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What Does “Community” in Web3 Really Mean?

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Disclaimer: The author does not own a stake in any of these projects, nor does he seek to any time soon.

Communities in Web3 have existed for a while, but only in recent years has the term “community manager” come into use. The role is most prominent in the NFT scene, where projects often promote “community” as a space where fellow NFT owners can feel part of a greater collective.

The scope of the role, however, is nothing inherently new outside of Web3. In online communities on Discord and Reddit, the role of the “moderator” exists to regulate discussion and activity in servers and forums. Offline, private clubs have community managers too, who are in charge of hosting club members and facilitating activity within the club.

One such community manager, Gustin Mahtani, has only been in Web3 for a year, but is nonetheless all too familiar with the importance of his role, having spent most of his career in the hospitality industry. He has been the community manager of Singapore-based private members club Mandala Club, which began integrating NFTs into its membership system after requests for transferable forms of membership.

Gus, as he goes by in the community, stands by his role as community manager in making people feel welcome and a part of something bigger. “I want people to identify their tribe”, he said, touting Mandala as a place where like-minded individuals can find each other and work together towards a common goal.

Community at a price

Getting into a “tribe” like Mandala is no easy feat. For both its Web2 and Web3 passes, Mandala requires aspiring members to submit, among other details, their names, email addresses, and LinkedIn profiles. The club’s NFT membership itself costs roughly 9 ETH at the time of writing, a high price to pay even in contrast to its Web2 membership pass, priced at S$5,500. The limited supply of the NFT only serves to enhance its exclusivity, with only 250 in circulation.

Part of the application form to fill in order to sign up for a Mandala membership. (Source: Mandala Club)

Profile and record-based application is nothing new to Web2. This practice, however, has steadily began to make its way into NFT projects. From KPR to Valhalla, various communities now require users to apply and be accepted by the team before minting. In a space that originated as an open-source form of peer-to-peer digital interaction in the form of Bitcoin, NFT communities appear to be erecting more barriers with the aim of fostering stronger communities for the long haul.

Curating an audience

Prior to the “application” meta, NFTs saw a wave of free mints starting with the Goblin Town collection. Minting these NFTs required nothing of minters other than the ability to withstand the surge in gas prices that came during their public mints. The downside to free mints, however, was that many initial minters were quick to flip away their NFTs for profit.  Holders had little incentive to remain loyal as these projects were merely seen as arbitrage opportunities. With the free mint structure, many small free mint projects came and went, but none could build a strong community.

Read more: Reflecting on the Nihilism of Free Mints

Against the backdrop of a bear market, many wondered how NFT projects could become sustainable beyond the short-term life span of smaller projects so far. This is where projects like ARC rose in prominence, going against the meta by gating their Pyxis collection behind an application form, promising that such a system would produce “collective value creation as a community”.

While Pyxis is free to mint, holders will have to mint ARC’s Stellars NFT at a price of 3 ETH to gain access to the various perks ARC has to offer, a system which resembles Mandala Club’s Web2-style application system. Gus argued that gating Mandala and other communities behind an application and a high price tag allows the club to curate its members around similar interests and commonalities.

ARC’s minting process. Notably, even if individuals are approved to mint Pyxis, most of the perks are still paywalled behind Stellars. (Source: ARC)

“It’s not necessarily about the dollar cost of the NFT, but what paying for it says about a person,” Gus elaborated. “For someone to have paid that much, it shows that they must have a certain conviction in the club and its goals. NFTs can be a great aggregator in that regard, keeping the community unique and making it easier to break the ice.”

Communities without borders

Although Gus maintains that a curated community helps to foster better intentionality and collaboration, others remain sceptical of keeping communities closed off from the rest of Web3.

“Traditional companies tout collaboration too,” said Agrimony, a contributor to AirSwap DAO and moderator in Zapper’s Discord server. “I could set up a football club and bring in only the best players into my club. Selling these club members an NFT doesn’t make it a ‘Web3’ football club.”

For Agrimony, a Web3 community needs to be defined by its mission, which he thinks should be to “add value and increase the overall utility of the Web3 ecosystem”. This is why he contributes to AirSwap, a Decentralised Exchange (DEX) for peer-to-peer swapping, available for anyone and everyone to use. DEXes, to Agrimony, are fundamental to a blockchain ecosystem as they empower creators to trade and take control of their own assets.

By these metrics, gated communities may not necessarily qualify as “Web3 communities”, but Agrimony believes that this, too, is by design. “That has always been the goal of Web3, to let anyone build on its systems,” he explained. “Many NFT projects only seeks to extract value from this ecosystem, and I think these projects don’t qualify as ‘Web3 communities’.”

Read more: Art Has a Money Problem. NFTs Might Be Able to Fix That

Communities like NFT Asia and SG NFT Creators come to mind as an antithesis to that, where there is an effort to give back to Web3 through education about art in the space. In these communities, rather than coming together through ownership of a common token, an interest in a common topic and a desire to learn is the glue that builds deeper relationships, with resources for everyone to benefit from.

An example of NFT Asia’s list of resources on what crypto is. (Source: NFT Asia’s Discord Server)

Finding its footing

While clubs like Mandala may not necessarily count as “Web3 communities” by these standards, that does not mean that collaboration cannot take place. Gus remarked that the benefit of not defining hard and fast goals for the club means that people are free to collaborate on anything and everything, not just Web3 related work.

“We just want to bring people together and not try and control the narrative,” he continued. “I have seen that, beyond just having fun, people naturally learn about each other and end up helping each other in unexpected ways, even on a professional level.”

Despite this, Gus also acknowledged that such a model does not truly take advantage of Web3’s infrastructure. He mentioned that in the future, tools like tokens could be useful for clubs that may want to operate internationally, bypassing issues with international exchange rates. DAOs may also be a way for clubs to reward contributions by members, integrating the token system into the renumeration process.

Can Web3 communities be more than this?

The intent of closing off communities from the wider Web3 may be to build more meaningful ties, but what is needed more than barriers to entry are novel and creative ways of bringing more people together beyond token-based tribalism.

With transactions done in ETH and passes held by Metamask, many communities as we know them still mirror familiar Web2 structures, with little being done to take advantage of the infrastructure of Web3 and its open-source nature. Gated communities may wish to push innovation in Web3 too, but among a limited audience, perhaps innovation may remain stifled by their small size.

And perhaps, amidst the furore of the NFT gold rush, we have it all wrong too. Early communities on the Internet formed out of things in common first and foremost. With so many treating still treating NFTs as an easy flip, maybe what is needed is not a new set of hurdles to cross, but a deeper reflection on why we gather in the first place.

An old adage comes to mind, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” We can only hope that private yachts will remember to bring along smaller tugboats in these unchartered waters.

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