The Power of Metaphor! Using Our Lenses to Enrich Web3 Communities

Sara Campbell
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Ethan Nelson
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May 13th, 2022

Master community architects Rafa and David Spinks joined Crypto, Culture, and Society to talk about using metaphors as a tool for building healthy communities in Web3. Known for combining organizational design theory with digital-first community practice, Rafa is the community lead at Mirror and a contributor at Cabin and other DAOs. David cofounded CMX and led community at Bevy until recently. He is the author of The Business of Belonging and host of the Masters of Community podcast.

Web3 has brought the value of community building into the limelight. With the increasing popularity of concepts like fractional ownership, community-centric design, and collective intelligence, it’s clear that we are witnessing the dawn of a more collaborative work environment.

Yet, it’s still difficult to nurture these spaces. Without a shared understanding and perspective, collective vision building can quickly devolve into mass conflict management.

In this workshop, David and Rafa provided insight into the ways metaphors shape our experience of participating in a community, and demonstrated how shifting our perception alters the nature of the work we’re doing.

How Metaphors Give Rise to Community Structure

A simple truth: metaphors shape human interactions. They are not just poetic writing tools, rather they’re the lenses through which we experience being part of a group dynamic. Today, they can help us understand the paradigm shift the digital economy is undergoing.

New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities. - George Lakoff

The data-driven, numbers-focused approach to success that Web2 ushered in is a huge part of the problem that Web3 is working to address.

But it’s not that metrics are inherently bad. It’s more that they aren’t the only thing that matters.

If we want to build a more sustainable work environment in Web3, we must also include the value of community and other less tangible markers into our decision making frameworks.

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. - E.O. Wilson

Thinkers such as Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmactenberger have argued that the problem with technology is that our tools give us immense power over the human psyche without the love, wisdom, and care to balance it out. This is why we’ve ended up in situations where social media giants like Facebook and Snapchat harvest our data and exploit it for marketing purposes at the expense of our individual well being. If we have the technology of gods, we must nurture the empathy of gods as well.

Metaphors give us a way to infuse our technology with the wisdom and care they currently lack. We can learn to internalize different metaphors as a solution to creating communities in a highly complex, context-dependent digital era.

Our metaphors inform our structures, and our structures inform our strategy. - Rafa

Using metaphors is a practical way to enact more humane ways of organizing. Our metaphors shape how we build communities, which in turn shape our technology and behaviors.

When we combine a diversity of metaphors, we transform our goals, ways of relating, and experiences of work in the first place. With practice, we can shape the lived reality of our many collectives.

Exploring Metaphors for Community Building

Here’s a central insight that is important to keep in mind: there’s no such thing as a good or bad metaphor. Every metaphor is useful in particular contexts and detrimental in others. How we use and internalize metaphors is a complex and intuitive process, and explicitly labeling a metaphor with a good/bad judgment can be counter productive.

That said, let's start with a commonly used metaphor in traditional corporations and web2 SaaS tech firms: that a business is like a machine with parts.

Through this metaphor, employees become expendable because the optimization of the organization is a higher priority than the humans working within it. This metaphor has been dominant since the advent of the industrial revolution. One could even argue that it’s the default operating system of our entire capitalist system — within it, we humans are reduced to mere cogs in the machine. It’s so common that we often don’t even realize when we’re operating under this metaphor. We must become conscious of this metaphor and others to create more humane harmonies.

The machine metaphor shapes how we think in so many subtle ways. When we think of an organization as a machine, we forget about the creative capacity of each individual and tend to create more and more standard operating procedures rather than relying on the sovereign decision-making capacities of each individual. When we operate solely through this metaphor, we tend to view the world as a mechanical controllable process rather than letting the inherent qualities of our collectives emerge naturally. As a result, we downplay stories and real human situations while overemphasizing the need to control and manipulate.

Which is not to say that the “business as machine” metaphor is bad. It’s just that using it as a basis for building strong organizations has not produced positive outcomes.

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted. - Albert Einstein

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Various Metaphors

Here are some examples of the strengths and weaknesses of various metaphors to get us thinking about how they may or may not be useful in different contexts.

Community as a Brain

Strengths: problem-solving, neuroplasticity, creativity, continual growth, learning loops, perception, and complex integrations.

Weaknesses: the need for dopamine, biases, ability to get hijacked, non-perfect memory, coping mechanisms, diseases, emotions, non-rational choices, and requires a body to function.

Community as an Organism

Strengths: can heal itself, adaptable, collaborative, symbiotic, and self-sustaining.

Weaknesses: instinctual, inefficient, unpredictable, and susceptible to mob mentality.

Community as an Ecosystem

Strengths: balance, harmony, emergence, evolution, feedback loops.

Weaknesses: chaos, many points of failures, competition, susceptible to external disturbances, invasive species (the bots).

Community as a City

Strengths: local governance and laws, positive externalities, delivering common goods to a population.

Weaknesses: traffic congestion, need for transit, neighborhood variation, predefined urban planning, decaying infrastructure, bureaucracy, pollution, negative externalities, governments and laws, demographic challenges.

Playing with these frames is a generative process in and of itself. Much like the objects in the metaphors, ironically enough!

The Use Cases of Metaphors

**
**Keep in mind that metaphors are only useful when they can inspire action. We want to develop and debate proper metaphors without letting them become a distraction from actually building the communities already bustling in front of our eyes.

There’s no metaphor user manual that will tell you when and when not to use various examples of turns of phrase. This is where patient practice and then intuition comes into play. Metaphors should be used as a daily tool for inquiry. As you’re speaking to a particular person, or group of people, you can listen to their idioms, memes, and beliefs to figure out which metaphors the person is speaking from.

A lot of problems in business can be solved from simply noticing which metaphor a conversation is relying upon. Once you pinpoint the metaphor that a person is speaking from, you can either (1) engage with it or (2) surface the fact that the conversation is being filtered through particular assumptions. Try this out and you may find that your ability to communicate and support the community increases dramatically.

Now it’s up to you.

Ask yourself: What metaphors do you use? What metaphors do others default to?

Community Metaphors in Practice

Here are some examples of putting metaphors into practice.

The Solar System Metaphor

We can learn a lot about a community when we picture it as a solar system with outer and inner planets circling an epicenter. The outer rings represent the less engaged members of the community, the inner rings the active and influential community members, and the epicenter is the founder/core team.

Every single ring is part of the community, but the shared identity decreases as we move outward from its center. If you want a community to thrive, it's better to focus on the highest sense of belonging (aka the inner rings.)

This is where many people make mistakes when starting DAOs. Whereas some DAOs try to get tens of thousands of people into the core of the community, you only need roughly ten core people who feel really connected, belong, and are engaged. If you truly support this core group of people, their energy will radiate out towards the outer rings of the solar system in a beneficial way. The solar system model helps us prioritize our limited attention on those that will have the largest impact on the overall health of the community.

And we can use this as a metric for DAO-wide decision-making as well by asking questions like: what tools create the strongest center of community gravity?

The Lifecycle Metaphor

Another useful metaphor is that of the lifecycle of a tree. Communities go through a maturation process — birth, development, death, rebirth — which means they evolve, change, adapt, and interact in all the same ways an organism does.

Many of the problems that DAOs are facing come as a result of growing way too fast. The reality is that maturing in a healthy way takes time and care. There are many examples of DAOs that were born out of a viral meme and then just as quickly die out.

On average a community will remain in the “seed” phase for at least six months and won’t reach the maturity phase for at least two years. The core insight here is that if you focus too much on KPIs and ROI to try to grow a community as fast as possible, you run the risk of losing your early momentum — and the core group of people that brought the community to life to begin with.

We, Digital Poets, Craft New Realities

Our technology advancement will continue to accelerate. So must our ability to contextualize it. First, we must become conscious of the metaphors we use as default. Then, we must diversify our perspectives and act. Web3 is giving us a fresh start — it is an opportunity to build organizations that are far more generative than the ones we’ve created in the past.

By weaving multiple metaphors, we can see our community’s structure, its paths, ecology, machinations and, together, glimpses of its soul. Together we can craft new realities.

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Crypto, Culture, & Society (CCS) is a learning DAO focused on building liberal arts for crypto. Founded in 2020, CCS has grown into a full-stack educational initiative hosting workshops, electives, and other programming for its members. The CCS community includes technologists, creators, community builders, educators, and lifelong learners. You can keep up with CCS on Twitter, Substack, and via the Society Journal.

This post was a collaborative effort! Special thanks to Miru for the art and Tasha Kim for the graph design that accompanies this post. And to Tom White for editorial support.

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