The Discord channel was filled with anons greeting each other: “Gm.” “Good morning.” “Good morning.”
To some, it started as an innocuous way of saying “good morning.”
“IRC/Discord has been around forever and never had a culture of gm’ing each other – but with crypto – specifically post COVID – it felt like for the first time people’s job was virtual first to ‘commute’ to the computer, log into Discord, be social with each other, day trade, and build things – while saying, ‘Yes, I am present today – I may not have anything to post right now, but I’m here, working’ – particularly important for devs or mods that didn’t want to make it seem like their community was a ghost town,” states Paul, a co-initiator of the Kong community, that has adapted the phrase to a colorful image of the text “KM”, for “Kong morning.”
Kelsie Nabben is a PhD Candidate and researcher at RMIT University’s Centre for Automated Decision-Making & Society. Dr. Alexia Maddox, a research fellow at the Blockchain Innovation Hub, is a sociologist of technology, focusing on digital frontiers and online communities. This post is part of CoinDesk’s Culture Week.
He added, “When you gm someone it’s an acknowledgement that you’ve shown up for work and you’re talking to a fellow degen [decentralized finance degenerate]. From there it kind of became a meme or cultural identifier that our community does that others don’t. No one on Twitter said gm to each other before crypto.”
Others believe that it’s a way to increase visibility across multiple community chat channels. It also demonstrates engagement with algorithmic monitoring to increase the potential upside of any rewards “participation.” With “gm,” the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) comes alive.
This is just one example of the cultural dynamics of ritual that inform and form the identity of a DAO – an autonomous organization of sovereign individuals.
Approaching a DAO as a concept
A DAO is a relatively new form of politically decentralized organization whereby a network of people coordinate through software code and automation to govern themselves toward a stated objective. Autonomy here relates to an autonomy of process, building from the Ethereum blockchain’s smart contract function into a discrete living system. DAOs are testing the possibilities of decentralized self-governance and possess governance patterns which are expressed in distinct phases.
To think through the cultural practices and evolution of a DAO, we present a thought experiment on the lifecycle of a DAO, from birth, life, procreation and death to resurrection. We unpack how such amorphous and multi-layered collective endeavors emerge and the way their identities form and transform through ritualistic rights of passage.
Sorting through the numerous ways DAOs have been described – as organizations, virtual entities, networks of participants, colonies or “magic internet communities” – we seek to explore them as living systems of human and non-human actors. To do this, we draw on the cybernetic logic of autopoiesis – the ability of a living thing to “maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries.” We are not anthropomorphizing technology (casting technology in our image and story). Instead, we are highlighting the cultural nexus that arises through human-technology encounters.
So, what is a DAO, really? Fundamentally, DAOs are a coordination infrastructure.
A DAO is about people and an objective; it uses machine systems to enhance people’s capacity for self-governance. Thus, a DAO can be many things, from a small collective of hobbyists to a massively scaled, multimillion-dollar organization.
Most commonly, DAOs are built upon constituent blockchain-based parts that include a treasury, governance mechanisms such as (but not exclusively) voting, smart contracts for the execution of decisions, tokens as a way for people to buy or be “airdropped” into a collective endeavor, and ways to facilitate collective processes that supplant traditional organizational formats. They also integrate real-world feedback loops to ingest and process information from the outside world; for example, data oracles that translate real-time data feeds from external sources to support the DAOs decision-making and execution capabilities.
When we think about all the moving parts of a DAO, we suggest that a process of identity construction occurs for both human and non-human actors, within the system and at scale for the DAO itself. For the identity of a DAO to evolve, it must pass through and cross a threshold moment. As the DAO moves through each threshold moment, from birth to death to possible resurrection, different pathways of action potential open up within the network. Hence these moments hold the ritualistic hallmarks of rites of passage. These rites of passage are culturally continuous events that connect the individual actor with the collective endeavor over time.
We now turn to the application of these ideas of the cultural contexts for identity (trans)formation of DAOs to trace the lifecycle of a DAO.
The lifecycle of a DAO
DAOs are alive. They each have a unique purpose, shared language among constituents, cultural values and creative capacity. Thinking of DAOs as a living system allows for exploration of the co-constructive and interdependent relationship between people and code, and autonomous from external direction of goals.
The evolutionary nature of these assemblages and how they adapt and transform in response to stimuli provides insights into the lifecycle of a DAO, from birth, to death, to procreation and resurrection.
DAOs are taking two main routes to becoming a DAO.
The first is the “DAOFirst” approach, whereby a team determines capital allocation and token allocation rules at the outset, such as Kain Warwick and DeFi DAO “Synthetix.”
The second is the “exit to DAO” approach, where a project with an established community transitions into a DAO by handing over control of key functions to the community and fundamental settings around capital allocation and token allocation are iteratively determined. This approach is demonstrated in Gitcoin, a public funding mechanism in the Ethereum community that transitioned from a project to a DAO by “retroactively” airdropping tokens to prior users, who became “the new bosses.” With resources and participants, the DAO is born.
The life of a DAO is in the interplay and relations between people and code, as they simultaneously consume and subsume.
In existing algorithmic entities, what is consumed is capital, labor and infrastructure. The resources that a DAO needs to stay alive are similar, including liquidity, participants, and contributions to and maintenance of the open-source code base.
“We envision many thousands of people cooperating on shared goals … But DAO operation requires a decentralized, resilient and scalable governance system,” states Matan Field, co-founder of DAOstack. Yet, the DAO also subsumes these resources of attention, capital, labor and infrastructure, and in return provides incentives and rewards, including digital tokens, knowledge and growth.
A DAO however is not a static point-in-time collective endeavor. DAOs are evolutionary institutions.
An example of a DAO decentralizing the fundamental precepts of content generation is Mirror. Mirror is a “Media DAO” that brings readers and authors into a direct content discovery/publishing relationship. Write tokens are issued to new members who then use these to vote on author pitch proposals. Authors who have their pitches selected to progress through the voting process automatically receive the pledged write tokens to fund their writing.
As some participants have found, “Write club is brutal. My fate will be decided in a two hour voting window …” This simple concept is intended to remove a vast publishing infrastructure that currently mediates and consumes the reader/content/author relationship. Not content to stop there, pardon the pun, Mirror is introducing a multitude of Web 3 native tools that support crowdfunding, non-fungible token (NFT) editions and auctions. Through these actions and functionality, existing members are intended to have both a cultural and economic stake in who is contributing.
As Mirror demonstrates, it is constantly evolving in the types of direct action it makes possible and is fundamentally dependent on people to engage through it, maintain it, own it and develop it. While you might say that it embeds the disparate parts of publishing within one (decentralized) system, all the automation in the world will not keep it alive. A DAO needs buy-in.
DAOs don’t just live, they procreate. As Michael Zargham, founder and CEO at Blockscience systems engineering firm and participant in numerous DAOs, points out, DAOs initiate other DAOs to fulfill sub-functions. An example of a “pluralistic autopoietic organization” in the form of a DAO is 1Hive. 1Hive exists to create and implement tools for decentralized, self-governance. To do this, the DAO spins off smaller, self-governing working groups by funding them with their own budget and funding to fulfill specific functions in line with the broader objectives of the DAO.
To effectively create and procreate, DAOs are composed of a suite of technologies and functions to do this, such as community covenants, governance processes such as forum deliberation, governance mechanisms such as voting, funds, reputation, recognition, reward, and internal arbitration mechanisms such as decentralized courts.
DAOs can also die. With the volume of DAOs emerging and competing for informed and educated attention and expertise, some DAOs may struggle to stay alive. Scholar Ellie Rennie argues that participatory blockchain machines die when enough people cease to participate. Zargham points out that just like “zombie chains,” when a blockchain protocol no longer has participants funding or maintaining its infrastructure, there can also be “Zombie DAOs.” What dies in a DAO is collective vision and the energy of a community in pursuit of this vision.
This is not necessarily negative. DAOs exist to fulfill a purpose. Sometimes, they only need to exist for a finite amount of time. Other times, DAOs fail and die, yet they can also evolve and re-emerge in new manifestations for the same goals.
A DAO must be participatory to be considered “alive.” Life can be breathed back into a DAO through capital and code contribution. Reinvigorating contributions to these aspects of a DAO can reinvigorate or re-engineer the core objectives of a DAO and re-establish culture and participation. Sometimes, even though a DAO dies, its goals and community evolve and persist. In these cases, the institutional form can evolve but the community can return to participate as an entirely new organization, with the same stated, shared purpose.
For example, the goal of public goods funding in the Ethereum community has gone through several iterations, and it is still evolving beyond its current form. DAOs can be ad hoc, ephemeral coalitions for temporary missions; long-term institutions; or loose cohorts that coordinate toward goals, through evolutions in institutional forms.
This modular approach to governance is beginning to be expressed in various DAO communities. For example, DAOs are starting to play with multi-layered approaches to sub-DAOs, which operate for various functions across different time scales.
Identity of a DAO
There are both the visible, and often less-visible, cultural spaces and rituals that mark a DAO’s unique identity, its (trans)formations and changing pathways of action. These threshold moments of birth, life, procreation, death and resurrection signal a living cybernetic organism with a technological nervous system.
The lifecycle approach illustrates the evolving balance and trade-offs in an “autonomous” organization between people, machines and algorithms in designing, enacting and acting through DAOs. A DAO, as an entity with a unique identity formed out of distinct cultural experiences and rituals, can act upon the world in a self-determined way and, in doing so, change it. DAOs breathe life by materializing their actions in the physical as well as the informational realms.
So every time you say “gm,” the DAO says “gm” back.