Chapter 1. The Toolbox

In my Social Architect's toolbox, I have 20 tools, each covering one aspect of a community or group. These tools work in two ways. First, you can use them to measure an existing community, giving a rating of zero or more. Second, you can use them when you design a community, to help you focus your effort on where it will be most useful.

  • Strong mission -- the stated reason for the group's existence
  • Free entry -- how easy it is for people to join the group
  • Transparency -- how openly and publicly decisions are made
  • Free contributors -- how far people are paid to contribute
  • Full remixability -- how far contributors can remix each others' work
  • Strong protocols -- how well the rules are written
  • Fair authority -- how well the rules are enforced
  • Non-tribalism -- how far the group claims to own its participants
  • Self-organization -- how far individuals can assign their own tasks
  • Tolerance -- how the group embraces conflicts
  • Measurable success -- how well the group can measure its progress
  • High scoring -- how the group rewards its participants
  • Decentralization -- how widely the group is spread out
  • Free workspaces -- how easy it is to create new projects
  • Smooth learning -- how easy it is to get started and keep learning
  • Regular structure -- how regular and predictable the overall structure is
  • Positivity -- how far the group is driven by positive goals
  • Sense of humor -- how seriously the group takes itself
  • Minimalism -- how much excess work the group does
  • Sane funding -- how the group survives economically

We will look at these tools one by one and see how they work in various communities. First, some general advice about building a community. Be brutally honest with yourself and with others. Your biggest challenge is overcoming your own prejudices and biases, and then those of everyone you work with.

Whatever toolkit I can provide you with, you'll want to adapt and extend it for your own needs. Social Architecture is still a very young science and many of my tools will be too complex, or incomplete. Here's the best way I know to do that:

  • Consume your own product. If you are not a fanatical user of whatever your group is making, you are half-blind. I learned this when working for Nigerian Breweries in the 1990's: by enjoying beer, I learned to appreciate the business of selling beer so much better.

  • Practice and repeat. It is cheap to experiment, and failure is healthy. By definition, if you start a project and it fails, no one notices. So start many projects and change or fix your tools if they don't work.

  • Do first-line support. All communities have a place where newcomers arrive and ask questions. Be there, observe how new visitors get lost, what mistakes they make, and improve your designs accordingly. Perhaps the mission confuses them. Or maybe the structures are confusing. A good designer sympathizes with his users, feels their pain, and works to relieve it.

  • Release early, release often. This is a mantra from free software communities. It's accurate. You want to do your design work in the open, and get critical feedback as early as possible. In ZeroMQ, we release every patch as it happens.

  • Learn and teach all the time. Teaching gives you perspective, and learning lets you pick up new tools over time. Social Architecture is a young craft, and though the basics are solidly anchored in human psychology, there are still many unknowns.

Strong Mission

The starting point for any community is a stated mission. The mission defines the goals that we can all agree on in advance, before we join the project. It's like the title of a website or the slogan for a movie. For instance, Reddit's title is: "the front page of the Internet," an ambitious mission that it nonetheless achieved. Facebook's slogan is: "helps you connect and share with the people in your life."

TIP: Use your mission as a slogan, on your website, marketing, presentations, and so on. If you are investing money in your community, you may want to trademark the mission statement.

Without a clear mission, an on-line community won't grow. A group of friends who start a project may agree what they want to do, yet anyone new coming on board has to guess what they had in mind. People will guess wrong, and will change their minds over time. This leads to confusion, disagreement, and disappointment as people find that their hard work was wasted because the rest of the group headed off in a different direction.

A good mission saunters past "sane" and steps into "you cannot be serious!" Wikipedia's mission, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" is a good example. It was, initially, a goal that everyone, except a few idealists, found impossible and crazy. Those idealists were precisely who Wikipedia needed to get on board on day one. Impossible missions attract the right kind of people for a young project.

TIP: Change your mission as your community matures. At first, you will want to attract idealists and pioneers, then the leading edge, and then early adopters, the mass market, and finally, the late adopters. Each of these groups wants different things. Understand that, and tune your mission to suit.

To formulate a good mission, think in terms of the single main problem your project is solving. Reddit, for instance, is solving the problem of how to get the news off an Internet with far too many interesting sources of information. Its "front page" represents the digital newspaper of the twenty-first century. Wikipedia is solving the problem of how to collect knowledge from the minds of billions. "Anyone can edit" represents vox populi, vox Dei, the understanding that truth, if it exists, comes only from the minds of many.

TIP: When proposing action, small or large, try always to start by identifying the problems you want to solve. Only when you have a clear and real problem on which everyone can agree, move to discussing solutions. A solution for an assumed problem is like a group without a clear mission.

You may have multiple missions, by accident or deliberately. This can be traumatic if the missions pull in different directions. For example, growing a group larger may require subsidies, which conflicts with making profits. If Wikipedia became a for-profit entity with advertising and an expensive tranche of managers, do you think its community would grow or shrink?

For ZeroMQ, our stated mission was "Fastest. Messaging. Ever." This is a nice, and nearly impossible answer to a problem we could all agree on: namely, the slow, bloated technology available at that time. However, my co-founder Martin and I had conflicting goals. He wanted to build the best software possible, while I wanted to build the largest community possible. As the user base grew, his dramatic changes, which broke existing applications, caused increasing pain.

In that case, we were able to make everyone happy (Martin went off to build a new library called "Nano"). However if you cannot resolve mission conflicts, it can damage the project severely. Projects can survive a lot of arguments, however fights between founders are traumatic.

TIP: If the founders agree that "success" is defined as "having the most participants possible," it can help in keeping your focus over the years. It also makes it easy to measure your success as you grow.

Free Entry

Once you have agreed on your mission, you need to test this against the real world. That is, you have to make a minimal yet plausible answer to the problem you identified. I call this a "seed." With the seed, you have two main goals. First, to start to collect idealists and pioneers (basically, anyone mad enough to trust you) into a community. Second, to prove or disprove your mission.

Projects fail for many reasons. A major cause of failure is that the original idea or mission wasn't as amazing as people felt. Failure is fine, even excellent, unless it costs years of your life. Making a seed and showing it to a few people isn't enough because most people won't be really critical. They feel it's hurtful. However, ask people to invest even a few hours of their time in making it better, and if they don't say "yes," you know how they really feel.

TIP: Build a "seed" product in public view and encourage others to get involved from the start. If people do get involved, promote them rapidly. If they don't, treat that as a sign your mission may be wrong. Use the seed product to build the community.

Once people agree to help you, they need somewhere to work together. You need a "collaboration platform." My two favorites are Wikidot for knowledge communities, and GitHub for software projects. The platform has to be free to use. It has to be easy to learn and work with. Your seed project has to be visible to anonymous visitors. It has to work for anyone no matter his or her age, gender, education, or physical location.

All this makes it possible for interesting strangers to walk up and look at your work and, if they like it and feel challenged by it, get involved little by little. You want to be working on your seed in public view, and talking about your new project, from the very start. This means people can make suggestions, and feel involved, from day one.

If we, as founders of a group, choose those we work with, we're building in "selection bias." It is much easier to work with those nice, smart people who agree with us, than the idiots and critics who disagree. And when you agree with me, you just confirm all of my biases and assumptions and I know from experience that those can be wrong in the most amazing ways.

Over time, collecting people who share the same broken assumptions and biases can kill a project. For example, when making software protocols, the requirements for large firms can be very different from those for small open source teams. So if a protocol committee is built entirely out of large firms, what they make will be indigestible by the mass of the market.

The answer is free entry to anyone who is interested, no matter how different or apparently crazy their perspectives. This gives us, potentially, that broad and diverse community which is the raw material for a wise crowd. In ZeroMQ, we never turn away anyone who wants to contribute. I pull people in, even if their contributions are poor or incorrect. The community is more important than the product.

When the community has matured around the seed product, they will want to build a second generation of it. As Social Architect, your goal is to time and guide this properly so that you can use the wise crowd to help design the "real" product. It's possible that around this point you will want to find a good domain name and make a "proper" website.

TIP: If people are not joining in your seed, don't continue working on it. Instead, discover what's stopping them from joining and fix that. Start again from scratch if necessary. Don't prematurely kill seeds; it can take time for people to appreciate what you are trying to do.


Transparency is very important to get rapid criticism of ideas and work in progress. If a few people in a team go off and work on something together for some time -- a few days seems harmless, a few weeks is not -- then what they make can be presented to the group as a fait accompli. When one person does that, the group can just shrug it off. When two or more people do that, it becomes much harder to back off from bad ideas. Secrecy and incompetence seem bound together. Groups that work in secret do not achieve wisdom.

TIP: When one person does something in a dark corner, that's an experiment. When two or more people do something in a dark corner, that's a conspiracy.

With ZeroMQ, it took us some years to come to a really open and transparent situation. Before that, the core contributors mostly worked in secret, publishing their work when they felt it was ready for public view. By the time they did that, it was very hard for the rest of the community to say "no." And often the work was off course, a brilliant solution to a problem no one really cared about. In the end, we explicitly banned this kind of thing.

It is ironic that secrets seem essential to certain business models. Profits often come from the ignorance of customers. Most profit-making businesses, even large communities like Twitter, depend on a strict division between "them" and "us." However, digital society grows best by putting scale before profits, and by treating all ignorance as a problem to solve. If your clients are ignorant of your internal thought processes, then you will be ignorant of where those processes are wrong.

Free Contributors

Money is a funny thing. Too little, and the community starves (I'll return to this later). Too much, and it rots. It is important to understand why each contributor is there at all. What are their economic motives? Even in a volunteer community, every person is there for self-interested reasons.

In ZeroMQ, we originally started with a small paid team and moved after two years to a community of volunteers through the pragmatic -- if not very gentle -- tactic of running out of money and having to fire the developers. A few disappeared to other jobs, some came back as contributors, and the project became more exciting and fun than before. People contribute to ZeroMQ because they need it in their own projects, and if they spend a little time making it better, that can earn them or save them many times more.

When you work for someone else, you will make what he or she wants. When you work for yourself, you will make what you need. It is so very different. People with money yet no skill or taste are the riffraff of society. We despise paid contributors to Wikipedia, paid bloggers, and paid moderators on Reddit, because we know that the opinions they express are almost by definition false. Would a blogger paid by Hollywood criticize the new summer blockbuster?

I've nothing against employees. However, if you are aiming for the largest, most successful community, you want contributors who are there for honest, transparent reasons. If a filmmaker comes to Reddit to discuss his work, that is fantastic. If his marketing staff come to downvote critical comments, that is despicable.

TIP: One free contributor is worth 10 paid contributors.

Full Remixability

A group needs a lot of agreements for working together. I call these "protocols." Perhaps the most important one for any creative community is remixability. Whether it's music, art, images, video, comments, software, or wiki pages, the following question will arise: "What is the copyright license on this work, and how does that affect the community?"

Broadly, there are three types of agreement for copyright:

  1. A "locked down" license that does not allow remixing. This is the old way of working, and still the dominant model in for-profit work.

  2. A "free to take" license that allows one-way remixing. This is the dominant model for many open source software communities.

  3. A "share-alike" license that enforces two-way remixing. This is the dominant model for free software communities like ZeroMQ, and for many artistic communities (though it may be an unwritten agreement).

Users prefer the "free to take" model because it lets them use the content in any way they like without reciprocity. Imagine a DJ who releases a popular track under the "free to take" model. Then a company makes a remix and uses that for an advert. And that remix will be locked down. Now, the DJ cannot remix that new work, and may find himself unable even to play the remix.

Communities, however, work better with the third model because it converts users into contributors. With a share-alike license, the DJ would be able to take the remix, mix that further, and turn it into a dance club success. Knowledge and ideas flow in all directions, rather than leaking out of the community into closed dead-ends. The shift is powerful, especially for those of us building communities with a minimal budget. If you're a large firm putting a lot of money into a community, the "free to take" model can work better.

TIP: If every contributor owns their specific contributions, and you use a share-alike license, you don't need copyright assignments or re-licensing from contributors.

Strong Protocols

Good protocols let strangers collaborate without up-front agreement. They resolve destructive conflict, and turn it into valuable competition. The insight that lets anarchists join wise crowds as happily as anyone is that the crowd can develop its own rules. Typically, these rules govern remixing, identity, ranking, and so on. No matter what their form, good rules are simple, clear, explicitly written down, and agreed upon by all.

If you're building a software project, you might take an existing rulebook, like the C4 protocol we built for ZeroMQ. Otherwise, you can start with a minimal rulebook and grow it over time as you see what problems hit the community. This is, for example, how the Wikipedia rulebook grew up.

Some rules must be established very early (such as licenses for contributions). Others can be developed when needed (such as processes for resolving conflicts). Complex, pointless, or unwritten rules are toxic to groups. They create space for argument, confuse people, and make it expensive to join or leave a group.

TIP: Write your rules very carefully, starting with choosing a license for content, and measure how much they help people. Change them over time as you need to.

Fair Authority

Without authority, rules have no strength. The community founders and main contributors are its de facto authority. If they abuse this position, they lose contributors and the project dies or gets forked under different rules. Authority needs to be scalable (that is, work with any size of group) and transferable as the group grows and changes over time.

While we need authority to build a flat playing field, many groups use authority as a way of controlling members, keeping them in the group, and making them conform. A favorite cult technique is to randomly punish and reward people so they become confused and stop questioning authority.

TIP: Promote the most active contributors into positions of authority, and do this rapidly. You have a short window for promoting new contributors before they disappear to other projects.

You have to be a part of your community, and you must follow your own rules. If you find yourself breaking, or wanting to break, your own rules, they are faulty and need fixing.

In the ZeroMQ community, we've had fights over who had the right to define the rules, and in the end it came to the trademark and domain name. The person or company who owns the project name is the ultimate authority for the rules. If they're nuts, the project will die.

TIP: If you are investing money in the community, then consider taking a US trademark so that you can stop people from making similarly-named imitations that don't follow your processes. It costs about $750.


Membership must be a badge to collect, not an identity. As Mr. Spock so often observed, emotions are not logical. Some groups are driven by logical purpose, and others by more emotional factors such as peer pressure, the herd instinct, and even collective hysteria. The main factor seems to be the relationship between the group and its members. We can quantify this: Do members "belong exclusively" to the group? Exclusive membership means putting the group's existence above its work. Exclusive membership ends in conflict with other groups.

TIP: Stay away from formal membership models, especially those that try to convert people to belonging to the group. Allow anonymous or unidentified participation. Encourage people to create their own competing projects as spaces to experiment and learn.

Industrial-age groups, like cults, specialize in owning their members. An employee belongs to his or her company. In some cases, even ideas you have in the shower are property of your employer. And when a group owns its members, it motivates them with emotions like fear, hate, jealousy, and anger, instead of purposeful logic. The threat of expulsion is widely used to get people to conform. "Do what I say or I'll fire you!"

TIP: To measure how tribal a group is, just start a competing project. If the response is negative and emotional, the group is tribal. A sane group will applaud its new competitors.


Some people like to be told what to do. The best contributors and teams choose their own tasks. A successful community recognizes problems and organizes itself to solve them. Further, it does that faster and more accurately than any top-down management structure. This means the community should accept contributions in any area, without limit.

Top-down task assignment is an anti-pattern with many weaknesses. It makes it impossible for individuals to act when they recognize new problems. It creates fiefdoms where work and the necessary resources belong to specific people. It creates long communication chains that can't react rapidly. It requires layers of managers just to connect decision-makers with those doing the work.

TIP: Write rules to raise the quality of work and to explicitly allow anyone to work on anything they find interesting.

In ZeroMQ, we removed all assigned tasks from the community. For example, we don't accept feature requests. If someone wants a feature, they either send us a patch, or offer someone money to make the change, or they wait. This means people only make changes they really need to make.

TIP: Communities need power hierarchies. However, they should be fluid and heavily delegated. That is, choose the people you work with, and let them choose the people they work with. Power structures are like liquid cement; they harden and stop people from moving around as they need to. Any structure defends itself.


A diverse group has conflicting opinions, and a healthy group has to embrace and digest these conflicts. Critics, iconoclasts, vandals, spies, and trolls keep a group on its toes. They can be a catalyst for others to stay involved. Wikipedia thrives thanks to, not in spite of, those who click Edit to make a mess of articles.

It's a classic anti-pattern to suppress minority ideas and views on the basis that they are "dangerous." This inevitably means suppressing new ideas as well. The logic is usually that group coherence is more important than diversity. What then happens is that mistakes aren't challenged, and get solidified into policy. In fact, the group can be more important than the results, if it is diverse and open to arguments. This is a difficult lesson that applies to broad society as well: there are no dangerous opinions, only dangerous responses.

The way communities deal with trolls and vandals is one thing. To deal with fundamental differences in viewpoint is something else. I've said before that conflicting missions can be a problem. The best answer I know is to turn the conflict into competition.

In software, we do this by making standards that teams can build on. Take for example the HTTP standard that powers the web. Any team can build a web server or a web browser. This lets teams compete. So Google's Chrome browser emerged as a lightweight, faster alternative to Firefox, which was getting bloated and slow. Then, the Firefox team took performance seriously, and now Firefox is faster than Chrome.

TIP: When there is an interesting problem, try to get multiple teams competing to solve it. Competition is great fun and can produce better answers than monopolized problems. You can even explicitly create competitions with prizes for the best solutions.

Measurable Success

It's all very well to try to turn conflict into competition. However, you also need to provide teams with a way to know how well they are doing. The best tools, like GitHub, show you precisely how many people are watching or have "starred" or "forked" a particular project (revealing different levels of interest and commitment).

The Web, of course, has always been obsessed with "hits" and traffic analysis, which show exactly how popular a specific site or page is. This makes it very easy to measure success of on-line projects. In the old industrial-era business, teams get their feedback from their bosses. This turns into an exercise in power: you'll be scored higher for compliance than for accuracy. Making your bosses happy so they give you a pay raise is not healthy.

TIP: If your platform does not support it directly, find ways to tell contributors how well their projects are doing.

High Scoring

There are many reasons why people contribute to communities. An overriding motivation is to be admired for success. That can be as an individual, or as part of a team. Success is relative so we need metrics, some high score that people can see and track.

In the ZeroMQ community, we don't emphasize high scoring much, though contributors do get more love when they contribute more. It goes on their permanent record. Contributing to ZeroMQ can land you a good job.

Reddit, like many sites, uses "karma" that shows how many votes a profile got for its posts and submissions. It works pretty well. Some sites don't show all karma in order to stop people playing the system to just get a higher score. Some sites, like StackOverflow, have taken "gamification" to an extreme level, with badges, high scores, achievements, and so on. I think this is manipulative and distorts the mission of the community. People should be contributing because they need the project to succeed, not to earn toy points.

Having said that, social credit -- making groups of strangers happy -- is enormously satisfying and does not pollute the planet. Industrial society focuses on material rewards (higher salary, larger house, nicer car) tied into a hierarchical structure. It is effective because we all like wealth, or we have a daddy complex; whatever the reason, wanting to make the boss happy means taking fewer risks.

TIP: When there is something that people are asking for, and you don't know how to do it yourself, announce publicly that it is "impossible." Or, propose a solution that is so awkward and hopeless that it annoys real experts into stepping up.


In his book, Surowiecki explained how the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster was caused by a hierarchical NASA management bureaucracy that ignored the knowledge of low-level engineers. If a group is decentralized, its members are more independent, they receive more diverse inputs, and they are also likely to be more diverse from the start.

If a group is geographically concentrated, it becomes homogenized, where all members get pretty much the same inputs and triggers. Close proximity also lets a minority dominate the mindset of the group and quash unorthodox ideas. It lets them literally bully or bluff the majority into compliance. Insisting that all members of a group sit in the same office, department, or building is an old anti-pattern that is hard to break. There's a reason cults have compounds.

TIP: Do you need meetings to get work done as a group? This is a sign that you have deeper problems in how you work together. You are excluding people who are not physically close by.

It can be hard to move away from the old discuss-then-execute model of working together. Certainly it's easier if you are building groups from scratch than if you are trying to change existing groups.

Free Workspaces

A community needs space in which to grow. In Internet terms, this is typically a website or collection of sites, and related structures like email lists, blogs, and so on. We've seen that it's become very cheap, or free, to create "space" in digital society. The question is, can individuals create their own spaces within the community? If so, they will invest more in the collective project.

The freedom to create structure annoys people who feel that it creates chaos and disorder. However, if you use regular structures (see the next section), there's no real cost to participants. What is toxic is speculatively creating structure based on the assumption that people might need it. When I took charge of the FFII association in 2005, the previous president had created several hundred email lists, representing all the projects he felt people should be working on. It didn't fit how people wanted to organize, and it was very hard to delete these lists and create the ones we actually needed.

Of course, industrial-era groups do assign work, and assign the resources to carry it out. Any new infrastructure -- such as a website, email list, or wiki -- requires approval and a decision. It might even need legal review due to copyright and patent concerns. The cost is high, so people are reluctant to take the risk. Thus, they don't experiment and often work with one hand tied behind their backs.

In the ZeroMQ software community, it takes a single click to create a new project. In Wikipedia, you can create a new page simply by clicking "create this page." Both projects have mechanisms to stop random garbage from accumulating. Wikipedia purges new pages quite aggressively. ZeroMQ has an extra manual step to bring a new project into the official community organization.

TIP: Make it absolutely simple for logged-in users to create new projects. If projects are organized per user, you don't need to worry about junk. If they're in a shared space, you may need tools to purge junk and abandoned projects.

Regular Structure

As a community grows larger, it can become harder to navigate. If you make a single, ever-growing project, this becomes more and more complex over time, consisting mainly of special cases. Think of a medieval castle. This problem is particularly bad in projects built by larger firms that seem to lack a sense of cost.

Complexity turns people away because it's so difficult to learn. The solution is to use very regular structures that you can learn once and then predict many times. Not any structure will do. We seem bad at learning structures deeper than three or four levels. However, we're happy to explore very wide structures with thousands or millions of boxes if those boxes correspond to separate units of work, or projects. Think of a city.

The successful on-line communities are cities, not castles. Wikipedia consists of a few language-specific wikis, each broken into millions of pages (the projects), each structured into sections, discussion, history, footnotes, and so on. Several people may be working on a page at once, and one person may be slowly editing or caring for dozens or hundreds of pages.

GitHub manages millions of software repositories or "repos," grouped under user profiles or organizations, and each broken into some further structure (source files, documentation, etc.) that usually depends on the language (Java repos use one style, C repos use another, and so on). One repo may have a handful of contributors, and people will work on a few to a dozen repos. The ZeroMQ community consists of an organization that contains a growing number of projects.

TIP: Design your community as a searchable city of projects, where anyone can start a new project, projects represent perhaps a dozen people's work, and all have familiar structure, as much as possible.

Businesses love their castles, which inevitably describe Important People, not projects, and certainly not the major business problems. Their organizations are huge and irregular. There's no way to understand them except by memorizing them in detail. Then again, you can't simply move around the castle, so there's little benefit in learning its layout.

Smooth Learning

When ZeroMQ started, it was one project with a single "README" page. Today, it's a hundred or so smaller projects, each with its own documentation, community, and process. To get into a mature project can be painful. As I've said, regular structures are essential. More than that, you need a fairly specific learning curve that goes from simple to hard as people progress from idle passer-by to expert contributor.

Think of your community as a video game with levels that become increasingly difficult, and have bigger and bigger payoffs. People will play "up to their level." If you can do this right, you attract the most people. If you do this wrong, you'll bore experts by making it too easy, or you'll turn off others by making it too hard to get started.

TIP: Use classic training tools -- presentations, videos, answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs), tutorials -- to get people started. It helps if you are part of the community so you can see what kinds of questions people ask when they start.

Many existing organizations make no effort to create a smooth curve. Everything starts complex and stays there. To participate, you might need weeks of training. It's inefficient, frustrating, and expensive to scale.


It's tempting to try to provoke people into joining a group by being aggressive. After all, many people enjoy a good heated argument, especially when they feel they're right. Some groups thrive on being quite hostile and negative towards other groups, particularly if there is some history involved. The tone you set as founder will last a long time. If you promote your community by attacking competitors, you will attract people of a certain mindset, and the culture will spread. Sooner or later, the negativity will turn inwards and can be very damaging for the community.

TIP: When you talk about people, products, or organizations, be polite and stay balanced. When you promote your product or community, talk about the problems you solve, not how you are better than your competitors.

It's better in my experience to set a positive tone from the start. Competitors are good because they give you resistance. Copycats are good, because they prove your market is a real one. Trolls and vandals are good, because they give sincere people an extra chance to prove their value. And so on. It seems like hard work to look for a positive outcome for every event. However, it's really just a mindset.

TIP: Welcome everyone, and only intervene when there are irredeemable troublemakers. It's a small minority that really can't find a place in an open, diverse community. You can ask such people to leave and, if necessary, ban them.

A positive culture is more tolerant and reduces emotions and arguments. It also makes it easier to experiment, make mistakes, and self-criticize, and all these help a community think through difficult problems.

Sense of Humor

Have you ever wondered why humans have an instinct for humor, and why people who never laugh seem odd or unfriendly? My theory is that we evolved humor as a way of defusing conflict (which has obvious survival value). People don't punch the joker unless the joke is old or badly told. More subtly, humor defuses tribalism and emotion, and lets people work together even when they have huge differences. A shared joke creates strong bonds because it proves the intersection of minds. Humor is an essential part of a community and reduces stress.

TIP: The more serious your message, the more you need humor. In my ZeroMQ book, I wrote a lot of silly nonsense mixed with the heavy technical explanations. Most people enjoyed and appreciated this.

If it weren't for alcohol, the grim-faced industrial economy would barely ever laugh. It takes itself so seriously. The lack of humor in an organization is a sure sign that everyone there is fundamentally miserable. Worse, it makes the group vulnerable to conflict and fracture.


You make a racing car faster by removing weight, not by adding power. You can make your community lighter, faster, and more agile by being dogmatically minimalist about the work you do. Though it sounds lazy, it's often harder to not do something that seems fun than to just go ahead and do it.

The general rule is do the absolute minimum that probably works. Then invest more only as people start to use your work and complain. Never invest more than the absolute minimum you need to get a "bite" from users. This applies to your seed product as well as every change you make. User feedback -- more than your own vision -- is the best guide for where to make further investments.

TIP: Perfection precludes participation. Releasing buggy, half-finished work is an excellent way to provoke people into contributing. Though it can be hard for big egos to accept, flaws are usually more attractive to contributors than perfection, which attracts users.

The culture of minimalism can, and should, extend to your community itself. In the past, we used to make legal entities for serious projects so there would be a place to hold copyrights, trademarks, and money. However, legal entities are expensive and time-consuming to manage. Tax reporting by itself can be an unbearable burden.

One of my communities, Digistan, was designed, grown, and did its work (building a new generation of legal templates and political arguments for open standards) in about six months. All of our ZeroMQ protocols are based on the Digistan work. The Open Web Foundation -- solving the same problem -- spent two years simply building a legal entity, defining bylaws, and electing officers.

Sane Funding

If there's not enough money, a community will starve. If there's too much, it will, as I've said, rot. It is a delicate balance. We can motivate people with money up to a certain degree. After that, only sociopaths respond proportionally. This is a flaw in the naive "more money is always good" theory of capitalism. In my business, it's always been those I paid best who turned out to be the most treacherous.

The first thing is to reduce your costs by not setting up legal entities, offices, and staff unless you really need them. Not only will these eat any funding you might have, they will work against you as you try to build a pure on-line community. Secondly, invest your time and money in the community minimally when you see that there's no choice. It could be taking a trademark, paying for hosting services, or doing some particularly difficult work no one else is able to undertake. Finally, watch out for individuals who take on too much risk without adequate reward -- they can be vulnerable to burnout, something I'll talk about in the next chapter.

TIP: Every time you find it necessary to spend money on the community, ask if you could have found a way to get others to help instead.

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