On Communities

So, what is a community and why would I want one? What makes a community?

One way that we can describe a tribe or community is as a network of people that provide some non-fungible value to each other. Each member of your tribe is a unique component of the machine that is the whole, and the whole both supports and depends upon each piece as a non-fungible quantity.

Under this sort of model, there is a synergistic effect to community membership, you can leverage competencies and specializations, you get more work out of the group than you would an equal number of people working in isolation from each other. Communities like this let you choose the stag, and coordinate around that even when you don’t have time to communicate all the details. Being part of a community is a source of power and resources that helps people survive. It’s a form of wealth.

A quick acid test for whether you’re in a community of this sort is how replaceable you see the other members as. If someone left unexpectedly, or had their life fall apart, or died, how would you feel about it? Would you shrug and say “Oh that’s sad.” or would you start figuring out how much you can afford to try rescuing them? In this sort of community, members provide value to each other and the community acts as a value center, so it’s worth costs to maintain the relationships.

We can contrast this with another idea of community. Communities can also be described as groups of humans bound by a shared fellowship with one another, united by their mutual interests, by similar identities, and by their attitudes, perspectives, desires, or goals. Basically fandom/subculture norms.

The difference is in the direction of resource flow. Fanclubs are defined by a shared interest in leisure activities. They’re not value centers, they’re cost centers. You spend your independently generated wealth on fanclub membership and in exchange you have access to the club and its associated identity label.

If you become too poor to continue your fanclub membership, that’s kind of sad but there are other people to take your place. A fan club also has to be fun, because otherwise there would be no incentive to join, it has to be enjoyable because you’re spending resources on it and so you’d better be getting your money’s worth.

Communities are not necessarily fun, they have their own sort of costs associated with membership, often quite high costs in terms of the percentage of your total effort output going to it. So if you’re wealthy enough to not need to form communities for survival, then these fandom style communities are an attractive prospect, because tribal communities are comparatively costly.

You can be a casual fan, and most people are, if you drop the ball on something, it’s not a particularly big deal because it’s all just for fun anyway. But tribe style communities are typically not casual,  they have expectations and put demands on you. Being in that sort of community isn’t a free action the way being in a fandom community can be.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t costs associated with fandom membership. Fandom style communities also tend towards costly status signaling, identity politics, and social power dynamic games, which further marginalizes poor people and working-class people while claiming to be to their benefit.

Fandom also frequently has a competitive, celebrity-focused value system. How much do you think people would pay to save Scott Alexander or Eliezer Yudkowsky? Celebrities and popular people can be valuable, so everyone is competing to be a cool kid so they can have value. Fanclub membership becomes gamified and pushes people into competition with each other so that they can win the game, so they can be The True Fan, since that’s what makes someone valuable.

If tribal style communities are a solid than fandom style communities are a gas. In a tribal style community, you have members locked into non-fungible roles and there are frequently high entrance and exit costs that encourage people to stick with a thing and not defect. Compare that to fandom style communities where people are constantly coming and going all the time.

One thing that tribe style communities do well is that they reduce the transaction costs associated with doing a particular thing. There’s overhead associated with maintaining an independent relationship with every single person in a community or organization, so if you can just rely on someone being available who already has the context for your project, and knows you and how you work, that significantly reduces the cost of doing business.

That’s why corporations and businesses exist and it isn’t all just independent contractors everywhere. In this sense fandom norms are norms for the wealthy and sheltered because you can only safely do them if you’re wealthy enough that you can afford to pay these massive transaction costs all the time without blinking.

I bring all of this up because rationalist culture is not outside of or somehow immune to these effects, and in many cases also falls prey to them. We frequently have the self-awareness to notice that something is wrong, but oftentimes are unable to correctly address what is going on because we can’t really talk to each other.

If we say the wrong thing, we cost ourselves, we lose standing in the competition for attention and social capital, which is capital. In a fandom style community, every individual member is expected to be largely self-sufficient, and the community isn’t really expected to provide for anyone. This prevents specialization, everyone still needs a job, and you can’t have people working on the fandom full time except in limited cases predicated on making a product for others (furry porn of Princess Leia).

We often wonder things like why our kind can’t cooperate. We can’t cooperate because we live in a society run on competition where defection is rewarded, and we’ve not been able to solve the coordination problem associated with that enough to move into a different state of community. The rationalist community, by and large, is still using fandom norms, but that puts things in a hard spot because for what rationalists claim to want to do, you can’t do that. You can’t afford to waste your limited resources on that sort of nonsense. The world will burn.

From “On Dragon Army” :

If every few years, you hold a vote on whether to leave the European Union and destroy your economy, or to end your democracy and appoint a dictator, eventually the answer will be yes. It will not be the ‘will of the people’ so much as the ‘whim of the people’ and you want protection against that. The one-person case is no different.

I think that if anything, Duncan under-states the importance of reliable commitment. His statements above about marriage are a good example of that, even despite the corrective words he writes about the subject later on. Agreeing to stay together for a year is a sea change from no commitment at all, and there are some big benefits to the year, but that is not remotely like the benefits of a real marriage. Giving an agreement an end point, at which the parties will re-negotiate, fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship. Longer term plans and trades, which are extremely valuable, cannot be made without worrying about incentive compatibility, and both sides have to worry about their future negotiating positions and market value. Even if both parties want things to continue, each year both parties have to worry about their negotiating position, and plan for their future negotiating positions.

You get to move from a world in which you need to play both for the team and for yourself, and where you get to play only for the team. This changes everything.

The above is a quote by Zvi discussing the Dragon Army, the bolding is mine. You may recognize this quote from an older post of mine, and it continues to be extremely important and relevant.

The problem with living in a world where everyone is constantly in a state of perpetual competition with each other is that it is very difficult to trust the other party to have your back and have your best interests at heart. The need for exit rights and an ejection seat from bad situations has had the negative side effect of significantly impacting people’s ability to trust each other and work together.

We don’t have people who have our backs anymore, our communities don’t under most circumstances, which puts people, even ones with relatively secure resource access, into a paranoid and competitive mindset that burns mental cycles on protecting their resources from being ‘stolen’ by everyone around them.

On our Homeworld, on the First Earth, we lived in tribes. As civilization rose and those tribes were subsumed by cities and nation-states, particularly after the rise of industrialization, the competition started shifting from tribe vs tribe to individual vs individual. The safety net represented by your tribe/extended family went away as people moved into cities. The world didn’t get more cutthroat, it was always as cutthroat as it is, it’s just that the groups started shrinking down until the only groups left were the nuclear family and the individual.

In many cases, especially if someone is independently wealthy, this is largely seen as a good thing. It’s more freeing, liberating, the power goes to the individual, people can express their weirdness and if their families disown them, who cares? This force, what Scott calls Elua, is a good thing, so we should let it keep going and break things down even more, right?

This is one thing that Silicon Valley/startup/tech culture does all the time, it’s their business model. They try to find ways of breaking down transaction costs so you can have fewer non-fungible relationships. They’re market makers, demand generators, they’ll find you a random person to literally take your garbage down to the curb from your apartment because you’re too deep into your latest coding project to give a damn.

And that’s honestly a part of why settling in the Bay Area was such a bad idea for the ratsphere, it’s practically an anti-community. It’s a thing which is dedicated to destroying the vestigial relationships we have left and replacing them with new markets. Seattle and Boston aren’t really much better on that front, but the communities there are at least marginally more working class.

If we want to build real communities that actually let people achieve their full potential, we need to get out of the attitude of constant competition and move towards a greater level of cooperation and coordination. If we want to actually nurture people’s intrinsic motivations than we have to liberate them from the extrinsic fear of destruction by poverty and resource denial that characterizes everything about our culture and modern civilization.

We need to learn to work together again.

4 thoughts on “On Communities

  1. I also feel much appeal in the idea of a “tribe style community”, but on the other hand, the concept of having high exit costs seems very frightening to me and possibly not worth it. Regarding “You can’t afford to waste your limited resources on that sort of nonsense. The world will burn.” I think it’s an open question. Different social structures have different costs and benefits. Remaining within the usual urban society paradigm is more well-tested and hence less risky (lower variance). But maybe not as good in expectation? I don’t know.


    • Looking at it from another angle: You write that the Bay Area / Silicon Valley is the worst possible choice of location for the rationalist community. But, Silicon Valley produces much of the world’s technological innovation. So, doesn’t it contradict the claim it’s an inefficient social structure?


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