Introducing Pacenotes: A column on navigating tokenized communities

Wong Joon Ian
Oct 21, 2020 · 4 min read

Hello and welcome to Pacenotes, a regular column I’m writing about my research into what happens to community events when we inject a token into them.

As motorsport enthusiasts will know, pacenotes are the navigational instructions that a co-driver shouts out to the driver during a rally. Rallies are interesting because instead of cars racing a loop, they compete against the clock from point to point. All sorts of unexpected things can happen as drivers traverse the course from start to finish.

What I hope Pacenotes will do is mimic rallying in a few ways: we are going to take sharp turns into theory and the social sciences as we seek new ideas to understand what happens with tokenized communities; we will traverse unfamiliar terrain as we try to apply some of those ideas to creators and their communities; and we will hopefully finish the course a little bit muddied, and slightly battered, but with a sense that we’ve had quite a fun ride.

So that’s our starting point with Pacenotes. The hope is to figure out whether it’s possible to design a framework for tokenizing community meetups, a class of events that are invaluable to the crypto space, but which have proved difficult to sustain over time.

Why meetups matter

My personal involvement in the space started in 2013 when I was a reporter at CoinDesk in London. Part of the beat back then involved attending local bitcoin meetups, because that was basically the only time you would see crypto people in the flesh.

Over the years, a parade of then unknown developers and startup founders appeared at meetups, most notably the long-running Coinscrum series: Brian Armstrong, who was promoting his wallet business Coinbase; the bitcoin contributor Amir Taaki, as notorious for his coding skills as his squats; Gav Wood and Vitalik Buterin, who had a plan to develop a “world computer”.

Yet for all the value that these meetups generated, very little of it was captured by the organiser or the meetup itself, from conversations I’ve had with organisers over the years. Every meetup remained a constant battle of haggling with venues, spamming email lists to get people to turn up, and coddling speakers. There was little if any monetary value to be captured from sponsorships.

So my hope with researching the subject, thanks to Rally, is to try and figure out if a token for community meetups could help align incentives, capture more value shared by the community, and generally make meetups less of a slog. A central part of my research will be diving into the literature from a few different fields: economics, anthropology, political science and critical theory. Why bother, you might ask?

Well, cryptoland is strewn with examples of the wheel, reinvented. Think of money markets, impermanent loss, and so on. Here’s the Bank of England’s governor, Andrew Bailey, on stablecoins and central bank digital currencies, for example, in a speech he gave last month titled ‘Reinventing the Wheel (With More Automation):

I think the public expects its payments to carry the assurance of value that comes with money. At this point, my mother would have said firmly to me, “Thank you for that statement of the blindingly obvious”. To which I would say, “I look at the debate going on and it isn’t so obvious any more, but it should be.”

Good artists borrow…

Bailey was referring to how and whether stablecoins could be considered suitable media of exchange. But avoiding a duplication of efforts isn’t the only benefit of surveying other fields. A framing that might be more appealing to crypto folks is the notion that good artists borrow, while great artists steal. There’s a lot of stuff out there that we can appropriate and apply to the crypto frameworks we’re trying to build.

So here are a few threads I’ll be pulling on:

  • The political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons, applied by the research collective Metagov to develop a “governance layer for online communities.” These ideas are particularly relevant as creators issue coins to their communities and decentralise control of those coins, what governance principles and tools can they use to allow their communities to deploy those resources wisely?
  • Scholarship on fan labour helps us understand why fans build communities around media products or artistic personalities, and how they relate to the creation of status within those communities. Abigail de Kosnik’s survey of the literature gives us the example of eBay collectibles fetching higher prices than their retail price-tags as they change hands among fans. “What gives these commodities value beyond their initial sales price is what fans add to them,” she writes, citing Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures. Creators who issue their own coins must therefore understand why their fans might choose to engage with this type of asset, and how to successfully design a community that might find these coins useful.
  • Anthropologists have long studied the social relations that make up money. Marcel Mauss’ writing on gift economies illuminate the social ties that compel the reciprocation of the seemingly free act of gifting. More recent work from Keith Hart on the nature of money on the internet presages the boom in personal tokens that Rally and others are fuelling. These observations can inform communities who are coalescing around individual Creator Coins.

As I dig into these readings I’ll try to sum up my learnings here. At the end of the process, I hope to have some ideas that we can apply to existing meetups or communities that are using Creator Coins. In fact, if you’re a creator with a coin and you’re interested in taking part in this experiment, please get in touch!

I’m @joonian on Twitter or hi@joonian.media.

Joon Ian Wong is researcher in residence at Rally. With thanks to Ji Hyeon Kim, Annaliese Milano and Zack Seward.