Discover more from People vs Algorithms
The last defense against the Algorithm.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #40.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
Maybe community is just the wrong word. I apologize for titling this note opportunistically.
But you have likely used the word indiscriminately many times. We all have. Not in the sense of your local neighborhood, family or religious community.
You may have used it aspirationally. Perhaps to describe an reader or viewer of something that was or you wanted to be more than just that. The New York Time's community. A community of manga fans. Maybe you used to to describe a commercial relationship. A branded community…. the Lego / Disney / Patagonia community. Or a community of vintage Rolex enthusiasts.
Media and marketing people love the word. Crypto people like it even more. I'm guilty of throwing around like feed at a petting zoo.
We like it because it represents something deeper and more profound than audience or customer, more participatory and interconnected than enthusiast or fan or even advocate. It’s less hierarchical. At best it is sustains itself or at least does much of the heavy lifting.
Community vs. Algorithm
There's good reason to like it now. Community is the antithesis of the Algorithm. Community is Luke, Leia, Hans and Chewy. The Algorithm is Darth. Community stands as the last frontier of real own-able audience connection in a world of unreliable digital distribution. Community gives us a network of loyalists, of people that care enough to connect and create on our behalf, whose energy we delicately direct to our own selfish ends.
Communities share and create. They come back. And, they are intensely valuable when they play along. Members like it too or they wouldn't be part of the community. But they are fragile and unpredictable. You gotta give to get. At least at first.
Last week I wrote a note about NFTs and media. The premise was collections like Killabears create a shared community of stakeholders. Led by the steady hand of a thoughtful project leader, these were not unlike niche media communities, fertile opportunities to turn the seeds of IP ownership into a narrative whole. Most would fail, but they best would find ways to leverage an economic starting point and eager group of collectors into something, like a community-owned 101 Dalmatians.
It made me want to understand the notion of community better. I turned to my friend and longtime collaborator, Alex Schleifer. I met Alex fifteen year ago, give or take. Alex was the founder and creative force behind a Cyprus-based creative studio. We had worked together on a variety of projects and I always found the process gratifying. Alex went on to lead the design organization at Airbnb and produce remarkable work there. He is one of my favorite thinkers.
Six levels of community
Our conversation helped me think about the layers of community, and speculate on the levels of commitment and interconnectivity that sit between a one way, flat consumption experience and something as profound as belonging. Participation is required at all levels. There’s surely overlap. I think of these as increasing depth, meaning and sustainability as we move from one to six.
Shared economics: We are connected because we share financial or equity interests. Eg: We are subscribers, we share ownership of an NFT collection or stock.
Shared interests or passions: This is classic enthusiast media. We share a love of running or gardening or cosplay. We are united by the things we love.
Shared point-of-view: More profound than interests because POV is about beliefs. Our connection is the born of how we see the world. Eg: we are Democrats.
Shared stories: Enthusiasm for stories and characters where we have a shared emotional connection / investment. Commercial worlds like Gucci or narrative universes like Star Wars.
Shared creation: Connected by the things we build together. Goes beyond economic interest because the outcome was born of shared effort, a powerful binding force. Shared effort creates shared stories. Eg: A community garden.
Shared values: Values run deeper than POV or interests. These are the bedrock of our points-of-view, the things we hold dear. Eg: Pro-life.
But let’s try to be practical.
The thing that stood out above was storytelling as scaffolding for community. Just look at Comic Con. Shared stories are powerful things. As we discussed last week, the missing link in the NFT example is a meaningful narrative that holds everything together. Alex talks about this below.
Yesterday I stumbled upon this newish sunscreen brand called Vacation and I appreciated the connection to this idea. Call it good branding or whatever… but the founders had rendered a world that created a precondition for community, however superficial the connections might be in a packaged good scenario.
Stories give us emotional context, practical mechanisms to make connections. They are meta-narratives. Constructed worlds. A place to attach identity.
Vacation was the unlikely spawn of the a fun streaming experiment called Poolsuite FM. The service's creator Marty Bell described it's genesis in Vanity Fair:
“I was living in my parents’ house in the Highlands of Scotland: very gray, pissing rain every day,” he said over Zoom, describing the genesis. For those early mixes, he reeled in selections like an intuitive fisherman, casting for an emotional hook; the aesthetics paid homage to beach movies from the ’80s—a time when, on camera at least, life seemed deliciously carefree. As the pandemic spread, Poolside FM’s listener base swelled, with mash notes pouring in via email and DM. But with normal life edging closer and closer, it’s not a virtual escape we’re craving. It’s an escape from the virtual. We need a vacation.... That just happens to be the next track on Poolside’s playlist: a nostalgia-laced sunscreen line called Vacation by Poolside FM.
Vacation may be the "world's best-smelling sunscreen," but it is much more.... a time and place and feeling. Its own little world. If sunscreen could ever make a claim to community, this would be a contender.
As a second example, I would point to a fast-growing entry in the packaged food category, Fly By Jing. It's actually a chili crisp, heretofore a category that didn't meaningfully exist. An exemplary example of success in direct-to-consumer that began with a founder's journey of self discovery, made its way to Kickstarter, lively packaging and DTC execution and more recently dramatic distribution expansion into Whole Foods, Walmart and Costco. This too is a story that we want to be part of. Jing Jao, the brand's founder and CEO:
In the half year since I’ve reclaimed my birth name, I’ve felt a deeper connection to my purpose and clarity of my mission and voice. I realized that my past drive to achieve was fueled by a state of fear and contraction, the need to prove myself to the external world at all costs. As I shifted my attention inward, my hunger for growth and drive to make an impact didn’t fade, but instead felt even more limitless as I now created from a state of expansion and truth.
I‘m grateful to be living in a time when we’re finally beginning to create space for all the diverse and multi-faceted voices of our cultures to be celebrated and expressed, in our own way and on our own terms. The landscape of natural food in this country is changing, faster than I ever thought possible.
We’ve come a long way since those days of me standing over a wok in my tiny Shanghai kitchen. As I think about this evolution and all that we have yet to become, I’m proud to share a rebrand for Fly By Jing today that tells our deeply personal tale of seeking belonging, and finding one’s way home. A story of breaking free from tradition, and rewriting new narratives.
I hope that others will see a piece of themselves in it, that something as simple as a name and a jar of chili sauce can be a radical reclamation of personal power.
Both are from low-involvement categories. These are not examples of profound connection, but where stories invite you in and provide intellectual backdrop for commercial action and personal connection. They are more than just good branding.
Now let's get to the conversation that inspired these thoughts. A text exchange between Alex and I, one hot afternoon last week.
Hope you had a chance to read my note. I explored the validity of a community-based media construct built around NFT collections. Seemed to me this is a new way to think about media. What were your thoughts?
Good issue. I still think that the word “community” is used very loosely here. If you brought all these people together they’d have little to talk about beyond speculating on price and their crypto philosophy. It’s all people congratulating each other hoping the value will go up.
If it’s just a collection of folks that placed a bet on something there’s less connective tissue. I say that being involved in some token based gaming stuff. There needs to be some real value created outside the token. Utility/gameplay or emotional/story.
Because what happens is that there’s zero loyalty otherwise. Something more profitable comes by people bail. If people are here for speculative gains, the community is nonexistent.
Right… but it’s a starting point. If you are enterprising maybe you can grow something meaningful from that starting point? Equity is a powerful motivator.
It’s hard to apply meaning on the tail end of something. Think part of the issue is that the art itself is throw-away and attracts collectors. They end up in a locker or on display as a token of status. The issue is how these things originate.
IP is emotion turned into a business. It’s weird to reverse that sequence. At best it’s Transformer toys turned into a story. But at least toys were cool. I am surprised everyone is cool with sidelining storytelling and world building. Like starting with Funko pop figurines and figuring out all the other stuff later.
Also the art is often derivative because quality doesn’t matter. It’s stock trading.
I realize I could be completely wrong but I still think this is starting the process from the middle. This is selling merch before you have an audience/community that loves the shit you do.
I genuinely think that’s what makes people hate this stuff. Feels like a shortcut. Selling stuff before you’ve earned the right to.
I don’t think regenerative art is bad but the source needs to be something real. It’s regenerative from zero. If this was based off the Muppets or Peppa Pig or some web comic it would be a fun way to buy into something you love.
You seem to have a fundamental issue with the way the word community is thrown around here. What does community mean to you? What does it take to make it real?
Yeah. I think true community requires a few things: shared values, shared effort, and shared passion. It’s all very subjective of course but I think that a lot of these “communities” are held together by a hope that assets will appreciate. It’s a pretty thin conceit for a community. There is something to be said for artists using NFTs as a way of patronage and a membership system. But the community is around the artist. Not around the value of the token.
This stuff already exists in a ton of communities. Some are well known like Roblox or Minecraft. Some are much more niche. But it’s already massive. Those are usually the people that are most suspicious of crypto/ NFT because they see their communities are already healthy within the current structures. A lot of people are doing a lot of work for free or for the reward of being part of something bigger. There’s a massive mass of content being created across forums, Discord, etc… that derives from IPs. Massive communities that meet online and in person.
I work on something called Blaseball. It’s a wild mix of simulation and community and life event. The community is incredible. They create art and help new players and build entire systems around the game. Bands make songs based on events in the game. People make their own merch.
Everyone’s putting in effort and even if stuff gets sold it’s not commercially motivated. There’s nothing wrong with making money but I’d say once you feel you’re there to make money it’s a job and not a community. It’s a fine line but I think people need to really feel like they’re choosing to be there. That at its core you’re doing what you’re doing for the community and its values. Motivation is so important. Why are you here? Are you here because you love this or are you here to make a buck?
But back to your friend. There are ways.
It’s _somethjng_ and likely meaningful but I don’t know if it’s a community with any foundation beyond speculation. I also don’t see how these IPs graduate beyond the digital trading card. Maybe there’s a futur Pokémon in there but the reach is constrained because scarcity is what makes the value work. The community doesn’t particularly want this to grow fast and people outside of it don’t have any affinity to the characters…
You seem skeptical that bonds between a group of people based on ownership of NFT can grow into something more meaningful?
I think people fall in love with stories and stories have brought us together since the dawn of time. NFT communities are shallow because people are mostly connected by the shared desire for the asset to increase in value. Very little loyalty there. There is definitely a community around crypto, the technology, and I think that gets conflated.
Is it the motivation of creators, the art itself, the premise of starting from the characters as tokens or the entire financial underpinning that concerns you?
I love the idea of ownership of digital assets. It’s the thing we need to solve to allow digital art to become fully realized. What bothers me is that so many are starting with economy rather than building art deserving of attention. It’s all speculation over true affinity with the work. It’s more like buying art to put it in a container hoping it appreciates vs falling in love with art and buying it to appreciate it. I know that people use their NFTs as profiles buts that’s mostly a representation of status.
My biggest concern is that it takes money out of a varied and vibrant art ecosystem as investors see this as the only way to move forward. I’ve already heard of amazing teams getting less funding because “money is in crypto”. I also don’t believe most NFT projects evolve out of their ecosystem into viable IPs that feed into movies or games. There’s just not enough there. Maybe we will get a Pokémon phenomenon that goes from trading cards to, well, everything but once again, Pokémon was a fun card game. Not just pictures of stuff that people can own.
I don’t think it will ruin art or anything. Although it will change incentives.
What does it take for this type of art to transcend speculative NFT confines?
I think that if the ambition is to go beyond the small community of holders it needs a compelling story. Maybe it’s the artist’s story, maybe it’s an emergent narrative from gameplay, maybe it’s actual narrative lore. It’s all about having a story that makes you feel something. It needs time to develop that affinity. NFT projects that just go from zero to a Hollywood deal because their value shot up is nuts to me. Nobody gives a shit about the value of your NFT except the people trading.
Culture needs a little more than that. It’s why I think NFT projects based on sports or IP that already has an audience have a huge advantage. They’re starting from a point where they have a story.
I wonder what community feels like when it’s good...Is it the same as fandom? Related?
It’s definitely related but I think it’s closer to belonging. At Airbnb we had people researching belonging. There was a thesis that you felt better about travel when you felt more belonging and that tourism was the opposite of that. We’re social creatures and we don’t want to feel like outsiders. It’s a feeling of safety and when you’re in this safe container you can really enjoy whatever it is you’re enjoying.
I think it’s specifically relevant for sub cultures where the thing you love isn’t a mass consensus. The more specific and niche the community the more concentrated it can feel.
Stories are the currency here. Grown men (mostly) will start talking about sports. The shared knowledge creates connection. Few things more comforting than meeting someone at a party that knows about some obscure band you like. Immediate point of connection.
Communities are shared stories. Media and art is a great shortcut to those.
The Meme is a type of story. Like the CryptoDickbutts thing. From Decrypt:
It is still just the No. 34 NFT project in terms of floor price, according to NFT Price Floor, but the steady rise of CryptoDickbutts is reflective of an underlying enthusiasm backing the community and continued demand for it, driven in part by meme culture. While some NFT projects fade out of popularity as quickly as they start trending, CryptoDickbutts has proven to be resilient in terms of interest.
You were a gamer. How does this align or depart from that culture as you experienced it.
I am still a gamer. I think they’re a real concern in the gaming community around pay to play and micro transactions. This stuff has been mishandled by big players and there’s a general sense that video games are always a few iterations away from becoming casino games. So when NFTs started getting integrated there was a ton of backlash.
I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff that could happen in gaming and crypto. Some cool ideas are floating out there. But there’s also a ton of stuff that prioritizes commerce over fun and that’s sad to me. It sounds like most people playing stuff like Axie Infinity were not having any fun but chasing a return of some sort.
Where would you like to see the NFT world go?
One thing that bothers me is using NFT as a category vs just a technology. It’s one part of a stack intended to support the sale and resale of digital assets. So for what it’s worth I hope it just becomes a simple way for people to own digital art/assets while supporting artists. I think that’s great. I want to see a healthy economy around digital art that focuses on the craft and creators over the economy.
I’d love to see a world where we don’t buy “NFTs” but rather buy a digital painting or photo. If you decide to use that art as a sticker in Fortnite it doesn’t make Fortnite an “NFT game” it’s just allowing you to bring in shit you own. I just hope it becomes something in the background that allows for all sorts of shit to exist.
What role does co-creation play?
It’s like good vs bad Burning Man camps in my opinion. The ones where everyone puts in effort feel so close. The ones where people pay don’t.
Shared effort makes shared stories. This is why the meme of “I knew them before they were cool” exists — once something is everywhere it is less potent at forming strong bonds between people. They’re doing it for the love of the thing, there’s friction, there’s valuable lore that you can share, access you can give. It’s what we seek out as a species.
What advice would you give people who want to create NFT communities? How about next generation media practitioners?
My advice. Separate the art from the infrastructure. Technology can allow you to do amazing things but at its core there needs to be something that comes from passion. If you love the characters in your head that’s a great start. If you can make it emotionally resonating somehow that’s great. The technology that runs the economy or pays the bills is super important but could your art exist outside of it? Does it have value outside of it? Would people still love it if it was worth nothing?
Technology changes but stories are forever.
I don’t think it’ll take over because at the end of the day, life is hard and we need art that makes us feel shit.
I think community based media is the future. We’re so far away from a monoculture at this stage. Small (compared to say the Beatles) communities of very passionate fans with shared values and a deeper sense of ownership. I don’t think NFT is core to that but likely an important part of membership management and rewards.
Most media is not community. Neither are most brands. The are things, utilities or services. Most NFT "communities" are not real communities outside of narrow aligned economic interests. They are currency or collectibles.
I spoke to a smart editor who leads several successful brands about community. He reminded me that community-based media is a dance — it’s a steady back and forth rhythm between the organizer and members. He cautioned about the instinct for communities to fracture and divide, to get negatively fixated on the “other.” He advised to always build on a broad platform of positivity and inclusivity: we love_____ or _____welcome. That seemed like good advice.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Wet Leg takes us into final stretch of summer. Stuck in brain. Enjoy.
PS: My son Seb just produced this song. It’s great. Have a listen.