What writer collectives can learn from DAOs
7 min read

What writer collectives can learn from DAOs

Automation could be coming for the managerial class.
What writer collectives can learn from DAOs

A song to read by: "Deep Down," by Blood Orange and Paul McCartney

What I'm reading: "In defense of degrowth," by Giogos Kallis


As I have covered, Sara Fischer reported yesterday, and you have probably noticed, a new generation of media companies has sprouted up as loose assemblages of talented writers, often bound together by little more than an operating agreement and sense of camaraderie.

Organizations like Discourse Blog, Brick House, Defector, Every, Study Hall, and now — maybe? — Sidechannel have exemplified the shifting power dynamics reframing the media world. Each of these organizations consists of between 3 - 30 writers who have joined forces with one another to form a publishing entity, oftentimes monetizing primarily through subscriptions and paywalls, with advertising, merchandise, and other miscellaneous revenue strategies peppered in for variety.

They are often worker-owned, with a minimal number of non-writing staff, and many have taken little to no outside investment. Their priorities lie with each other and with their readers, and their organizational structures tend to reflect this to varying degrees.

They also have low overhead costs, thanks to technical advances and newfound platform capabilities. Nowadays, a group of writers can communicate via Slack and Discord, publish via Ghost, paywall via Substack or Patreon, track via Pico, charge via Stripe, and share via Twitter, all for pennies on the dollar.

Many of these constituent writers have also assembled sizable personal followings, allowing them to carry their audiences with them. As a result, famously, many of them have leveraged their followings and these technical advances to strike off into the wild waters of solo entrepreneurship, and about a dozen or so have found fortune doing so.

However, as the formation of groups like Sidechannel indicate, some of these star-wattage writers have begun exploring the compound benefits available to them through linking their efforts with other, carefully curated partners. In handpicking a cohort of fellow writers that share similar worldviews, social followings, and professional goals, lone writers have begun forming pocket-sized publications.

The result — writer collectives, whether in deed or title — have offered a new vision of what the publications of the future might look like. With low overhead, ample reach, and perspectives just heterodox enough to keep things fresh, these nimble publishers offer a blueprint for sustainable media.

However, these micro-publishers are all, relatively speaking, in their infancy, with the oldest of the bunch tracing back its birth to only a handful of years ago. Using novel technology and by channeling an ethos of equity, they have set themselves on an inspiring track; one could be forgiven for hoping they might turn out better than their predecessors.

The next stage in their development, though, that of maturing into a stable organization, is often when dynamic young companies go awry. The start-ups of the early 2010s, once abuzz with the hope of changing the world and upending how business is done, have instead found themselves stepping into the shoes of the corporate overlords they once sought to replace.

If these publishers want to avoid a similar fate, sliding into stagnation and eventually becoming sclerotic fossils themselves, they might consider adopting an operating structure that protects the spirit of innovation that has helped them get this far. They should, in other words, consider the DAO.

DAO now

Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) offer a new framework, one based on the blockchain, for collective-minded operations to function.

Members of a DAO create a set of protocols and embed those protocols into code, which then executes them automatically when a situation meets the appropriate criteria. The protocols and an account of their execution are recorded on the blockchain, providing an immutable and transparent ledger of its history.

The crypto theorist Vitalik Buterin compared the idea to imagining how a company could function without its managers:

“Business automation is often seen as the process of replacing low-skilled people with robots or computers, keeping more qualified staff at the controls. However, Vitalik suggested the opposite, that is to say, the replacement of management by a software technology capable of recruiting and paying people to perform the tasks that contribute to the company’s mission.”

Members of a DAO, instead of being bound by contract to labor, are incentivized to contribute to the project through receiving cryptocurrency, often a coin specific to that DAO. These tokens can have value within the community, and the number of coins a member collects can be used to determine the weight of their voting power when making collective decisions.

The DAO doh!

The concept of a DAO is relatively young, having only been first theorized in 2013. In 2016, the most famous DAO to date, The DAO, imploded in spectacular fashion. Its members created it to act as an investing vehicle, converting $50 million into Ether, only to be hacked and watch the money disappear before their eyes, powerless to interfere with the self-executing code.

(To salvage the situation, its members “hard forked” the Ethereum network, effectively splitting it, like a medieval church schism, into Ethereum and Ethereum Classic, a decision that involved much wringing of hands. As everyone in the DAO community admits, very few “pure” DAOs exist; most allow for some degree of human oversight. Classic!)

As you might imagine, the popularity of DAOs dwindled after this episode. Today, however, owing to advances in blockchain technology, the concept has sprung back into the collective imagination. The Washington Post’s Jarrod Dicker, for one, writes regularly about DAOs, crypto, and Web 3.0 more broadly.

While exciting, DAOs are far too experimental for widespread use, and those within the crypto community readily admit that the concept is in its infancy. However, while a proper DAO might be too avant garde to employ any time soon, writer collectives can still stand to benefit from borrowing some of their bedrock premises.

Monkey see, monkey DAO

Below are a handful of qualities signature to DAOs that aspiring publishers could consider adopting. While their implementation would differ based on the publication and its needs, the spirit of these characteristics could apply universally.

Collective ownership

Many of the writer collectives I listed above are already worker-owned, to some degree, but DAOs offer a framework for how they could more flexibly incorporate new members, allocating rights and voting power based on participation.

The Brick House Cooperative employs a version of this structure, distributing revenue based on a complex system that takes into account the number of subscribers generated and articles written by its member publications.

With a DAO, equity and sweat equity essentially become one and the same: the more you contribute to the project, the more ownership of it you accrue, with some common sense safeguards, of course. Collective ownership is a wonderful starting place for these publishers, but using new technology, they can decentralize the business in a way that rewards members for their contribution and welcomes new entrants looking to participate.

Radical transparency

While I would not go so far as to unreservedly endorse the blockchain, the bedrock purpose it serves — accounting every transaction, decision, and change as an immutable record — aligns with a radical commitment to openness that I think keeps companies equitable.

To be sure, there could be commonsense restrictions here too; I understand the value of keeping certain goings-on shielded from the eyes of competitors. But within the company, a blockchain-like ledger that keeps record of company decisions could help root out the opacity that helps enforce the power asymmetries that lead to conflict in companies.

Self-governance

As a decentralized organization, DAOs do not organize themselves hierarchically around executives or shareholders. Instead, they rely on a distributed system of governance that gives weight to its members based on a system they decide for themselves, often participation.

One think tank, COALA, describes the power structure of DAOs as heterarchical, or based on mechanisms of cooperation without subordination. According to this perspective, the novelty of DAOs lies precisely in their ability to coordinate a very large number of people while avoiding the ponderousness of hierarchical structures.

However a DAO decides to organize its structure, it necessarily attempts to be far more equitable than its hierarchical peers. While I imagine no amorphous group of humans will ever coexist in complete harmony, operating from within a structure that at least attempts to flatten control will help mitigate many of these problems.

Autonomy (from third-parties)

One thing DAOs pride themselves on is their lack of juridical oversight; they cannot be told or made to do anything by an outside party. While this rings a little too libertarian for my liking — these organizations, if they are generating real revenue, need to pay taxes on it — its core premise holds water.

Today, a handful of trillion dollar corporations own the internet; Web 3.0 aims to solve that problem, but color me skeptical. However, as with the above point, publishers should borrow from DAOs a sense of the importance of their autonomy. To whatever degree these writer collectives can operate without involving a third party, they should do so.

The creator economy embodies this sentiment, and the general tide of the internet is shifting to empower individuals with more ownership of what they add to the online ecosystem. Publishers, and digital businesses writ large, need to protect their autonomy to whatever degree possible, cutting out intermediaries, relying on a few third-party private businesses as possible.

Codified idealism

The same quality of immutability that makes DAOs terrifying also makes them exhilarating: How could anyone ever hope to create a set of protocols so prescient that they could govern the operations of your business for years without change?

(Of course, we in America seem to have a somewhat similar relationship with the Constitution, but every now and then we check in with it, adjusting our interpretation of its dictates and changing them, on rare occasion, when the situation calls for it.)

The immutability of these protocols would require their creators to put months of thought into their creation, imaging every possible permutation and trying to account for it. But, ultimately, the core coda governing a DAO represent little more than its creators’ best guesses at what the future will hold.

As an idealistic young publisher, for whom bureaucracy and shareholder expectations and fiduciary duty do not yet exist, the best time to establish these protocol is now. Hold your future self accountable to the ideals of your current self by creating a self-governing system whose romantic notions are given permanence by the conviction you feel now.

It is a scary idea, and a powerful one: The best time to create these self-imposed limitations is at the outset, before the pressures of the world can set in.

Some good readin'

— "Criminal prosecution is not an effective way to change policing." (FiveThirtyEight)

— I texted my book club yesterday, "Does any writer have a better life than Jonah Wiener?" (The New York Times)

— The Financial Times is restructuring with an eye on improving retention. (Adweek)

— It sounds like the bell tolls for Clubhouse. (Defector)


Cover image: "Le bonheur de vivre," by Henri Matisse