I Swear It’s Not Old School

I’ll start this week with an abstract idea I’ve been sitting on in my notes for years. And then I’ll take you through the concrete idea that gave it life (and a reason to publish it).

The Abstraction Sitting In My Notes

Communism doesn’t scale but it can work in small settings where the bonds and norms between people carry more weight.

This shouldn’t be surprising.

If we think of interactions with each other as transactions, money acts like a store of value that is agnostic to how it was generated. It is a commodity but critically it also commoditizes its users. If I sell a guitar on eBay, I default to selling to the highest bidder. But if I was selling it locally I might sell it to the highest bidder, but depending on my preferences, I might also sell it to the next highest bid if having it in that owner’s hands had more meaning for whatever reason. Maybe I’m selling it to a kid who couldn’t afford the higher price but is so bushy-tailed I’d rather hook them up with a deal. (This idea is also why home buyers in competitive markets throw the Hail Mary of writing touching family stories to sellers).

At scale, we use money to “summarize” our values but if we had the time and energy to look closer we could find non-monetary sources of value embedded in transactions. The flexibility in our value rankings is jettisoned in the name of expediency.

Acknowledging this idea explains many behaviors that may seem counterintuitive. The most obvious is what family members will do for each other without any consideration of money. Less straightforward, the sharing economy and open-source come to mind. Some of the explanations become more obvious as status has become more legible and measurable. The existence of “follower farms” indicates exchange rates between status and money. But this compression of value into a single number like followers is similarly lossy as the concept of money itself.

The broader point is we should be open to experimenting with incentive structures, at least on the local scale, to achieve target outcomes more cheaply by addressing a wider range of desires and therefore pressure points. We can allocate more efficiently when we can hack our human instincts.

A Concrete Implementation

Fortune would have it that those thoughts would find a real-life expression.

Friday night served as the grand opening to a local project I’m involved in. It’s been over a year in the making. A group of local friends, about 25 of us, that would have monthly happy hours decided to lease a space to make something of a social club (it’s indeed registered as a 501c7).

The vision for the club is a place to foster community and serendipity. There’s a standing happy hour every Thursday. The first Friday of every month is dinner with partners/spouses. It’s a place to watch big games, have musical jam sessions, host salons and lectures. It’s a studio to video or record podcast interviews. If you meet me for coffee, it’s where I will take you. During the day, it’s a co-working space. With many people working from home, it’s already been used as an on-site for bringing teams together for brainstorming sessions.

It has a co-op ethos, with everyone bringing their own skills (I’m not handy so I did the website), to make it a space owned by all of its members. The members include everyone from teachers and firefighters to tech entrepreneurs and finance folk. A couple of guys built this bar Friday afternoon before the dinner! (it still needs to be finished):

This room is getting a small stage in front where the blue chairs are:

This is the lounge where you walk in:

I’ll talk about this more as this experiment unfolds, but for now, our focus is on finding ways to unlock greater in-person connection in service of both joy and personal growth.

I’ll admit — describing it feels clumsy. It’s not bro-y like Old School, it’s not WeWork, it’s not Rotary or an Elk’s Club — it feels a bit illegible right now. But as it comes into focus we’ll figure out the right language to transmit its essence. To me, it’s about extracting the tangible value that resides in the soft bonds we have with others in high-trust environments for mutual, positive-sum benefit.

That’s a horrible mouthful.

But even with that crypto-ese language, when I tell people about it, it strikes a chord. There’s an appetite for deeper connection as well as the security and increased agency that community brings to our lives Religious, hobby, or work tribes solve for the same thing by coalescing around a common purpose. This is just a different combination of pivot table elements. The common rallying point here is geography + an ineffable quality of, I don’t know, “openness” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this group.

We are documenting all the work required to get us to this point and as it evolves. We are being thoughtful and meta about this entire project, because when it’s done, we want to have the recipe to hand to others who have the same vague sense we did when the idea was born over a year ago — we have a special community of open people and we want to do something I always talk about in this letter — “find the others”.

[There are so many little details from liability to inclusiveness to boundaries to rules to norms to cost-sharing and budgeting that are not straightforward. We will have done something good if we can build a template for others to do this by laying out the details and trade-offs and showing how the experience depends on the design and spirit that you bring to the initiative. Coordination always comes with “tragedy of the commons” risks. We are learning as we go along. We plan to share those lessons to reduce the frictions for others who may want to start something similar in their own communities.]

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