builders and tribes

Note: I choose not to name any specific projects/communities here to combat my own crypto-religious biases. use your imagination in filling in the blanks, but try to question your own beliefs in the process.

In the 6ish years I’ve been building in crypto, one thing seems to have been pretty consistent: intense tribalism. If anything, the tribalism has only increased. The extent to which there are different worldviews about what is true/important in this industry still surprises me.

Just look at anything that happens in the industry and the variety of contradictory responses to it. There are certainly things that are more universally polarizing or celebrated, but most things have both smart detractors and smart proponents.

I think the phenomenon is worth reflecting on continuously as a builder.

why should we care?

I posit that if you’re here, you’re a reader who cares about predicting the future and building towards it.

Nothing wrong with having other goals (like enjoying the vibes, solving interesting technical problems), but this is a pretty specific one that I think many of my peers have. I know so many people bitter at having spent some amount of time building on top of what is now a dead project/paradigm.

Of course, the ambitious entrepreneur will want to forge entirely new paths, but must also contend with the fact that there will always be natural headwinds and tailwinds in the industry.

It’s nontrivial to tell if you’re building in a frame of reference that has lost alignment with the future, no matter how ‘smart’ you are. So it’s crucial to spend time assessing the correctness of your path.

The tough reality is, you’re probably caught up in the beliefs of one or more tribes.

why are we so tribal?

Fundamentally, a few things:

  1. a future that depends on both technical and social factors

  2. massive amounts of capital/latent interests in the space

  3. deification of ‘high priests’ enabled/magnified by social media/conferences

1 means that there isn’t a way to collapse the future of crypto into solving a single technical problem. 2 means that there are nontrivial interests aligned with various, competing ideas of which technical problems are most important to solve.

So we should just find the pockets of vibes where there isn’t being money thrown around at all, right?

Well, not quite: many of these pockets’ epistomology depends on the thoughts of only a few people within them. We tend to deify and delegate our beliefs to the people we believe know what they’re doing.

sidenote: how does deification happen?

We’re all ‘rational’ software people; how can deification of high priests even happen?

I think it’s an uncomfortable fact that even the smartest technical person can’t keep up with all of the cultural goings-on in crypto. There are just too many factors to keep track of that define whether or not a given protocol reaches adoption.

So it’s natural to feel overwhelm and delegate some of the ‘future prediction engine’ to smart people around us. The hubs that naturally form in this ‘belief network’ (i.e. small world network) are our deities/high priests.

A side effect of the natural deification among smart builders is that there is also an emergent game to win the favor of the chosen ones. This is because there’s a reflexive value in being anointed by them.

The others who follow the chosen ones will now also follow you. Thus the cycle continues.

sidenote: mood affiliation

Tyler Cowen has a great framing for something I see often in crypto circles: mood affiliation.

That is, choosing an attitude almost religiously and being blind to nuance in interpretation of that attitude in assessing related ideas. The tough thing here is that the initial attitude is often correct/moral generally.

wat do? strategies for thought

By no means is this exhaustive, but while I’m on the topic, here are some strats for staying vigilant about our beliefs.

strat 1: kool-aid diversification

Probably the most effective thing one can do is immerse oneself in competing beliefs. But I mean really immerse. Don’t just intellectually read about the thing: go watch the most hype talks from the opposing side’s recent conference.

One of the nice properties of our industry is that so much innovation and thinking happens out in the open. It needs to; we’re trying to build open systems here.

As such, there are probably public youtube videos from the gatherings discussing/evangelizing the viewpoints opposite your tribe’s. Go watch them. Watch the keynotes as well as the technical talks; try to get excited about the other vision. Suspend disbelief and pretend they’re right.

And then make time to synthesize the beliefs. Sorry in advance, this will be painful at first.

One of the things you’ll realize after doing this a bit is just how many opposing subcultures there are. Not just the big ones; there are many tiny groups of people holding different beliefs from your tribe.

Never underestimate hungry, visionary underdogs.

strat 2: overton window poking

A slightly more advanced technique is to observe the overton window of your communities.

We, as humans, are predisposed to want recognition from other humans. This manifests in online social life as changing how we represent ourselves subtly to generate more likes, reactions, etc. in whatever venue we’re posting ideas.

This results in overton windows in every community.

Something that can be extremely illuminating is poking the overton window in your own communities. Say things that you believe but aren’t entirely within the party line of your community and see how they’re taken. Do this across many communities and you’ll quickly form a picture of the relative overton windows/beliefs of different communities.

Of course, there’s a little bit of a Heisenberg-esque feature to this; it’s hard to poke a community without affecting it and without also affecting your own reputation within that community.

We’re working on technology to make this easier at Personae :P. End shill.

strat 3: think like a multi-armed bandit

The multi-armed bandit problem in statistics/ML refers to the challenge in trading off explore/exploit when one is both acting on the environment and learning.

Pure exploit and you end up at a local maximum (i.e. head of a dying crypto tribe). Pure explore and you don’t do anything (jack of all, master of none).

You’ve gotta do both. Push into tribes, do important stuff, but then randomly sample space way outside of those tribes.

Explore includes sampling things outside of the meta-tribe of crypto as an industry as a whole. Or ‘tech’ outside of that. Consume weird art and reading controversial philosophers.

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