Building Community, One Face at a Time (Part 1)
September 15th, 2021

Over the last year, we've seen an explosion of a new form of NFT project: the PFP's. Sparked by a renewed interest in CryptoPunks, creators have designed series after series of characters and provided each them with traits and unique features that set them apart from each other.

Some of the art has been top notch, with some PFP creators even going as far as to hand-design every single implementation. Others... well... it's clear that they were launched with a short-term mindset, using art made by third parties who likely made pennies on the dollar compared to the amounts earned by the people launching these projects to make a quick buck.

However, whether meant to or not, these PFP projects were creating the prime launching points for valuable digital communities.

Community Building 101

Before going any deeper on the PFP's, it's useful to step back and look at the history of communities and social clubs.

What we find in almost every single instance of a community— from the secret societies of Western Europe to the dance floors of American discotheques— is that each community had its own focal point.

A community's focal point can be anything it wants: it can be a person or a thing; it can be a set of symbols that only insiders can decode, or even a disco ball that signals where the party is happening.

When they're designed properly, focal points can be extremely powerful tools for coordinating people with minimal instruction. They can give everyone an instantly recognizable visual cue that the community is there. They can help people understand the expected behavioural norms or values of the group. They can compress an entire community — which lives in the hearts and minds of each of its members— into a single point. Without a strong focal point, it's hard to keep people moving together in a coordinated fashion; with a strong focal point, a community can move in unison with little to no oversight.

These days, community focal points come in many forms: sometimes they're visual memes, sometimes they're brands, and sometimes they're dance moves. But they all serve the same purpose: providing a community with an agreed upon fulcrum around which all of its activities can rotate.

Tokens as Community Focal Points

With the rise of Bitcoin, and later an infinite series of new fungible tokens, people began to realize that money itself could itself be a focal point for any new community.

What's more, the meme could be more than just a superficial idea; these tokens could become valuable, and could act as representations of the community in motion. The market-cap of a token became synonymous with the total value of the community who owned it. But the system was still flawed.

Using a fungible token as a focal point was useful if the community's core purpose was to transact together, but otherwise they weren't exactly ideal vessels for transmitting cultural frequencies. It's pretty hard to embed a community's values into a token which is quite literally represented by a 3-5 character string, along with a ledger of its transaction history. At best your meme could be a single word, and your values need to be reflected in the way the token was distributed and used.

Communities needed more solid foundations if they wanted to ensure long-term coordination.

Non Fungible Focal Points

Returning to the original focal point of this post — PFP projects— what people quickly began to discover as more of these projects were launched was that they served as excellent focal points for any community.

PFP projects are constructed using a shared set of symbols and visual elements which are representations of the community's values and beliefs, while still enabling individual members to retain a sense of individuality and uniqueness. You could be part of the collective without completely surrendering your identity and wearing a mask that was shared by every single other member of the group, even if your identity was itself pseudonymous.

Further, the variety of mechanisms by which these PFPs could be released to new members meant that creators could come up with new ways to embed their values directly into the project, so that the people who were most aligned with the values of the community would be the ones most likely to redeem a PFP early on. This was a beautiful example of autopoesis in motion, which allowed community builders to push the act of curation onto the shoulders of the members, who would self-select themselves into the community if it aligned with their own personal values.

As an observer to many of these projects and their launch processes, one of the most saddening elements has been seeing well intentioned individuals unintentionally program other people's values into their own projects by following the patterns and methods used by others. But, hope still remains; as many of these projects' token URI's are quite mutable, and may still be evolved to more deeply reflect the intended values of creators. 😉

For part 2 of this post, please read

Arweave TX
Ethereum Address
Content Digest