26 March 2022

Making sense of 'community'

Weaning off virtual spaces, building community off an idea, NFT-enabled intimacy

Previously in ‘Stranger’, I had explored the idea of never having felt a sense of belonging on the internet, despite being online ever since I was a child.

The strongest and most compelling feelings of belonging came from spending time with other people in person, whether it was playing make-belief games with the other kids from the neighbourhood or hanging out with friends at school.

When the internet came along, these localised face-to-face interactions started to diminish in favour of virtual interactions that had the potential of limitless reach to people around the world. In-person conversations transitioned into instant messaging via 2D worlds like MSN and Myspace and then 3D worlds that existed through online multiplayer video games.

It’s almost like: as the capacity to connect with anyone in the world grew, it became easier and easier to enlarge one’s social circle and to become distracted in the adrenaline rush of forging new connections.

The cost to this was to pull energy away from the existing social circle, often the ones that actually had a ‘real world’ meaning to them.

Over time, there was a feeling that I had lost something, the in-person interactions that I had grew up with and valued were being displaced by technology. Eventually, I started to make deliberate efforts to spend less time in these virtual worlds and more time in the real world.

During the years through university, after stumbling across organisations of people that were doing things that I was curious about, I started to get actively involved by taking up roles where I could best contribute. In hindsight, it was through opting into such associations that was what allowed me to meet like-minded people who shared the same values — creating a feeling of belonging and that we were on the same journey together.

After some time, I had become more enthralled by the real world opportunities to meet such like-minded people than I was to meet pseudonymous strangers on the internet. So, I continued on this path, following the signs of what appeared to be working.

These were voluntary, opt-in groups such as the Association of Chemical Engineering Students (ACES), Japanese car enthusiast communities, Engineers Without Borders Australia, the State Emergency Services (SES) and Rotaract Australia.

Most recently, I got to create an opportunity of starting an organisation, sparked by the urge of scratching my own itch.

Car Meets Syndicate Gladstone

It was in June 2020 when I caught the idea. We are all familiar with what that particular year was like on an individual level, so in many ways it was not much of a surprise looking back that I had started thinking about discovering means of reconnecting with like-minded people.

At the time, the most prominent medium I could see that would best facilitate this was to start a Japanese car enthusiast community in the regional Queensland town I was living in at the time. There was not much of a choice between ‘joining’ and ‘starting’ something, I would have chosen the former if a desirable alternative had existed already.

There was no blueprint to work from, but I had some rough guidelines based off previous experiences of what a ‘good’ Japanese car enthusiast community should look and feel like:

  • Brand matters — the name, logo, slogan and all other elements that go into forming the explicit representation of the group matters a lot.
  • Skin in the game — every person who shows up to the group has direct ties to being an enthusiast. The ‘implicit roles’ within the group are driver, partner of driver or potential enthusiast, which draws a distinct line between insiders of the group from the outsiders.
  • Openness to storytelling / vulnerability — there seems to be a mutual understanding among car enthusiasts that the journey of ownership is often riddled with more challenges than rewards. Sure, owners will show up to car meets with pride for their vehicles, but more often than not there are battle scars earned to justify for that pride.
  • A commonplace location — participants seek out any reasonable excuse to come together and interact with one another.
  • Mutual respect for one another as ground rules.

Having said that, it is all well and good to have a strong and compelling idea of what to build, but none of it matters if the idea does not deliver compelling value that attracts other people into it.

During these stages of initial conception and brainstorming, I started to gather indicators of whether such an enthusiast community would actually work in bringing people together in Gladstone. The strongest of which was in general observations of particular cars that would be driving around town — it appeared that there were quite a number of enthusiast-owners, but yet there was no central group that brought them all together. This was the opportunity to start something new and meaningful.

What does it take to grow a new community when there are zero participants? I had no idea, really. On the weekends, I continued to brainstorm words for what to associate the group with and potential logo designs. I had a sense of what the group should feel like, so the word choice was particularly important in making sure that the image to the public was in alignment to this.

Then I started making branding material. For some reason I leaned towards the template of business cards, with the rough and vague idea of using them as ‘flyers’ that I could personally drop off at parked cars I would see around town.

This is a whole story in itself, but I will keep it short. This process of dropping business cards as ‘flyers’ would work out as follows. I would drive around town, going about my own business, and whenever I would see any particularly interesting car I would park nearby, hop out feeling like a gremlin and sneak in a card somewhere on the driver’s side door. I could never be sure if the card would actually make it to the owner, or how effective the cards actually were as invitations to the group, but at very least I was keeping the momentum going for my own sake and avoid getting stumped too early.

On top of this, I also laid a basic foundation for social media — focusing primarily on the Facebook Page function. Yes, this was ‘social media’, but the same cold start problem existed — how does one even grow a page from scratch? Nevertheless, I put up a page with the name and logo and continued dropping cards up to the point of hosting the first car meet.

Building momentum

The meet location was set to be at an open air Bunnings carpark, with the start time specifically set to be after opening hours for the highest probability of having as few members of the public would be around. I had no idea if this was legal or not, in addition to all the nerves of showing up on that very first day when there were no guarantees or signs that people would show up. But things were soon made easier when a few friends showed up to support the event. They were soon followed by another handful of cars, which turned out to be a super encouraging sign. At the end of the night, while it was not a massive event, it was great to see that the group was already starting to grow beyond just one person's ideas.

One unexpected surprise that emerged was how quickly the group could grow just by word-of-mouth. The second meet was hosted in October 2020, with a significant spike in the number of cars and people who showed up. This idea… was actually working??

October 2020
November 2020
January 2021
May 2021

Month after month, all I would do is to choose a particular date, pick a commonplace location for the meet to happen and publish a post onto the Facebook page, and people just kept showing up. More cars, more people and more conversations — all fuelled by word of mouth. Through all of the events, I was personally having a lot of fun getting the chance to meet many enthusiast-owners, to learn more about their projects and builds — and I just hoped that others were also having fun by showing up.

Since November 2021, I have stepped away as the facilitator of Car Meets Syndicate Gladstone, with the group having around ~450 participants at the time. As of March 2022, the growth has continued without any involvement from me to 585 (+30%), which has been amazing to see.

What makes a community?

I think I am actively reflecting upon all of this, in an effort to try and make sense of the many virtual communities that are currently blooming all around the world because of Web3.

The amount of attention that is being poured into these spaces is a strong indicator of fit, and as much as I might be personally biased against the idea of virtual interactions being superior to in-person, the metrics make it very difficult to dismiss all that is happening right now.

Not so long ago when I would hear the term ‘NFT’, I would immediately raise the question of ‘why would anyone buy a JPEG?’. But from what I can see today, to buy a NFT (non-fungible token) is to choose to pay the price of entry into the underlying community. For one to merely enter into the group, one has to have skin in the game, in the form of this digital asset.

As much as it is a good thing for a community to be open-to-admission, it is also important for the right kinds of people to qualify as participants. NFTs allow virtual communities to form a barrier to entry, without the need for moderation.

This is a mechanism similar to before for the Syndicate community — for one to transition from outsider to insider, one had to qualify for one of the three roles that existed within the group: driver, partner of driver and potential enthusiast. While there was no financial cost to join the meetups, this was the implicit price of entry to truly participate in the community, which helped to filter out for the right kinds of people to be insiders.

This leads me to think more about the traditional structures of voluntary organisations.

From my own experiences, one of the strongest characteristics of opt-in, voluntary organisations is that they tend to attract really passionate people who are willing to contribute their time, skills and attention on their own accord. Why is that? When an organisation is unable incentivise a member’s participation with ‘hard’ rewards like money, it relies more on ‘soft’ rewards like status, purpose, influence and learning. So what this ends up facilitating is that the people who do show up choose to participate in spite of the lack of financial incentives — which is not desirable or viable option for the majority of people.

In addition to this, there is also a lack of hard, binding contractual agreements between the organisation and participant, so people who choose to opt-in equally have the freedom to opt-out at any time. Perhaps, this increases the risk of churn in participation, but it also means the people who do stay behind hold a high level of personal conviction in what the organisation is trying to do. Participation fuelled by intrinsic motivation.

High conviction, talented people who stay despite the lack of financial incentives — this would form into an incredibly powerful lever for an organisation to hold, and perhaps even envied by other organisations who can only afford to pay their people with money.

The mentality at the front of mind is: ‘how best to be useful?’ as opposed to ‘how best to be fully utilised?’.

Car Meets Syndicate Gladstone was an example of a traditional voluntary organisation. There was an overarching ‘ethos’ that would attract outsider participants to voluntary contribute their time and attention, by involving themselves and others around them to show up at the localised car meets. The core value that the organisation would enable and unlock for participants was within the opportunity for each individual to interact with other participants, who by virtue of choosing to show up at the meets, held similar values and interests.

NFT-enabled communities are differentiated from traditional voluntary organisations in a few ways:

  • 1 NFT means 1 entry — the bar to enter the group is higher as well as being restricted / scarce. This necessitates even greater conviction for an individual to join the group, but also increases the probability that insiders are in alignment and of the right kind. While the price to obtain a NFT might be considered as an ‘entry fee’, it is not necessarily a one-off expense never to be seen again because, by virtue of being a digital asset, the NFT can be sold later down the line.
  • Skin in the game — every participant is financially incentivised to act in the best interests of the group, in service of the price appreciation in the NFT that they hold. As the internal value of the group thrives, this further increases the desirability of participation to outsiders of the group.

From what I can see today, NFTs are enabling in-person, intimate community dynamics to take place on a far greater scale. It appears to be a powerful tool for organisations to seek out values-aligned, high conviction voluntary participants across the world wide web.

If the core of ‘building community’ lies in the idea of ‘bringing likeminded people together’, then communities should be able to exist in spaces that are virtual or otherwise.

Further exploration continues:

And finally we arrive at our preferred method: the cloud country. Our idea is to proceed cloud first, land last. Rather than starting with the physical territory, we start with the digital community. We recruit online for a group of people interested in founding a new virtual social network, a new city, and eventually a new country. We build the embryonic state as an open source project, we organize our internal economy around remote work, we cultivate in-person levels of civility, we simulate architecture in VR, and we create art and literature that reflects our values.

- Balaji Srinivasan in
‘How to Start a New Country’