D is for DAOs: Dispatches from Decentralized Decision Making
A bunch of crypto bros tried to buy the Constitution. How they did it interests me.
I always feel like a boomer when I'm trying to parse unfamiliar internet acronyms, and "WAGBTC" was not cutting me any slack. The acronym appeared in a blitzkrieg: multiple YouTube users had spammed the cryptic string of letters into the YouTube chat bar of a live streamed Sotheby's auction. I was wary of guessing my way through to understanding; once I wrongly assumed "IMO" meant "I mean, obviously" and not "in my opinion," and figured people were just being passive aggressive to me all the time for about a year. This time around, I would be accepting defeat and taking to Google to learn what I probably could have guessed, given the auction I was watching was a sale of the United States Constitution: "WAGBTC" means "We're All Gonna Buy the Constitution."
In the curious case of ConstitutionDAO and the Purchase That Wasn't, "We All" refers to 17,000 individuals who pooled cryptocurrency holdings into a $47 million bid for America's founding document. In September 2021, Sotheby's announced that one of 13 original copies of the Constitution was up for grabs at auction; by November, a gleeful group of crypto investors, teenagers and tech entrepreneurs had crowdsourced millions of donations and had begun to brainstorm the logistics of actually possessing the Constitution in a private Discord chat. "Like many crypto-world phenomena, ConstitutionDAO was born in the gray area between dumb stunt and serious business venture," wrote The New York Times. And while ConstitutionDAO's stunt-venture didn't pay out (the group was eventually outbid by a hedge fund billionaire), their attempt exemplifies how novel forms of digital governance might inject a new air of responsibility into the tradition of subversive, populist trolling.
DAO — one of the unfamiliar acronyms I had to look up — stands for "decentralized autonomous organization." The term has been thrown around on the internet at least since 2016, the year The DAO — an early example of a DAO that sought to act as a "crypto-currency firm" — was hacked, garnering media coverage from outlets like the New York Times and Wired. Decentralized autonomous organizations are what they sound like — broadly, they are associations of people (often investors or stakeholders) who follow a contract that is embedded into the code of their online platform, and who self-govern the financial and social decisions their organization may face by casting votes on various policy proposals with "governance tokens." "People who put work or financial support into a DAO become members," explained a WBUR piece about DAOs that ran in October. "Those members can then vote on all of the decisions in the organization, which can range from who to hire and what projects to take on, to how to resolve conflicts between members." From what I gather, DAOs can look like companies, capital firms, or social clubs — as ConstitutionDAO publicly demonstrated, they can also be highly focused fundraisers.
While many DAOs exist in the insular world of cryptocurrency, "Single purpose" DAOs such as ConstitutionDAO have crossed over into the mainstream by orienting themselves towards targeted offline objectives. Some of these objectives are playful (take SneakersDAO, for instance, which invites members to pool currency in hopes of creating "the world's biggest and most valuable sneakers collection"), but DAOs can also serve serious purposes — AssangeDAO and FreeRossDAO, to use two recent examples, have been organized to raise legal fees for Julian Assange and Ross Ulbricht, the respective founders of WikiLeaks and Silk Road. When formed for such narrowly defined goals, DAOs can resemble campaigns found on GoFundMe, Kickstarter, or other platforms dedicated to crowdfunding — the large differences, of course, being that DAOs exclusively fundraise in cryptocurrency, and, unlike on GoFundMe, financial contributors to DAOs play a significant and democratic role in how collected funds are allocated and dispersed.
In an 2020 essay for Real Life Magazine, Tamara Kneese wrote that "Crowdfunding campaigns can follow neoliberal models of charity, emphasizing individual responsibility; or they can be attached to greater mutual aid efforts… Mutual aid emphasizes solidarity — or relationship-building and mutual support — over charity, which relies on hierarchical structures." The single-purpose DAO confuses the distinction between charity and mutual aid a little bit. DAOs created for charity perhaps uphold hierarchical, paternalistic models of fundraising when the charitable cause capital is raised for is divorced from the DAO's immediate members (e.g., raising money for Assange doesn't involve Assange, and thus naturally places crowdfunders in a hierarchical relationship with him). But when DAOs raise money with people instead of for people (as in the case of ConstitutionDAO, where stakeholders were pooling money not towards charity but towards a group purchase), the ability of donors to participate in nonhierarchical, group-minded decision making if they donate money may empower crowdfunders with a solidarity and sense of responsibility that draws parallels to "platform cooperatives."
The concept of group responsibility is mainly a financial in DAOs, but the social responsibility DAOs engender interests me in the context of what Drew Millard and Kevin Munger referred to in an excellent article as "mass memefied mobilization" — campaigns, like ConstitutionDAO, which call upon large numbers of people to support an ambiguously comedic goal which often intentionally undermines the credibility of an established institution. Mass memefied mobilization might look like the Gamestop short squeeze engineered by r/wallstreetbets in 2020, which sunk a hedge fund. It may be offensive trolling, like when 4Chan tried to name a Mountain Dew flavor "Hitler Did Nothing Wrong", or might look more lighthearted, like when Brits rallied in 2016 to name a government-funded nautical ship "Boaty McBoatFace." The latter example led the New York Times to coin the verb "Boaty McBoatfacing" to describe instances — including, proposes the article, the election of Donald Trump — where "one’s fellow citizens deliberately make their choices not in order to foster the greatest societal good, but, instead, to mess with you."
All of these examples paint a picture of nihilistic populists who use their limited power to humiliate self-serious institutions, be those the U.K. Government, Mountain Dew's corporate brand identity, or Wall Street. Such trolling behavior might, however, be seen as an example of "culture jamming," a media phenomenon that describes attempts to disrupt dominant media culture by hijacking its symbols and systems. Though r/wallstreetbets wasn't engaged in a critique of Wall Street corruption, 4Chan wasn't engaged in a critique of the Mountain Dew brand, and the Boaty McBoatFace voters just wanted a laugh, these examples nonetheless paint governments and corporations in an unflattering light that is interestingly subversive. These stories of "group decision making gone wrong" reveal an intentionally hostile tension between people and institutions — it feels as if people engaged in meme mobilization are spiting institutions for pleasure, understanding that that the ultimate responsibility of having a stupid name or a drained hedge fund will fall on the pranked rather than the pranksters.
In the case of ConstitutionDAO, however, the meme-y energy that propelled the "financial flash mob" which funded ConstitutionDAO's bid was tempered by the sobering responsibility of decision-making embedded in a DAO's autonomous structure. The $47 million joke of ConstitutionDAO was that Sotheby's would have to sell the Constitution to 17,000 cryptocurrency people. But the exciting prospect of ConstitutionDAO, and other DAOs which have come into funds or assets, was that a successful bid could transform an organization from a joke into a serious experiment in collective responsibility. Describing ConstitutionDAO, the New York Times wrote, "Over a series of sleepless nights, they put up a website, formed subgroups to research the various legal and financial wrinkles associated with the auction, and opened a Discord server that swelled to more than 13,000 members." Forced to take its stakeholders seriously should it actually win the Constitution, ConstitutionDAO made a quick shift from a prank into an opportunity for organizing. Contributors to the cause weren't just supporting a trolling effort: they were actively opting into engagement with the governance of the DAO's future. Had the initiative simply been a GoFundMe, I'd bet less funding would have been raised — sustained responsibility, an attractive element previously absent in both crowdfunding and trolling efforts, was the selling point of ConstitutionDAO's initiative.
As Motherboard reported, the aftermath of ConstitutionDAO was a complete mess due to "gas fees" and other technical issues that I can leave the crypto enthusiasts to explain. I'd like to stress that I actually know exceptionally little about the technical workings of crypto and don't intend to be any sort of spokesperson here — frankly, it's hard not to look at cryptocurrency projects and see a bunch of tech-savvy capitalists wreaking environmental havoc and encouraging "rank and file crypto enthusiasts" to make unwise investments, as Tressie McMillam Cottom writes in The New York Times. But it's hard not to look at DAOs and see at least some potential for a restructuring of crowdfunding platforms towards more engaged, transparent and democratic principles, principles which could idealistically convert irony into seriousness, a lack of sustained obligation into an ongoing commitment, and which could positively affect the administration of mutual aid funds or nonprofits.
Can such a change expand beyond crypto, or are DAOs as a political model bound to the technology that enables them? Can the "We all" in "WAGBTC '' ever refer to a broader populace than just Ethereum bros who know all the acronyms and understand what a token actually is? I sure don't have the answers — drop me an email if you do, or if you have any comments at all: I’m willing to accept I could be wrong here, and I'm eager to learn a lot more.