Memes, cooperation, and performance art

Observing the importance of memes and performance art in large scale human cooperation

Memes, cooperation, and performance art

This piece includes three reflections on the recent web3 powered attempt to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution called Constitution DAO. I don't intend for this to be an explainer on all things Constitution DAO so if this is the first time you're hearing about this it may help to at least skim through their website and FAQ.

But to very briefly summarize – Sotheby's recently announced that one of the few original copies of the U.S. Constitution was going to be up for an auction. A few people decided to start a web3 centric crowdfunding campaign to bid on it and in a matter of days that grew to over 17,000 people raising about $40 million for this attempt. Ultimately they were outbid but a billionaire (with a chequered history of competing against groups of people) but it does represent a very interesting attempt at large-scale coordination.

DAO, if you're unfamiliar with the term, stands for decentralized autonomous organization. Again, I am oversimplifying here and there are perhaps competing definitions for this term but for purposes of this piece, you can think of this as a web3 powered coop of sorts.

With that, here are three reflections.

The power of memetic cooperation

I don't think a majority of us really appreciate the power of memes. We appreciate and measure them in terms of their comic appeal when we see and share funny images or videos on Reddit, Instagram, or TikTok, but I don't think we appreciate their power beyond that.

A meme, simply defined, is a unit of cultural expression that spreads by imitation from person to person. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in the 70s in his book The Selfish Gene as part of a larger conversation on genetics and evolutionary biology.

So sure, we all kinda get it. You probably didn't need me to define what a meme is. And well we all lived through a Trump presidency, damn it. If there was ever a presidency that memed itself into existence that was it. On the other side of the aisle, AOC and Bernie are among the most popular Democratic politicians. While I certainly don't mean to compare them in terms of policies or personalities, they do have in common their memetic strength.

So, yeah, sure, we all kinda get it. But the part that I think we're only scratching the surface of in terms of our understanding is the power of memes as a means of human cooperation, and if we want to go beyond that, even currency.

Constitution DAO is one of the larger experiments that showed how powerful this mechanism could be. The United States Constitution is, for both good and bad, one of the most historically significant documents in the world. As the image above suggests the meme value is very high for something titled Constitution DAO and the endeavor of attempting fractional ownership of an original copy of the constitution. Whether you think Nicholas Cage, the founding fathers, or patriotism, this subject's potential as a unit of cultural expression should be immediately apparent.

Crowdfunding isn't new. We've all probably used Kickstarter for supporting some campaign or the other, we participate in the equity markets, and if you're an HNWI perhaps you've done some angel investing. Most of these are relatively centralized activities that haven't used the full power of memetic coordination.

While Constitution DAO was also more centralized than not in terms of the people making large decisions, I think it was a very interesting attempt to quickly bring a large group of people together, most of whom didn't know each other, to coordinate towards a shared objective. The memetic value that the idea of owning the constitution coupled with the similar value that the web3 ecosystem brings with it today is what I suspect largely allowed for this to happen.

Watch this space because I suspect we are going to see many more interesting experiments in things like fractional ownership and even funding public goods using similar models.

Governance at scale is hard

Ok, so memes are powerful and can be a powerful means for human coordination. But the Constitution DAO experiment also begins to show that something like this requires governance and governance is really, really hard at scale.

A fascinating moment in the Constitution DAO journey was when bidding commenced at Sotheby's and seemingly all of web3 Twitter was trying to figure out which of the two primary Sotheby's bid recipients (Brooke or David) represented the DAO. All this happened over the course of just a few days so I'm not trying to imply that this is representative of what they could have accomplished if they had months but it does seem significant that thousands of people contributed money to the cause, joined the live stream, watched, and live-tweeted in excitement and confusion without knowing who their representative at the auction house was. Forty million dollars on the table and this wasn't clear.

This continued even after the auction concluded with someone starting up a Twitter Spaces with some four or five thousand people including a few web3 niche celebrities. The person who started this at one point claimed to have talked to a core contributor to the DAO and announced that the DAO had won. Huzzah! But oh wait, there were also people close to the core team and on the DAO multi-sig that were valiantly calling out that the result was not clear quite yet. Then came the announcement that the DAO did not win.

Again, to be clear, I don't believe there was any malicious intent by anyone whatsoever but it does seem representative of the kind of challenges you are bound to encounter you're attempting to coordinate the efforts of 17000 people in a decentralized manner. I've spent about 13 years working with large (centralized) companies in different industries and they struggle with governance every day, on projects large and small. Large decentralized experiments like this are going to have to contend with this reality.

But let's explore a different example. Something that I think is another fascinating counter-example of memetic coordination that is going about a perhaps even more ambitious goal in a very different manner.

If you're not a participant or observer in the web3 space the term Nouns or NounsDAO likely means nothing to you. Navigate over to their website and you may have a slightly better understanding of what they are attempting but it's still likely to be very confusing.

From the WTF section on their home page –

Nouns are an experimental attempt to improve the formation of on-chain avatar communities. While projects such as Cryptopunks have attempted to bootstrap digital community and identity, Nouns attempt to bootstrap identity, community, governance and a treasury that can be used by the community.

If "on-chain avatar communities" strikes you as just another example of crypto/web3 woo-woo BS, I'd encourage you to look at the size of their current treasury, just 113 days into this experiment. 14939 ETH, noted at the top right-hand corner of their home page. That is currently well over $63 million.

They have achieved this by the strange and interesting approach of auctioning one noun, a meme-worthy NFT, like the pixel duck (?) in the image above every day for the past 113 (and counting) days. They plan to do this every day, forever.

Etherscan contract page for Nouns DAO showing the value of their treasury (November 20th, 2021)

The Noun NFT that is being auctioned in the image has a bid (as of this writing) of 72 ETH (>$300k). If you scroll through their site and observe what past Nouns have sold for you'll see that this number is not an anomaly.

Why on earth would someone pay that kind of money for a (what I think is cute) pixel art-ish image? Refer back to my first observation on the power of memes. Then we can think about collective cooperation.

The owner of a Noun gets to be a part of the DAO and help determine how it is shaped and how the community can use the treasury for a shared, developing, currently experimental mission. And while your net worth clearly needs to be significantly high to belong to Nouns DAO as an individual owner of a Noun, there are creative approaches already in play where other DAOs have bought one Noun collectively.

So fractional ownership of a meme, within a meme, in a sense.

Oh, I forgot to add that Nouns DAO was started by a pseudonymous individual who goes by Punk4156 based on this individual's ownership of that specific Cryptopunk. Punk4156 and a group of 10 other web3 builders, labeled Nounders, came together to start this project.

Yeah, it's memes all the way down (or up), baby. Controlling a $63 million and growing treasury.

Sorry, but that preamble seemed necessary given how mind-bending the Nouns project is. Ok, so what's my point here.

The Nouns project is another emerging example of memes for cooperation and governance. But unlike Constitution DAO, they are focused on a much more slow and scaleable approach to an ambitious experiment (again, different timing, objectives, and such, no judgment Constitution DAO folks). By adding one Noun per day they are controlling the growth of the effort making it a lot more manageable for them to establish something that could grow to become truly decentralized over time.

Their focus at present appears to be, among other things, fund efforts that better promote the Nounds brand mission but they are quickly moving in real-world projects, like this open-sourced studio effort that was just announced.

Memetic cooperation combined with thoughtfully scaled governance. It's still very early in the Nouns experiment but I think they can also be the model for interesting experiments in human cooperation.

Performance art

One reason I was a little critical of what ConstitutionDAO was trying to accomplish was that it felt like performance art. Raising $40 million in a few days with the only real plan being to store this copy of the constitution in a public place like the Smithsonian. I'm not at all opposed to the idea of another significant historic artifact being stored in a place that's publically accessible but arguably that doesn't seem like the best use of that many millions of dollars.

But what I did reflect on since was, again, in the spirit of memetic coordination, performance art is important.

This really struck me when I was observing Sotheby's Chairman and Global Head of Sales (and now web3 fan-favorite) Brooke Lampley in action. Brooke, as we all learned about 30 minutes after the auction concluded, was representing the winning bidder, i.e., not Constitution DAO. And as a Twitter commentator suggested, Brooke was really "serving the drama".

There were about 5 or 10 times where she was on the phone with her client, her hand raised in a "will they or won't they bid" position, and then made a decision to bid right before the auctioneer indicated he was ready to call it. Now, perhaps, each of $1 million increments in bids was being deliberated incredibly carefully by Brooke and her client, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, but given that the amount raised by Constitution DAO was public knowledge, it stands to reason that a billionaire with an agenda and Sotheby's Chairman and Global Head of Sales were engaging in some performance art of their own.

As you would expect, a meme was born.

So as much I want groups of people representing my interests to just get shit done with no drama whatsoever, Sotheby's Brooke and Constitution DAO is a reminder that performance art is a key ingredient in this time of memes.

The key, of course, is going to be how you infuse performance in ways that are true to the spirit of your cause and don't let it distract from the power that the meme and performance art has on participants.

Like some of my other recent posts, this is largely stream of consciousness writing with minimal edits. If you'd like to debate or discuss any of this you can find me on Twitter here.

Subscribe to Rahul Shankar

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.