Findings from our ethnography with DAO contributors and web3 workers
Following our literature review on DAOs and labor, between April and June 2023 we conducted an in-depth mixed-method ethnography with 38 DAO contributors. This blog post summarizes our main findings and recommendations. For a more detailed breakdown of our approach, insights and recommendations, check out our comprehensive deck here.
Authors: Laura Lotti, Nick Houde, and Tara Merk
A Web3 Workers’ Inquiry
Contrary to previous research, limited to surveys or single protocols, this study aimed for an ecosystemic scope, taking the individual DAO contributor as the unit of analysis in order to identify common desires, challenges and aspirations across different typologies of DAOs.
Our research was informed by the method of workers’ inquiry, which aims to generate knowledge about labor, capital and power relations from the perspective of the workers themselves. Through this approach, we wanted to:
probe into the present and futures of work through DAOs from the contributor’s perspective;
identify the affordances of the different institutional logics that are implicit in the several metaphors that are used to describe DAOs (whether companies, or coops, or “network states”, and so on);
understand what job security means in the DAO context as it models itself around these existing organizational forms, but also what is novel about it.
We conducted 1-hour long online interviews with 21 contributors, as well as a 3-hour in person workshop with 17 DAO contributors. Together, the contributors represented over 50 different DAOs in the Ethereum ecosystem, equally distributed between infrastructure, service, and social DAOs. Among the people that replied to our open call, we privileged full time contributors (40+ hours a week) who have been in the ecosystem for over 2 years (with ⅓ of interviewees actually involved for over 5 years).
We conducted a diagramming exercise asking contributors to rank how they understand their role and the purpose of their DAOs in comparison to traditional organizational archetypes, and asked semi-structured questions about each contributor's motivations, their mundane day-to-day work life, and their needs and aspirations. Our main insights are summarized below.
Insight #1: Both “DAO” and “DAO contributor” are multifaceted concepts, combining diverse roles and institutional primitives in novel ways
"DAO contributor" is a diverse role, taking many different shapes depending on context. Our diagramming exercise showed how the role of contributor combines aspects of being a learner, freelancer, open-source contributor, volunteer, politician, and even fan.
DAOs are hybrid organizational contexts combining diverse organizational logics. Our diagramming exercise showed how different DAOs simultaneously encompass logics of other organizational contexts such as service providers, startups, coops, states, or educational organizations.
Insight #2: DAOs do not represent a single future of work but offer a container for a diversity of organizational experiments
The interviews and focus group surfaced an archetypical DAO contributor journey across 4 different socio-technical scenarios for DAO work, which vary according to the organizational purpose and people’s temporal horizon of engagement. These 4 scenarios also correspond to different organizational logics.
The journey typically starts with a desire for collaboration as the key motivating factor (which reflects dynamics in fandoms and educational organizations).
It evolves through impact or “special purpose orgs” (i.e. labels, drops, governance projects) that use business logic to produce impact and systemic change.
As the engagement becomes more durational, the scenarios become more complex: freelancing 3.0 reflects the pleasures and pains of working as a remote contractor for companies or startups, but with the added burden of a lack of clear guidelines about compliance and regulations.
And lastly, the vision of DAOs as mutualist infrastructures is still one of the core aspirations for contributors to stay involved in the space.
These scenarios also correspond to specific contributors’ expectations and needs, and addressing them at each step is key to move people along the journey, retain talent, and make web3 a viable and legitimate alternative to traditional work cultures. We describe each of these scenarios and corresponding challenges below.
Insight #3: Different socio-technical scenarios of the DAO contributor journey require organizations to focus on distinct areas of improvement
I. DAOs as an excuse for collaboration
The pleasures and pains of collaboration. While many in web3 are often portrayed as being “in it for the tech”, we found that building meaningful relationships, working alongside smart and aligned people, and exploring individual interests in a collaborative environment are the core motivating factors across all DAO contributors.
On the other hand, contributors face challenges at the level of inadequate and still impractical technical structures, that often conceal informal and opaque political structure and hierarchies. This is one of the key reasons why people lose interest and drop out.
II. DAOs as impact machines
Impact beyond technical innovation. DAOs and web3 are sometimes portrayed as a field inhabited by nihilistic degens. Nevertheless, we found that a lot of people join because of the desire to generate impact and systemic change and they see DAOs as a means to achieve that.
We also found that over half of the people we talked to see a tension between their individual sense of purpose and the unclear and often opaque sense of purpose of their organizations, which led some to become disillusioned.
III. DAOs as freelancing 3.0
This is where we found the most tensions because this is the scenario that reflects the situation that most of our interviewees were experiencing.
Individual brand vs. collective action. Contrary to the narrative of DAOs as new structures for collective action, the interviewees that had been working in web3 for longer faced the same challenges as freelancers with the added burden of regulatory compliance. DAO work is highly individualized and even more precarious than traditional freelancing so that it becomes challenging to navigate the boundaries between individual self-interest and collective benefit.
Self-determination vs. self-exploitation. DAO contributors enjoy the sense of self-determination and flexibility that DAOs afford. However, without specific working hours/days nor clear outlines for what is expected from them, and coupled with the always-online lifestyle, many reported that they were prone to overworking and burnout; or what one interviewee called "contributor extractable value: the amount of free labor you can get from a contributor."
Transparent work processes vs. transparent technologies. Another issue that contributes to burnout and exhaustion is the lack of transparency when it comes to work processes, and the information asymmetries between contributors and former core teams. These issues cannot be addressed solely by transparent technology.
Predictable compensation in unpredictable environments. In contrast to the myth that DAO work is highly lucrative, we found that contributors are well aware of getting paid less than traditional tech jobs, but justify that with the wealth of intangible value they gain in terms of learnings, collaborations, and network. These, however, have not been enough to sustain engagement through market cycles. Contributors don’t need to get paid more, they just want to get paid in a more predictable manner.
Ownership ≠ equity. Relatedly, while the myth is that DAOs are owned by their contributors through tokens, our interviewees discussed their sense of ownership primarily in terms of work process (mentioning concepts such as reputation, pride, and impact) and not in terms of number of tokens owned. Anecdotally, two interviewees - among those that have been involved in DAOs for longer - said they refuse to get paid in DAO tokens and if they did they would take their engagement as volunteering.
IV. DAOs as mutualist infrastructures
DAOs vs trad orgs. Moving onto the last and more speculative scenario, we found that the promise of DAOs to bring about a more equitable future through community participation hasn’t exhausted its appeal. For the majority of the participants, this is the key reason why they are still involved despite the challenges.
However, DAOs suffer a problem of definition that at times sets the wrong expectations, especially when it comes to community. What makes real DAOs unique - for the contributors we talked to - is the community aspect, which is also what causes the most tensions due to the lack of clear conflict resolution processes. As one interviewee said, “either you find ways to solve conflict or you can only ragequit.”
Org promiscuity vs ecosystem longevity. Lastly we found that, while DAOs are often portrayed as immutable organizations that can last forever, interviewees had widely different aspirations for the longevity of their orgs. Several contributors explicitly advocated for time-bound DAOs, and none of them recommended working for a single DAO full time because it reproduces “toxic startup dynamics,” as one interviewee put it. However, most of the contributors expressed a desire to stay involved in the space.
The challenge is cultivating an environment where people can participate in multiple, perhaps time-bound organizations, while retaining the collective memory to enable the ecosystem to operate and adapt in the long term.
Insight #4: Strengthening security enhances the DAO contributor experience across different scenarios. Security is also a core mechanism for building legitimacy and longevity of web3 as a whole
From the literature review and the conversations we had, we identified the meaning of security for DAO contributors as a three-dimensional concept consisting of: psycho-social stability, financial and material security, and regulatory clarity.
Different mechanisms strengthen different aspects of security overall.
Alliances build economies of scale and help to strengthen material / financial stability.
Bridges and anchors are intermediary tooling and organizational interfaces that enhance regulatory clarity.
Strong norms build psycho-social wellbeing and stability.
At the end of July we ran Web3 Work Forum, a three-part event with aligned organizations and experts to preview our findings and brainstorm possible solutions toward the creation of solidarity primitives for web3. Each of the session was focused on developing security mechanisms for DAO contributors from the perspectives we’ve identified:
psychosocial stability through social norms and occasions for IRL encounters beyond conferences;
financial security through on-chain mechanisms enabling cross-protocol alliances for funding and resource distribution;
regulatory clarity through advocacy and interfaces with existing regulations.
In the next and last post in this series, we’ll publish the outcome of these sessions.
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