What is Membership in a DAO?
Joining a DAO is Agreeing to the Way It Works
To understand how people join a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (a DAO), there’s no better place to start than with the idea of “permissionlessness.” Good definitions can act as keys for unlocking understanding, and I like this one for permissionlessness:
A technosocial system is deemed permissionless if it is possible to participate in the use, development, and governance of that system or infrastructure without requiring permission from an authority, by adhering to publicly stated procedures.
— Kelsie Nabben and Michael Zargham
I’ve argued that DAOs are permissionless by nature. Onboarding into a DAO is not a hiring decision made by someone about you personally. As Nabben and Zargham put it, it’s determined by whether you adhere to the “publicly stated procedures.” That’s how you become a constituent part of a DAO — a member.
The reality is that we are still in the early stages of DAO membership. Today, most DAO onboarding procedures are pretty simple, often boiling down to possessing a token. Much like accessing a subway system, you just present the token and you’re in. But this simplistic token-gated access to membership in a DAO is just scratching the surface of what “adhering to public procedures” for joining a DAO could look like.
The Membrane of a DAO
The future of organizational onboarding is far more permeable than today. Like all organizations, DAOs have boundaries that separate their internal operations from the surrounding environment. Nabben and Zargham point out that crossing a permissionless boundary is something anyone can do without first gaining the approval of some authority. Just adhere to the publicly stated procedures, and you’re in.
Generally speaking, you know you’re moving in the right direction when you’re mimicking the well-tested designs of nature. Permissionlessness imitates the fundamental building blocks of life itself. Biological cells, like DAOs, have permeable boundaries — called membranes.
Cells also have an analogy to the “publicly stated procedures” for participating in the “use, development, and governance” of a DAO. In the above image, the two-layered membrane of the cell has a special class of proteins embedded in it, called “transporters.” These proteins serve as bridges between the cell’s interior and exterior. There are many types of transporters, each designed to move energy and matter in very particular ways across the cellular membrane. Think of each type of transporter as a specific protocol for participating with the cell.
This is how cell’s maintain a boundary while remaining open to their surroundings. This membrane is permissionless. There is no outside force directing traffic, no homunculus in the cell authorizing what does and doesn’t get in. Things join the cell simply by adhering to the ‘publicly’ exposed interfaces of these transporters.
Permissionless organizational structure thus runs deep in the coding of life. It is an emergent, modular design for coordination. It’s also the key to truly large-scale forms of human cooperation — the kind now emerging with Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.
Defining DAO Membership
We can now return to the question of what it means to pass through this membrane and actually join a DAO.
Membership is inconsistently defined across the DAO landscape. For some, just joining a Discord server constitutes a kind of membership, while for others you need a Non-Fungible Token that may cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each DAO should, of course, be free to define membership however it chooses. But are there patterns that shed light on DAO membership in general?
I believe DAO membership has a universal narrative and that it rests in the notion of permissionlessness put forth by Nabben and Zargham. In simple terms, membership boils down to a newcomer agreeing to adhere to the publicly stated procedures for participating in the DAO. In other words, membership results from a permissionless agreement, made by members, to abide by the protocols for using, building, and governing the DAO.
DAO Membership and Onboarding
The real question is what that permissionless membership agreement actually looks like. Today‘s onboarding processes tend to be very simple — usually, owning a token or even just agreeing to community Terms & Conditions on a Discord server. But truly agreeing to the protocols for using, building, and governing a DAO is more complicated than that. DAOs are complex systems that are part-technological, part-sociological, and even part-biological.
Adherence to the procedures of a DAO is much more nuanced than adherence to something like the rules of a blockchain protocol. To follow the procedures of these complex sociotechnical systems, members need to first understand them. That means that education and orientation processes are absolutely essential to a newcomer’s ability to agree to the DAO’s protocols. Without that understanding and training in the processes for using, building, and governing the DAO, the idea of adherence is meaningless — and so is membership.
DAO onboarding is thus intricately tied to education and orientation processes. Because they are permissionless, these education and orientation processes will look very different from those of traditional corporations. There is no Human Resources department gatekeeping the hiring process. Anyone who wants in gets in — as long as they agree to adhere to the protocols.
Member Development in a DAO
This new reality of joining organizations requires rethinking education and orientation processes. DAOs will need to define public commitments for new members that might take the form of community covenants. Defining these agreements will mean agreeing on an initial, base-level understanding that all DAO members should share for using, contributing to, and governing the organization. Over time, as members’ responsibilities grow, that understanding will have to deepen. Greater responsibility requires greater commitment to adhering to the DAO’s protocols.
This expansion of responsibilities over the course of a member’s engagement with a DAO means that onboarding is never truly done. As it moves from its initial stages, onboarding looks more and more like ongoing personal and professional development. DAO membership starts with a standardized and public articulation of onboarding protocols, but evolves over time into an increasingly personalized journey of professional and personal development. At each step of the way, the protocols for using, building, and governing the DAO must be clear, public, and permissionless. That won’t be easy — especially as responsibilities deepen and become more complex. This is the challenge now before us. Clear role articulation and community reputation systems are just some of the keys to scaling member onboarding and engagement beyond where most DAOs are today.
DAOs as Cybernetic Entities
DAOs function as a new kind of technological nest for holding human community and work. Onboarding processes align the way individuals use, build, and govern these systems based on the community values that are encoded in the DAO. This is how a DAO holds its community. It serves as a kind of technological housing, so that DAO and community function together as a cybernetic entity that is part-human and part-machine.
If entraining newcomers into a cybernetic system like this sounds dystopian, that’s only because our existing attempts have fallen so short of their potential. The corporate blueprint for partnering with machines has generally not gone well for humanity or the planet.
DAO Membership and Governance
DAOs create an opening to change this partnership by placing governance over these technological systems firmly in the hands of community members. Using and contributing to a DAO are both important functions, but governance is what defines the mission and operating parameters of these systems. There is great power in governance and it comes with great responsibility:
The first step in taking on the responsibilities of DAO governance must begin with agreeing to adhere to its protocols. To do that, DAO governors need to first understand those protocols. In other words, they need orientation, just like other members of the DAO do. In fact, governors need orientation even more because their responsibilities are so much greater.
If membership happens through agreeing to abide by the protocols of the DAO, and governors have this same requirement, then by definition one can’t really be a DAO governor without simultaneously being a DAO member. Both require adherence to — and understanding of — the underlying protocols.
Tying DAO governance to DAO membership may seem like a logical extension of this argument, but it’s a big deal, with big ramifications. It’s not how shareholder governance works in today’s corporations. Requiring membership and orientation might also prove too onerous for attracting capital into a DAO. It could raise serious questions about token-based governance, which is such a big part of how DAOs work today. So, there are good reasons to tread cautiously in this terrain.
Still, it’s worth asking these deeper questions about the relationship between DAO membership and DAO governance. DAOs are an important new form of organization. They hold the future of human community and human work. We have a window right now to reexamine basic assumptions about how we work with and maintain oversight over these systems. There are reasons to honor past ways of doing things, but we must also make room for these future organs of human cooperation to evolve.
I welcome your thoughts about how to best get this right.