Using Social Tokens to Support Creators of Public Knowledge

Joey DeBruinFF DeskMay 3, 2021
TwitterThis is a guest post featuring Joey DeBruin Forefront core contributor and Director of Product Management at ResearchGate.

My friend Sacha has been sitting quietly for most of the afternoon. But at the question of what she is working on, she stops aimlessly poking the cocktail cherry in her glass, looks up, and launches into a ten minute explanation of the evolution of social play in primates. From Darwin to her current PhD research, she hardly seems to pause for air.

If you've worked with scientists, as I have for the last decade, it's obvious that many creators are motivated by things other than money. Why else would people work tirelessly, constantly at risk of losing the financial support they need to survive, and with little hope for fame or fortune. They're motivated by cultural impact, and money just helps them buy more freedom to pursue it.

So as new models for supporting creators are developing, how do we make sure we get more collaboratively built public knowledge? How might social tokens specifically allow us to design systems that promote the kind of deep collaboration needed for certain kinds of content?

Creative freedom and the universal creator income

In "Coase's Penguin is learning to fly" I wrote about how a few economists have illustrated when and how decentralized communities have certain systematic advantages over companies or markets in creating and curating knowledge. In other words, why no for-profit company could hope to produce a competitor to Wikipedia.

The challenge with the Wikipedia model is that it relies entirely on unpaid volunteers, who have to spend lots of time making the money they need to survive elsewhere. Li Jin has recently been arguing for a universal creator income for essentially this reason — it gives creators the stability and freedom to pursue their interests.

One of the main reasons that Wikipedia type projects haven't been able to pay contributors is because the cost of actually setting up that system is prohibitive. So while those decentralized projects have an efficiency advantage to private companies in terms of building knowledge, so far they've only been able to use that advantage where people can and are willing to contribute for free.

Both Li and Patrick Rivera, in his piece "Come for the creator, stay for the economy," note that crypto could provide a much easier way for communities to set up systems to support contributors. Patrick calls this evolution "Org Mode" to distinguish it from the mostly solo "Creator Mode" we've seen so far. I believe some important initial experiments towards "Org Mode" for public knowledge are already underway.

Incentivizing collaboration in org mode

While decentralized communities may have certain systematic advantages to knowledge production, it can be difficult to incentivize the collaboration needed to produce impactful work. For example, in writing we know that editing is often the limiting ingredient. But if a piece is wildly successful, often it is the writer who gets most of the financial or reputational return. How can we ensure that the editors, producers, administrators, and all of the other people that may be needed can also be aligned to long-term impact?

Experiments like the ones we've recently launched at Forefront are an important step forward. We launched our writers program last week, where we reward both writers and editors with $FF for each piece they produce. We also use $FF to handle governance and reward other contributions to the community, including things like treasury management. It's a fairly simple first iteration, but just the idea that all of those roles are aligned to the same long-term impact from the content is powerful.


Fostering the deep collaboration needed for impactful work isn't just about incentives though — it's also about trust. That's why the rise of creator collectives will be one of the most profound shifts over the coming months.

For me, this is about the intersection of two main points. On the one hand, we know that decentralized communities have certain systematic advantages to allocating creative effort. On the other, some work requires deeper collaboration and therefore more complex incentive systems than decentralized communities have historically been able to provide. Social tokens and other new technologies are the intersection — they make it easier for decentralized communities to set up complex systems and get the best of both worlds.

Get involved

We're actively looking for contributors at Forefront, for single pieces and for and long-term fellowships. Check out the announcement page, or reach out to me on Twitter. I'm also working with a few others to explore these topics from a wider lens than just social tokens at the Creative Kitchen, a writers collective focusing on modern creative work.

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