idea that a community needs to be open and as large as possible doesn’t always create the best experience. Smaller communities often better align with members’ goals, even if they don’t realize it. They are places for higher quality conversation and connections. I’ve written before about why people need to explore higher friction communities, but they need to exist for people to join them.

Connections

Finally, communities can create connections at the individual level. They can create systems to connect individuals or small groups of members. This makes a big community small.

By joining, members show their interest or that they share an identity. Connecting these individuals can lead to good conversation, potential friends, and collaborations. It also creates a deeper connection with the community by making the members real. People generalize the community on the members they know. They think “the person I met was thoughtful and smart, so the rest of the members are also this way.” This creates a better overall perception of the community. Examples of tools that facilitate these face-to-face connections include Luma, Gatheround (fka Icebreaker), randomcoffee, Zoom, and many more.

Voice rooms and small, non-public events are other ways to facilitate these connections. I’ve seen communities do “cafes” or “work sessions” where members work together in a Discord, Zoom, or Clubhouse room. I’ve seen spontaneous listen or watch parties. Not every event needs to be a big public spectacle. Internal events to build connections should happen more.

All of this works well because it makes the community very small for a short period. This allows people to make deeper connections without the broader context interfering. When you are interacting with one person, you don’t need to think about how your actions fit into the broader community. It provides focus, something many communities lack when they get too large.

Conclusion

Dunbar’s number exists and internet communities must handle it. Most handle it passively, barely realizing the changes it causes. This may work for some, but many will have to actively handle Dunbar’s number or see a loss in quality.

As a member, you should be wary about joining a community that doesn’t handle Dunbar’s number well. Their stated goal might be much different from their actual goal. They may state they want to help you accomplish a task, make connections in a specific industry, or create valuable conversations. They may have succeeded prior to reaching Dunbar’s number, but as they grow they fail to handle the challenges arising from it. Know your goals when joining. Look for communities with the structure, size, and connections you want. The platform, habits, and artifacts of the community are the best clues to figuring this out.

As more attention is paid to internet communities, we will see new ways of handling Dunbar’s number. This helps people find and benefit from communities matching their goals. It creates healthier communities and, overall, a better online environment.


Thanks to Kate Canniff, Abe Winter, Casey Rosengren, and Nick Drage from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Content About Creation Is Procrastination

Consuming content about creation won’t make you a successful creator. It is a trap that leads to thinking there is a “right” way to create, thus preventing you from creating. Meta-creators (creators who create about creating) say the answer is in their newsletters, video courses, writing workshops, tweet threads, and productivity guides. These “answers” won’t do the creating for you but do distract you from creating. There are many ways to be successful as a creator, but the similarity between them is creation.

Meta-creation is popular because we like the idea of creating more than actually creating. Meta-creators help people indulge in these ideas without doing the work. The lack of action taken after consuming the content is proof of its lack of impact. The majority of improvement in creation comes from creation and iteration. Meta-creators fool aspiring creators into thinking otherwise.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

Meta-creators are the embodiment of what Steven Pressfield calls “the Resistance,” a universal force that wants to stop an individual’s creativity by any means necessary. The Resistance wants you to procrastinate, overthink, get distracted, and not create. Meta-creators, without realizing, help the Resistance achieve its goal.

If meta-creators were good, it would show in the long-term success of their followers. They could point to specific cases where followers increased their quantity and quality of work by applying what they learned. Their followers would credit the meta-creators as the source of their success. This rarely happens. Instead, meta-creators “prove” their success through the metrics of money, subscribers, followers, and attention, none of which help you create more.

Some tutorials and inspirations may help, but endless consumption is a trap. At best, it provides a short-term boost. Meta-creators should inspire or improve content creation. Feeling uninspired after consuming a meta-creator’s work is a bad sign. It is a sign to cut them off because they are wasting your time.

There are many alternatives to procrastinating with content about creation. Seek content that inspires you to take action. Look for advice from people you actually want to be like. An interview with a domain-specific expert often gives more insight than any meta-creator could give. Avoid people who aren’t creating what you want to be creating. Looks for ways to create a small version of the content, rather than consuming more. Try and see what works for you.

Next time you see a meta-creator trying to trap you into another course, article, or tweet thread, shut it off and create something. Do you think the creators you admire consume this stuff? Probably not, and neither should you.


Thanks to Steven Ovadia, Rob Hardy, Ryan J. Williams, Nanya Sudhir and David Burt from Compound Writing for the feedback.

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