New Institutions for Civic Life in Cyberspace
Niran Babalola, May 27, 2020
Cultivating Civic Life in Cyberspace made the case for challenging the dominance of our stagnant public and corporate sectors. We will reinvigorate our civic sector by building digitally native civic associations, and we’ll power them with economic tools on par with national currencies and corporate equity. To pursue this goal, we need two institutions as scaffolding: a council to coordinate the shared resources contributed by its members communities, and a league to secure as much external subsidy as possible to support the work of its member communities.
The first institution we need to cultivate civic life in cyberspace is a council of communities to coordinate shared resources among communities. To achieve a federated model with roughly equal contributions and influence for each community, the Council will be governed by its member communities based on some mixture of one-community-one-vote and votes weighted by community size.
Member communities will make recurring contributions to the Council based on the size of their membership. Over time, groups of Council communities may find that they have their own specific needs that they’d like to fund together. These members can transition from being a top-level member of the Council to becoming a division member of the Council. Division members keep some of their contributions within their division to make their own spending decisions separately.
Beyond helping member communities fund common goals, the Council will give fledgling communities a concrete goal to aspire to, if they so choose. Organizing a group that is willing to meet regularly is a significant achievement in itself, but the Council encourages communities to reach beyond just existing to build up the sustainable recurring contributions that are required for Council membership.
This model is intended to be very similar to traditional chapter-based organizations with one big difference: it’s not just one type of community. Rotary International will help you organize a Rotary Club, and Kiwanis International will help you organize a Kiwanis club. But this Council doesn’t care what kind of community you’re trying to set up or what its rules are, as long as your work helps to grow civic life in cyberspace.
Since many of these communities will be formed by people who have never met in person, the easiest path for them to get started will be to deploy a “DAO” a set of organizational rules that the internet can enforce using blockchains. Since blockchains help us make digital commitments with each other, they can help communities form stronger bonds in digital communities that span the globe.
Both of our examples of thriving civic life have relied heavily on subsidies: mass participation in civic life was subsidized by employers, and campus civic life is subsidized by mandatory fees. To pursue and allocate these external subsidies for participating communities, the second institution we need for civic life in cyberspace is a league of communities. Since the communities will vary in how effective they are at securing external subsidies, the League will be governed by its members based on the size of their stake in the League. This contrast with the Council is why both institutions have a role to play in cultivating civic life in cyberspace.
One traditional type of subsidy is the corporate sponsorships that civic associations often earn from businesses in their communities. By cooperating within the League, communities will potentially earn larger sponsorships from bigger brands than they would be able to independently. Sports leagues are the inspiration for this model: they are exceptionally successful at securing “subsidies” (revenue from sponsorships and ads) both collectively at the league level, and individually at the team level.
A newer form of subsidy that has shown incredible promise is the subsidy model that powers the Bitcoin network. The fees that Bitcoin users pay to send transactions don’t come close to funding the operations of the network. Instead, the network issues new bitcoins to reward the miners who operate the network. These new bitcoins are the “block rewards,” and have recently been about 60 times the value of the fees on the network. The people who hold on to bitcoins have opted into a system that they know will dilute their holdings over time to fund this subsidy.
This subsidy model can be generalized with a new currency and applied to civic associations. The League will help to share this subsidy between members rather than each community needing to maintain their own subsidy system. If this model can subsidize contributions at a multiple of the contributions that are flowing in, then there’s no downside to sharing the subsidy system between communities. Each community can be allocated a share of the subsidy budget based on their share of the contributions to the league, but constrained by the size of their stake in the League. Communities can be stronger together than they would be if they went their own way.
Sponsorships and inflation subsidies are just two concrete examples of subsidies that communities will be able to pursue through the League, but the general principle is that communities work together within the League to secure as much external subsidy as they can, while working together within the Council to coordinate the shared resources contributed by their members.
Civic life in cyberspace is…
- Pragmatic: We make decisions based on what we think is most likely to grow civic life in cyberspace. We welcome a variety of perspectives among individuals and within the communities we work with, but we aren’t here to collectively further any particular economic, political, or social ideology.
- Apolitical: There’s plenty of political life in cyberspace already. In contrast, the work we aim to do is voluntary. We’re not trying to influence governments or our opponents, we’re trying to influence the people who choose to join our communities.
- United: Cryptocurrencies can both unite and divide communities. If we organize communities around a currency without taking care to keep people unified, we will create unnecessary schisms that divide our friends from one another. In particular, we are inspired by the example Linus Torvalds has set in maintaining a unified community of open source contributors to the Linux project over decades, even though anyone can fork the code.
- Responsive: In aggregate, our ecosystem of communities must actively maintain a high standard of responsiveness to the people who join them. We use two tools to do that. Competition ensures that there are choices community members can make within our institutions or outside of them to meet their needs. Democracy ensures that our institutions remain responsive to the votes of individual community members in areas where competition isn’t feasible.
- Cooperative: Communities work together to help each other grow. Competition between communities is inevitable (and desirable), but we work within our institutions to create as many win-win situations as possible. A community’s biggest threat isn’t the other communities within our institutions, it’s missing out on potential members who end up not participating in civic life at all.
- Humble: Since we aim to significantly increase the prominence of civic life in our society, we must be humble in how we do it. We must respect how people currently live their lives and stay informed about what people want to change and what they’d like to conserve. We don’t celebrate disruption, we hold ourselves accountable for it.
- A Mosaic: When we organize new communities and bring existing communities together to cooperate, we set baseline rules to help communities cooperate, but we don’t try to homogenize them. Instead, we maintain a healthy competition among communities so people can choose which part of the mosaic they’d like to be a part of.
It’s time to build. Some aim to solve our problems by reforming government, and setting it on a path that can restore our ability to thrive. They believe that if we can summon the will, then we can demand more of our society and break the gridlock in our public and corporate sectors that’s preventing us from building. I expect this to be an effective strategy, and I wish them well.
But if you would rather revitalize our lives outside politics and outside business—a life about what we do with the people we choose rather than what we demand from our compatriots—then you and I should build communities to revive the kind of civic life that Alexis de Tocqueville saw when he visited America in the 1830s.
We will follow in the footsteps of leaders who grew service clubs like Kiwanis and the Rotary Club from one chapter to thousands. The institutions we build will nurture an inventory of possible communities, drawing from those that already exist today while creating opportunities for entirely new communities we haven’t yet imagined. We can ensure that there’s a community ready for every kind of person connected to the internet in the same way that there’s a club to fit the interests of every new student on campus. Since they will be digital, the communities that form won’t be boxed in by borders. They will reflect common interests, no matter who’s interested. Together, we will cultivate civic life in cyberspace.
Find your people. Help other people find theirs, too.
To get started today, here are some communities that are actively getting to work on building communities and tools for civic life in cyberspace.
- Panvala: the League (as described above) that helps communities subsidize their work with corporate sponsorships and Bitcoin-style inflation subsidies