The Papa Series: How a group of 80 artists are stretching Dunbar's hypothesis to its edges
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April 22nd, 2022

Back in the 90’s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar unearthed a fascinating correlation between our brain sizes & average social group sizes. Now known as Dunbar's number the finding was that, based on the limitations of our neocortex, there’s a maximum size of group (circa 150 members) in which we maintain stable relationships.

Stability is the important distinction here. The primate groups being studied needed to spend 43% of their time on social grooming to maintain a group that size stably. Otherwise instability would reign supreme, and the group would disband.

For humans, stable relationship cohesion above & beyond the 150-member number has historically been hard to replicate unless under intense survival pressure: subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, or historical military groupings for instance. Only in these more extreme cases have groups, on average, achieved and maintained coherence.

More recent evidence (across gaming, business & technical communities) suggests this 150 number is a wild overestimation, especially with active engaged group members.

Asheron’s call was a 1999 online role-playing game where most members of an allegiance that worked together to win (numbering in the hundred or thousands) were non-participatory. Typically just 40 or so were active participants, some of which would break into smaller groups of 10 called fellowships. For World of Warcraft, maximum group player cohesiveness occurs at a limit of 50 players. For Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s internal teams had to be small enough to share two pizzas. Even the  size of a terrorist group (or mafia clan) is optimal at 45-50 members, with a lower limit of 25 and an upper limit of 80.

Community satisfaction has two peaks, one at size ~7 for simple groups, and one at ~60 for complex groups; and that any community has to fraction, one way or another, by the time it approaches Dunbar's Number. - Life With Alacrity

So what’s the number?

Context seems to matter greatly. Emotive and affective factors for instance invoke high commitment to a project. Wikipedia for instance through the 2000’s had 29,853 registered users of which only 143 were active administrators. When the active administrators were asked for the reasons for their participation the most commonly indicated motives were "fun", "ideology", and "values".

So beyond survival there are conditions that can bond a larger group towards a common purpose. Hunter-gatherer bands were the primordial human society, and ranged between 30 to 50 members in size. It seems that above and beyond this number Dunbar’s hypothesis begins to get stretched when considering active communal participation outside of survival modes. Fitting then that last we left off, the third songcamp cohort of 80 strangers had come together to experiment with making music over the internet and selling this art as NFTs.

Fusing diverse views, experiences, perspectives and talent from the realms of art; music; strategy; engineering; & economics into a “headless band” seeking to serve as a beacon in breaking the boundaries of digital collaboration with music at its centre. And after six weeks the results have already been incredible.

  • 45 songs created, completed and mastered
  • 100s of art visual layers composed, designed, and exported
  • Dozens of calls, office hours and guided meditations
  • 2 Chaos Radio podcast episodes crafted and published
  • A beautiful landing page deployed, with a minting experience on the way

Having the opportunity to witness six weeks of activity within the camp has revealed some of the affective mechanics that are contributing to the project’s progress; economics, community (trust), and network effects.

Economics

A UBI (universal basic income) of 0.3ETH was paid out to all participants (that opted into it), totalling $67,000 within the first two weeks of the eight week camp. Absolutely astonishing considering no guarantees on the outcome here in terms of sales.

As you would expect this has elicited immense gratitude and commitment from the group. Particularly in the creative world, where the flow of value to the artist (outside the top 1%) has not been commensurate with historic levels in the last decade. However this kind of effect can sometimes be transitory, impermanent.

One interesting aspect of the UBI, outside of its existence, is its timing. We’ve become accustomed to classic remuneration patterns, used at work for instance, that dangle the carrot of a bonus or salary out in front of our nose for us to run towards. Deliver value first, then that is reciprocated in kind later. Here it is essentially the opposite, and it goes further.

Above and beyond this UBI stipend was a distribution of ownership in the future proceeds of the project: a first airdrop of the $CHAOS governance token. We’ll go into this in greater detail later but for now it seems there are two behavioural effects at play: loss aversion and the endowment effect.

You see, as covered in the previous article, the ratio of ownership that each participant gets is predicated on a combination of self-evaluating contribution levels, external evaluation by peers, and a small modicum of centralised evaluation too. Using coordinape all campers were able to gift each other appreciation in the form of the $CHAOS governance token which reflects the portion of value contribution made; and was also affected by one’s own reflection on personal input into the project.

Sluglife [Visual]: Won't lie, this is a ton of work. I've all but cleared my schedule for the month & am anticipating some all-nighters. It's a total dream project & I'm having a great time, just want to mention that if ever my online presence seems lacking, I'm not slacking, I'm working! Thanks for inviting me into this world!

The endowment effect is this cognitive bias where we value things we own much more than things we don’t, regardless of the objective market value. It is closely related to loss aversion where the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. The frisson of effervescence inspired by a group of this size, engaged with a vision of this scale and scope, has now cascaded into a playful and rambunctious concatenation of energy. It is very feasible to imagine the lack of these economic and behavioural levers would result in much greater instability, threatening the productivity outcome of the camp.

Instead the chaos of collaborating digitally, mostly asynchronously, in sometimes haphazard and messy ways is actually being harnessed to produce results. However economics only goes some way to explaining the camp’s source of forward momentum when we consider the opportunity costs. Many in the camp are employed, have families, have responsibilities and yet make time to bring themselves fully to the work.

Violetta [Music]: I thought everything worked really well, was very well organized & ran pretty smoothly, besides the occasional chaos here & there. The calendar invites really help, so that we don't forget when each meeting is. I love the big Camp Chaos calls, as well as the smaller House & group calls. I like that everyone turns their camera on, it's more personable & I feel this helps us connect on a deeper level. I also LOVE the meditation & movement calls - such a great idea to incorporate that!

Community

Every two weeks 15 songs are created building up to 45 songs total after six weeks.

The first week three people (producer, singer, instrumentalist) are put together at random to collaborate in bands, as well as alchemy teams. This seeds the expressive explosion of strangers crashing into each other to create a demo. At the end of the week the whole camp links up on a ZOOM call to listen, encourage each other, connect and take stock.

During this process all ideas, inspiration, concepts, and source material are poured into a shared Artefact folder accessible to the alchemists. Alchemists feed on this continually replenished sonic representation of each house to metamorphose that sound into a song that uses components from all four bands in that house.

Julian Mudd [Dev/Build]: I think the key to this success is in how you guys broke down operational groups into small tight-knit units that can coordinate themselves. People get overwhelmed at the scale of 70 people, but 5 or 6 individuals can coordinate themselves no problem. That being said, it seems like the group is quickly out-scaling Discord. It feels like the confusion around timing for certain events, and whether they'll be on google meet, zoom, or discord phone has resulted in less participants in the events. Not sure about how to solve for this, but honestly it's not a hindrance to the operation, just a slight inconvenience.

As predicted by Dunbar there is as much here that is stable and as unstable but what is clear is the power that this dynamic has in building community - fast.

On the one hand there is personal pressure and accountability that feels intrinsic, not extrinsic. In fact a remarkable trait has been how understanding the group is with different availability and cadences - with the opt out and gratitude mechanisms of allocating value one tool; but also the reputational and emotional appeal of honouring each other's effort in kind.

Fabi [Visuals]: This project is LIT. To be 80 people and be in unity is so cool. I feel everybody is so motivated and it gives me more power to work. Personally it's my first time doing a project like this and sometimes I feel a bit lost or stressed, BUT feeling like I'm part of something like this makes me feel so good and excited. I'm happy to make more connections and I feel like a new world I didn't know is just there. Thats crazy

There is a chemistry that seems almost tangible between this wanton ragtag bunch of musical miscreants. Success has been framed as much by the output as by the inputs. The shared experience, the friendships and partnerships made, the creation of beautiful art, the feeling that what we did (who we were) mattered and had impact.

Consider the relative anonymity we’ve come to expect of individuals in big apartment complexes in sprawling cities compared to neighbourhood watch (lend me some sugar please) ethos of suburbia. Despite the time differences, or the stress and anxiety seeded in relinquishing the illusion of control and trusting others, this feels like the latter. The guides and operations team feel like that family medical practitioner who has deep knowledge of the history, pre-conditions, and ailments of their constituents; and the key to that collaborative success seems to be to lose ego, have empathy, show up, and lean into the intensity.

Header image by Jamee Cornelia, Kerry Zentner, Mac Pogue and Peace Node
Header image by Jamee Cornelia, Kerry Zentner, Mac Pogue and Peace Node

Network Effects

So when we add in the caveat of active participation, whilst not in the survival condition mode, we begin to see some clear avenues for productive collaboration above and beyond Dunbar’s predictions. One fascinating cause and effect of this dialectic working is the extent to which network effects serve to heighten the productive potential of these connections.

Yung [Lore] for instance has been stewarding the Water and Music project with Julie [Lore] as a core contributor; anatu [music] produces the Papa [scribe] albums; Fran [music] previously worked with Mark Reddito [operations] on the second Songcamp ElektraDao; Will works with Abram on 0xsplits; and so on.

Yet the book Collaboration (by Morten Hansen) proposes that the real value of collaboration and of networks doesn't come from strong relationships but from weak one's. His network rules advocate that we should "build weak ties, not strong ones" as they form bridges to worlds we do not walk within. They take less time and we can keep up lots of them without them being burdensome.

Whilst the majority don’t know each other, the intermingling of those who do and those who don’t has engendered trust and openness in a meaningful way. And when issues arise there seems very little hesitancy to lean on personal networks to help to resolve them, which with an online project can happen very quickly and frictionlessly.

Levi [Lore]: Hey I just reached out to Jonathan Mann. He set up a co-op to hold the music rights of SongADao. He said he'd be down to chat. Sounds like he might have explored Creative Commons as an option prior to landing on the co-op framework

Isaac [dev/build]: *can you take a look at this? a few design patterns i think we can implement. this is from a friend's new drop where he pulled best practices from many places on whitelists, batch reveals, gas efficiency, etc [share’s friend’s codebase]

Maker.Marc [economics]: I have a good one who is Yuri Beats’ (was in the last camp) lawyer! He just moved to Nashville. I can reach out & see what his thoughts are

Start-ups revel in this synchronicity and complementarity, it is one of the reasons silicon valley is such a hotbed of entrepreneurship. One anecdotal aspect of that culture, which countless entrepreneurs have been able to tap into in that tight concentric pool of experience and capital, is ease of connecting with others through weak ties. There is something inherent in the fear of missing out (FOMO) on the next big thing. Or the history of those who required help from others to succeed and are thereafter keen to pass on the baton.

The founder of the venture capital firm Paul Graham (Airbnb, Stripe, Coinbase, Dropbox etc) points out that some healthy forms of collaboration echo the structure of this CHAOS project. Multiple people working on separate projects of their own which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Yet what that requires is the preservation of the excitement we get from working on projects of our own - a powerful feeling that can disintegrate as bureaucracy, politics and strategic games come into play for increasingly large and complex organisations.

Indeed, the history of successful organisations is partly the history of techniques for preserving that excitement. Paul Graham - Founder of YC

Dunbar

As anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and even behavioural economics suggests; the larger general communities get, the weaker the signal. Particularly with respect to active participation in grand scale projects.

In the modern age, with the advent of Web3, there is now a pantheon of tools for facilitating trust, communication, ownership, equity and community. This CHAOS group, and project, is a fascinating case study in service of enabling that option for others - and themselves.

Larger scale cohesion and coordination, in this new normal of hybrid remote work, creates unique challenges which, once overcome, can yield beautiful results. There’s an overwhelming sense of gratitude in the camp (and for myself) at exposure to such talent, diversity, and inspiration. What a privilege to share their story.

Open Source

In homage to the transparency at the core of the project, camp resources are open source below for all to use freely.

Economics

Build (dev)

Operations

Papa

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