RPG (RolePlayGateway), a community of game designers, world builders, and storytellers scripting entire universes, is entering its 14th year of existence. And while RPG founder Eric Martindale knows that some members of the community might move on, he’s in it for the long haul. He’s energized by the relationships that he’s seen members of the RPG community build and the excitement behind INK, a Bitcoin-backed digital currency that people within the community are using to tip one another for their creative work, and purchase digital goods.
In this episode, Eric gives a crash course on blockchain, which he chalks up to being a “highly inefficient database.” If you haven’t done your homework on this subject yet, his definitions and suggestions on things to look out for will help get you up to speed. We discuss:
- The ups and downs of managing one community for 14 years
- How the RPG community deals with wordiness
- Three things that every community manager should know about blockchain
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
“Tipping is extremely popular [with my community’s currency]. Users are in some cases donating 5% or 10% of their total holdings to other users because of forum posts and that’s really exciting to me. It shows that people are really appreciating one another and willing to show that appreciation through some form of monetary exchange.” -@martindale
“One of the most valuable things that a blockchain can provide is the ability to verify published information without having to trust any particular party. … A blockchain can provide the ability for any participant in a community to know that something is true based on when it was published and all of the other people that have verified that information.” -@martindale
“I would really recommend enabling user-to-user tipping. That has been extremely successful for us because it allows individual users to show their gratitude and appreciation for one another. That’s something that, up until now, has really been difficult. You have to use these official karma points or various tools and mechanisms, whereas, with digital currency, you have the ability to actually transfer real value to show your gratitude and appreciation.” -@martindale
“Any time you hear the phrase, ‘What do you think of blockchain?’ and you don’t put a definite article in front of it, chances are it’s going to be one of the people that are excited about the hype and the excitement of the phrase. But really, just replace that word. Replace the word “blockchain” with the word “database” and see if it makes any sense. If it doesn’t make any sense, then it probably isn’t a very good use case because what a blockchain is, is a highly inefficient database.” -@martindale
About Eric Martindale
Eric is the founder of RPG, an online community of game designers, world builders, and storytellers entering its 14th year of independent operation. RPG recently announced “INK,” a Bitcoin-backed digital currency given in exchange for community-focused work and used for pricing of player-owned virtual assets within their custom “Universe Simulator” game engine.
Eric has been a software engineer, entrepreneur, and community manager for over 15 years, building software for startup companies in a wide number of industries. More recently, he worked as a developer evangelist and open source strategist in the Bitcoin industry, helping several well-known companies in the space with technical communication and community growth. He’s now focused on launching Fabric, a decentralized operating system and communication protocol for building peer-to-peer applications that operate without any central server or authority — a tool he hopes will be most useful in helping communities self-organize without the threat of censorship, abuse, and privacy violations present in existing centralized providers of community platforms.
- Sponsor: Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations
- Sponsor: Open Social, community building for nonprofits
- Eric Martindale on Twitter
- RolePlayGateway, an online community of game designers, world builders, and storytellers founded by Eric
- INK, RPG’s Bitcoin-backed digital currency
- Fabric OS, a decentralized operating system for serverless applications.
- Initial coin offering
- Lightning Network
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Open Social, community building for non-profits and Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:27] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and welcome to Community Signal. I’m glad to have you listening today as we hit the hype machine and talk about cryptocurrency and blockchain with Eric Martindale, who has serious credibility in those areas as well as online community building as the founder of RPG, RolePlayGateway. A massive community for game builders and storytellers.
We have hit 10 supporters on Patreon which is just amazing. Thank you so much to everyone who backs the show at communitysignal.com/innercircle. This includes Dave Gertler, Carol Benovic-Bradley, and Serena Snoad.
Eric Martindale is the founder of RPG, an online community of game designers, world builders, and storytellers entering its 14th year of independent operation. RPG recently announced INK, a Bitcoin-backed digital currency given in exchange for community-focused work and used for pricing a player own virtual assets within their custom universe simulator game engine. Eric has been a software engineer, entrepreneur, and community manager for over 15 years building software for startup companies in a wide number of industries.
More recently, he worked as a developer evangelist and open-source strategist in the Bitcoin industry, helping several well-known companies in this space with technical communication and community growth. He’s now focused on launching Fabric, a decentralized operating system and communication protocol for building peer-to-peer applications that operate without any central server or authority, a tool he hopes will be most useful in helping communities self-organize without the threat of censorship, abuse, and privacy violations present and existing centralized providers of community platforms. Eric, welcome to the program.
[00:01:55] Eric Martindale: Thanks, Patrick. Glad to be here.
[00:01:57] Patrick: It is so good to have you because we pretty much avoided Bitcoin, [laughs] crypto, and blockchain on the podcast, pretty much altogether. I think a lot of people are feeling a sense of overwhelm. I didn’t really want to talk about it until it was organic to the show. I didn’t want to talk about it just to talk about it, because everyone else is, but today it is organic because you have such a unique mix of community experience and technical experience with cryptocurrency and blockchain and it’s time to dive in on the show.
Before we do, I want to talk a little bit about RPG. RPG is a massive 13-year-old community for game designers, world builders, and storytellers. On the 10 year anniversary of the community, you said, “10 years ago I founded RolePlayGateway with a few close friends of mine. Against all odds the community endures.” What were the odds against you?
[00:02:50] Eric: [laughs] Well, it’s a really interesting pastime I would say that led us to starting the community. It’s basically a text-based role-playing community from the old days, if you’re going all the way back to mads and moose and text-based role-playing games from the very beginning. We emerged from this idea that — in the early 2000s this idea that online built and boarded a forum became much more accessible to your average internet user being able to spin up some open-source software that was out there and ultimately we jumped onboard. This led us to creating this community with all sorts of people from all different kinds of backgrounds.
These communities can become contentious at times. There’s a lot of investments that the writers put into their characters and any time, of course, that you have a collaboration of any sorts, people really take strongly to that investment. It perhaps was a little bit more difficult because people wanted to have control over their content as opposed to a typical discussion forum, where maybe you’re just tossing thoughts out there. Here you’re actually creating something with other authors, other game designers, other world builders. It was pretty interesting in the early days and eventually, we found some stability and that’s how we got where we are today.
[00:04:14] Patrick: I think of long-term success because like you, and we’re about the same age. If I do the math right you started this community as a teenager, right?
[00:04:23] Eric: Yes, absolutely. It was one of the first things that I did right out of high school.
[00:04:26] Patrick: I started creatingforms.com as a teenager and it celebrates– what? 17 years in May. [laughs] That’s also another old one but when I think about the odds, one of the things I expected you to say was sort of the proliferation of– I don’t know, social media tools, different channels for these types of things. Obviously, tools like that don’t replace the types of experiences you’re talking about. Where people write in such depth where they are writing stories, creating worlds.
Then the other thing that came to mind is just sort of the idea that I would say a fair amount of communities are started by teenagers because as we talked about it on the show before, like teenagers maybe unbeknownst to a lot of adults, power a lot of the internet, as far as their favorite communities or social sites. If you go to a community and you love that community, there’s probably a teenager involved somewhere, right, in moderation, in management, somewhere and they may not out themselves.
They may not say, “Hey, I’m a teenager.” They’re making it happen minus scenes, but what happens is a lot of those communities people grow up. They go to college or they find something else and they age out in a way of managing a community. I think that’s kind of an interesting challenge that some of these communities do face.
[00:05:36] Eric: Yes, absolutely. It’s great that you say that. That’s exactly true. We found so many different cases where users will be pretty active for four or five sometimes even six years at a time and then as they enter into that more adult phase of their life, their free time tends to dwindle and their priorities shift around as maybe they go off to college or maybe they actually go get a job, for example, and that becomes their career. Their time shrinks as they enter into that era.
I think we’ve passed that hump in a way. We’ve got a really good and strong community of committed users who have come back after eight or nine years to start sharing their stories about how participation in the community has really helped them either in some cases to become professional writers and in some cases, a lot of personal developments. Eventually, I’m really fortunate that this community has started to contribute back in a lot of really cool ways.
[00:06:38] Patrick: The beautiful thing about having a community this long and you touched on this is you really have the opportunity to have alumni. You have the opportunity to have people who have gone on to become something or someone or become great writers or published authors. I’m sure you have plenty of members over the years who have gone and written their own books or have written bigger works or things that attract that ton of attention.
In my communities, I’ve had book authors and in the martial arts community, we have people who have come out of it who are now– won on martial artist. You get the opportunity for death, right? [laughs] Because people die if you hang around long enough. I say that laughing but it’s just life, life and death. People get married. They have kids. they met in your community. You have the opportunity when you do something for so long to create a space that really allows you to follow along with people’s lives and how the community impacted them, which is fun.
[00:07:31] Eric: Yes, absolutely. I know when I was growing up being a kid in the mid to late ’90s joining the internet, it was really true that the people that I connected with online stayed with me for decades at this point. They really helped me personally and still part of the impetus for really pulling this community together was to give that same opportunity to people who are looking for that same kind of community connection.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s about for me. Is helping those people make those connections and make those long-lasting friendships. Yes, there’s been an incredible number of people who’ve perhaps even met one another in the community, gone off to get married and now even have children together. It’s a really rewarding experience.
[00:08:14] Patrick: Yes, I think I had another community pro who said they had someone get married and divorced. [laughs] On the top of managing the community. You really get the whole picture of blight, but in listening to you, I cannot but think of like in my case, I started a community as a teenager and now I have a day job that I started in August. You have this community that’s really big and important to a lot of people and active. You have Fabric and you have your own consulting projects, how do you balance your time these days? I guess, how does the community weigh into your day? How do you make time for that still?
[00:08:51] Eric: [laughs] That’s funny. I don’t know that I’ve heard that word in a long time, balance, I mean. [laughs] I tend to really fall on the side of investing pretty much every waking hour of my day into something productive, but ultimately, I think all of these projects are linked together. Fabric is a great example of this. Fabric is an idea that I’ve had for a long time. RPG is really one of the first applications, the flagship application, if you will, for what I want to bring about with Fabric.
The consulting stuff is sort of a means to an end. It’s a mechanism to make sure that the bills are paid and that there’s food on the table and a roof over my head. All the while I’ve got this huge passion for building Fabric and empowering the RPG community and many other communities through Fabric to grow and prosper.
[00:9:42] Patrick: Let’s stop for a moment to talk about our great sponsor, Structure3C.
Structure3C helps large organizations unlock the full value of community. Founded by Bill Johnston and staffed by a network of experienced community builders from the public and private sectors, Structure3C helps clients transform existing programs, launch new communities, and develop forward-looking strategies for community-based growth and innovation. Schedule a free initial conversation at structure3c.com.
One more thing about RPG, because communities like these are unique and maybe kind of a different way from a lot of communities. I feel like this isn’t like truly fan fiction. This isn’t a fan fiction community so to speak. I’m sure there are elements of fan fiction in there, but I had a friend who managed a fan fiction community and he said, “It’s such a unique beast to moderate.”
One of the things that comes up. I noticed in your member profiles on RPG, you have a word count, total words written, words per post. For most communities, they try to keep short posts to a minimum, but with a community like this, do you sometimes have a problem of [chuckles] too many words, of too much wordiness?
[00:10:44] Eric: [laughs] Yes. It’s a writing community and we really made efforts very early on to set the status quo up to be about quality over quantity. People have this natural desire to produce high-quality content because of the reward mechanisms that we’ve set up around the site. We’re much more interested in engagement, but yes, ultimately in the very beginning especially in the early days of some of our chat applications that we were building it was very high frequency, very short posts.
That can be very difficult one to keep up with, for example, if there’s three or four users in a chat room. It’s really not so hard because everybody can keep up, but once you get up to 20, or 30, or 50, or 1,000 people in a chat room, it just becomes impossible. You start seeing the posting frequencies slow down. There’s even a pattern in our community called post-order where once players have started to post this content, they’ve established an order, a sequence, once this person posts then the next person will post.
Sometimes you’ll find individual members refreshing the page a couple times an hour just to see if the next post is up. The introduction of A-Jacks and all of the new fancy stuff that we have now, it’s a little bit easier. It’s really been just making sure that we invest in the community and in the incentives to align them around really telling good stories rather than thinking about what does that word count necessarily mean? Whereas, over long periods of time that word count can accumulate and become a fairly impressive figure. I think we’ve got a grand total of around 30 or 40 users now who’ve written over one million words, each of them.
[00:12:33] Patrick: Nothing more needs to be said.
[00:12:35] Patrick: That’s a lot and it makes me want to get a word count. I need to run a query and just figure out like, “How many words has this person written?” What you’re saying really is that the community filters out. If your writing is too wordy, it’s not fun to read. There’s incentives in the community built-in, how members recognize other members, so to speak, the story quality. If you’re too wordy, then your story quality isn’t high enough and the community will respond to that. It’s like when I wrote my book and I gave to the copy editor, and she would just scratch out eight words and replace it with one. [laughs] It was like, “That’s too many words for that one thing you can just say in one word.”
[00:13:08] Eric: There’s a happy medium, right? I think sometimes, in the chat rooms, you end up with like five or six words in a sentence, sometimes on the super low end and on the super wordy side, you end up with 2,000 and 3,000-word essays. Those just take so long to read. Ultimately, there’s a happy medium that it seems like most of the users have arrived upon five or six paragraphs.
It helps keep that healthy pace that allows not only existing users to be rewarded when they read the next post in a sequence. It helps new users approach the content a little bit more easily. I think that’s super important, focusing on not only how the existing users are engaging but how do you engage the newcomers who are just starting out?
[00:13:56] Patrick: In December, you introduced INK, a digital currency at RPG. Before that, you had a medal achievement system and you sort of, at least in the announcement, tied this digital currency into that and in turn, members can earn INK, they can tip all their members with INK-based upon how much they appreciate the value of your post. They can also participate in a marketplace of sorts. That’s about five months ago. How are you finding that people are using that currency?
[00:14:22] Eric: I’m actually fairly surprised. We introduced the currency to a small set of data users at first just to gauge feedback. In December, we announced it to the general public. It’s been really exciting. We’ve done over in the past five months since we basically did a public launch. We’ve done over 100,000 transactions. It’s mind-boggling to me because that’s 400 or 500 times what we were doing in the data.
Tipping is extremely popular. Users are in some cases donating 5% or 10% of their total holdings to other users because of forum posts and that’s really exciting to me. It shows that people are really appreciating one another and willing to show that appreciation through some form of monetary exchange.
[00:15:12] Patrick: Now, it’s Bitcoin backed but you can’t buy into it. You have to earn it through various community initiatives is that correct?
[00:15:18] Eric: That’s correct for now. There’s a lot of interesting conversation in the markets right now about what is a stable economic system and that’s what we’re really hoping for. We’re hoping for a stable self-sustaining economic system powered by the contributions of members. One of the things I’m most excited about, however, is making sure that Bitcoin is the backing asset behind this. Bitcoin burst onto the scene as a digital currency for the internet.
We have cash in person, we have credit cards and we have all these things but payments online sucked if you excuse my phrasing, that credit card number, if someone gets access to that then they can pull money out of your credit card. Now, we’ve got this big https. Everything is encrypted with SSL to attempt to prevent this but there’s still databases out there that keep track of your numbers and so on.
Bitcoin was really a very good fit for us but no, you can’t purchase it as of yet. There’s some interesting legal discussions around that. We want to really make sure that we’ve buttoned down our hatches, dot our is and cross our ts before we allow any sort of exchange on our platform.
[00:16:30] Patrick: That makes a lot of sense and I think that one thing that came to mind for me, and maybe this is just my surface level take, is that when you’re trying to build something that is sustaining. What you don’t want to have happen is people just when they get access to the ability to cash it out, they just cash it out. They actually see value in maintaining currency in this marketplace. I’m sure you’ve thought about that. This could make me an argument for a community play here.
You have such a strong community of users who are so tied to one another that it’s like a local community where you want to see the other local individuals, businesses etcetera succeed. So you stay invested in that community. Maybe that’s one aspect of it, but how do you mitigate that concern that when you can buy and sell in, you just sort of become, I guess, at the whim of people who want to cash out or who essentially are like day traders in a way?
[00:17:17] Eric: We’re trying to avoid speculation, for example. People that might just want to sell the currency and then get their cash out but at the same time there’s not much that we can do. We see users in many other communities not– certainly not in ours buying and selling of accounts. That’s always going to exist as a mechanism to bypass anything that we put in place but really it’s all about community investment.
We introduced this currency 12, 13 years into our run. We wanted the users to be individually invested before we introduced any sort of monetary or currency aspect so that yes, of course, people are going to want to eventually cash out maybe small portions but really since everything in the system is priced in that currency, it becomes a medium of exchange within the community and people are already invested in the content, in the experience, in the community really.
That’s what keeps people sticking around. I honestly don’t think that the currency aspect itself is necessarily a strong reason for people to maybe come to the site but it’s rather a good way of contributing back in a way that helps people share their appreciation for one another.
[00:18:35] Patrick: Let’s take a quick sponsor break as I’d like to tell you a little bit about our great sponsor, Open Social.
Open Social is the community platform for nonprofits looking to coordinate volunteers and bring together stakeholders at a grassroots level. Hosting over 1,000 active communities, with Greenpeace Greenwire and several United Nations projects leading the way, Open Social has been proven to increase engagement within your community by up to 600%! Open Social is a Drupal-based open source solution, offering two fully maintained and hosted subscriptions starting at just $110 a month as well as a free do-it-yourself version. Request a free trial today at getopensocial.com.
What are people buying in the marketplace on RPG?
[00:19:15] Eric: RPG, in essence, is a virtual world simulator. What users can do is create these virtual universes and inside of those virtual universes they can create properties and settings for other players to write content in. For example, one of the more popular ones is called the multiverse. The multiverse has several, frankly, it’s entire galaxies that are modeled out with solar systems. In the solar systems there’s various planets. In the planets, there’s various continents and cities and virtual real estate.
That’s the most popular thing that’s traded today is the virtual real estate in these worlds. Once a sufficient number of players have contributed to the backstory of a particular region of one of these universes, sometimes people want to move on and maybe they want to move to another region of one of these virtual universes, but they don’t want to leave behind all of this value that’s been accumulated through the backstory and the history and all of the writing that has gone into generating this fictional world.
In many cases, what they’ll do is they’ll sell it off to one of their friends and they’ll take the INK and move on to another area of the universe to start something new and use it to purchase new real estate in those areas. That’s certainly the number one most traded asset.
We also allow the buying and selling of individual characters. In the case of offering a very compelling, deep, interesting character that’s unique, there’s a lot of authors that just love creating new characters and they’ve found a way of generating an income for themselves just simply offering interesting characters for other people to play because it is a bit of a time-consuming process to come up with a character sheet, come up with the backstory, and give them enough content to be relevant and meaningful to a larger context.
[00:21:18] Patrick: I may just be taking this down. The way I think is to go down the road and I walk down the road to see what’s there, but is it akin to a copyright transferal? Or is that what’s happening is like if you write a story or you write this world, the value is in the words or the equation or obviously you can just copy and paste and make a new one? I assume part of the value is just in people following that world or participating in it.
We talked about selling accounts so if way back when, once upon a time or maybe, I’m sure still in certain accounts and platforms, you would sell based upon how many people who are connected to that account. Is there something in there that, I’m sure your nightmare or maybe something that you’ve thought over, just like people coming on and just pasting something [laughs] and kind of say, “Here, buy in the marketplace. That’s perfect. Do that.” How do you see that? Because I think right now, obviously, if it’s not something to cash out, it’s more of a– still kind of a fan community thing.
Then again, as you hinted out, once you introduce this other concept that’s sort of this deeper currency backed by something else, then you get the bad actors. What are your thoughts on that challenge?
[00:22:16] Eric: Yes, absolutely. We make a distinction between digital assets and the actual written content. For example, a setting is one of the forums of digital assets that exists, but the posts, the individual posts that might be generated inside of that setting are permanently attributed to the original authors. In fact, we have a mechanism that explicitly prevents exact duplicates of any particular post. For that, it seems to catch probably 99.9% of all of the attempted fraud. That is enough for our use case.
Also, there’s a strong social incentive to, if you’re copying another character or you’re copying another person’s post, one, it doesn’t mean much because it’s a single post and two, that social incentive, it becomes very clear that you’ve attempted to duplicate someone else’ work. Most people won’t engage with that content and very quickly, it flows to the bottom.
I think the explicit anti-duplication effort covers most of it, but also the fact that we’ve structured it in such a way that you’re not transferring the writing necessarily, you’re transferring these virtual representations of the containers for the writing, that’s the context in which other people might operate.
[00:23:44] Patrick: You’ve been taking your knowledge of community and applying it to the Bitcoin industry. I know Bitcoin industry just might not be the same thing, but it’s related and I want to talk about ICOs, initial coin offerings. My earn.com account fills [laughs] with requests to get this token or that token. To try to stand out, I find that often, these organizations, companies, often will talk a good community king, like he was the link of a community, about how responsive they are to the community’s needs or how they need the support of the community.
It’s almost more of a feeling than a currency in a lot of cases, I guess, but they talk that community language and it’s like a community-centered thing. I’m sure some of them, it really is. It’s a one meeting thing they’re building community, but do people actually want to join a community for an ICO or do they really just want free tokens? Likely, won’t be worth anything, but possibly could be.
[00:24:42] Eric: [laughs] This is a great question. I will go ahead and tell you I’m going to give you as neutral of an opinion as possible.
[00:24:49] Patrick: I don’t want that. I want your opinion. Now, go ahead.
[00:24:53] Eric: Alright. Well, coming from a technical perspective, I think a lot of these ICOs are really banking on the ability to market their ideas. What that results in is a lot of speculation, a lot of people saw what happened with Bitcoin or rather what’s happening with Bitcoin. They start saying like, “Oh, I missed the boat,” and now they really are wanting to get into the “next Bitcoin” and there’s a lot of people out there that are launching projects. They’re attempting to take advantage of that and use it to raise funding.
I’m not opposed to the idea of crowdfunding whatsoever. I think it’s a great mechanism and I think that existing regulations on crowdfunding should be reduced or outright eliminated but most of these ICOs, they really are heavily focused on marketing and community growth because that’s ultimately what will help them accumulate the 100x capital return that they’re looking for to build whatever it is that their project is.
In many cases, unfortunately, and this is where the FCC actually very specifically has stepped in, in many of these cases its outright scams. It’s unfortunate because everybody is so hungry to catch onto the “next Bitcoin” but some of these marketing efforts and some of these community building efforts you’ll see a lot of these communities dissolve and go away because the original creators don’t actually have the intent of building what they claim to be able to build let alone actually have an interest in doing so.
[00:26:36] Patrick: I have to assume that there is an army of lawyers out there just probing the transaction [laughs] language and waiting for that swing back of, “Okay, there was this wave of ICOs and excitement,” and then, “Oh, X number of them, a high number didn’t do anything.” They are transacting much in crowdfunding because it’s almost like the expectation has changed. Instead, again, there are so many people out there who are doing this but in some cases, it’s almost like, “Well, crowdfunding isn’t as hot as initial coin offering or a token offering and we could go with crowdfunding but it’s harder to do the ICO.
Where with crowdfunding there’s more of an expectation that you don’t own any company. There’re some marketplaces out there that sort to do that or do that. It’s basically like, “Invest in the company, we’ll give you X number of shares,” whatever and they’re more honest about that where crowdfunding is you’re usually giving them money with the expectation of them making something and then you’re getting something, a thank you, a sticker, a copy, the product whatever it is where ICO is more like people look at it as an investment. That’s how it’s placed like we’re building a company. They’re tapping into that language and that lingo to kind of– I don’t know, separate people and their money in some cases. Which is unfortunate. Taking a step back with my CO and looking at your work with Bitcoin companies, what do you think are the unique challenges that are represented within this community to separate them from RPG or other community-ship and involve with?
[00:27:58] Eric: Bitcoin is itself a fairly revolutionary idea. In fact, it’s possible is one of the most revolutionary ideas that we’ve seen in like a few 100 years. The idea of a sound money separate from a state or a bank altogether governed purely by a decentralized system meaning there’s is no central authority responsible for its upkeep. That alone is a very interesting idea.
There’s a growing community of people who have gone through the process of learning about what that means for society, what that means for governments and have basically adopted the idea of Bitcoin as their community and even though there’s no central company responsible for Bitcoin itself and there’s none of that. There’s nobody actually trying to pull a community together around it. People seem to identify with the common value which is this idea of having independence number one and two a separation of money and state that are coming together and uniting and saying like, “Hey, this thing appears to be the future and we should support it as much as possible.”
By extension back to the ICO thing, I think a lot of the ICOs are attempting to capitalize on that because when the market, several times now over the past nine or 10 years, has seen this potential in Bitcoin to really revolutionize the way we treat money and revolutionize the way we do payments online, they’re really capitalizing on that idea, as you said to separate people from their money.
I think what’s really unique about this whole ecosystem and Bitcoin, in particular, is the fact that there’s this thing that we call the rabbit hole where once somebody starts to learn about Bitcoin, if it picks their interest at all, then they get to a certain point where they start to dig into it and research it and maybe they’ll stay up a few nights in a row just researching and researching how far down the rabbit hole people actually go is another conversation. It really is just a compelling unification of so many different ideas and challenges in society, ultimately, that seem to be answered by a very, very elegant and simple solution.
[00:30:25] Patrick: Before we part ways here, I want to talk about blockchain and I want to be specific about it and ask you a big annoying question, which is, [laughs] “What should community pros know about blockchain?”
[00:30:42] Eric: That’s an absolutely great question, let me think about that for a second before I answer it because I feel like I should have a very good answer for this one.
[00:30:49] Patrick: To give you time to think, when you Google blockchain and you see what it is, it’s a distributed ledger system. Right? It’s a system for communication and transactions that is decentralized and, therefore, more trustworthy. That’s sort of what you get when you Google blockchain. I think that looking at specific applications is really interesting. So again, community pros, what should they know?
[00:31:10] Eric: I think one of the most valuable things that a blockchain can provide is the ability to verify published information without having to trust any particular party. Most of us as maybe online community managers, we have a domain, and a forum, and a chatroom maybe. What a blockchain can provide is the ability for any participant in a community to know that something is true based on when it was published and all of the other people that have verified that information.
The other thing that I think people should realize is that we are super early in the development and proliferation of what that particular application means. In the case of Bitcoin, it’s money. In the case of digital publishing, it may mean artists’ rights, it may mean individual copyrights on posts that are made in your community.
Ultimately, to answer with a third item, it allows individuals to connect with one another in a much more transparent fashion which allows and generates much more trust between your community and can link your community together in ways that I think, I don’t know that have necessarily been possible or it certainly would have been much more difficult until now.
[00:32:34] Patrick: As you say, we’re early, really early here, so are there any tools out there that are built on a blockchain or blockchain-related tools or something you’re working on that is relevant for community pros? Or is it really totally just like– it’s a buzzword, you hear a lot about it but it needs to be developed further? Like it’s still being explored, those applications out there?
Sometimes I think there’s a need to want to adopt something that may not make sense just because it is the thing of the moment and you want to appear to be on the cutting edge of something, but that’s also a pretty dangerous thing. So is there anything out there right now that people who actually run true online communities should be looking at or thinking about?
[00:33:15] Eric: It really is very early, there are a number of projects, including one of my own, Fabric, that attempts to provide a simpler interface for the power of this technology. However, because this is such a radical change from previous paradigms, it is going to take a little bit longer perhaps than some of the other paradigm shifts, including the Social Web and Web 2.0 and even the dot-com bubble. I think this is perhaps a 20 to 30-year process of adoption.
I think we’ll start to see more successful projects that are more tailored towards widespread communities start to come out over the next couple of years, so it’s something worth paying attention to, and perhaps even supporting Bitcoin-based payments, maybe even paying attention to the Lightning Network.
One last thing that I would really recommend is enabling user to user tipping. That has been extremely successful for us because it allows the individual users to show their gratitude and appreciation for one another. That’s something that, up until now, has really been difficult. You have to use these official karma points or various tools and mechanisms, whereas, with digital currency, you have the ability to actually transfer real value to show your gratitude and appreciation.
As I said, it’s super early, definitely, keep your finger on the pulse of it and be mindful of the many, many ICO-type proliferators out there who want to perhaps separate individuals from their money. I think that’s about it.
[00:34:56] Patrick: Yes, that sounds like good advice. Before we hit the show, we were talking and you highlighted, again, Bitcoin is about money. Money is sort of the easy use case to point to right now, but there are many communities that have, for as long as we’ve been doing it and longer, tried to implement various, as you say, tipping systems and the systems in place are prohibitive to small numbers.
This is something you said before the show as well, PayPal has minimum fees that it eats out of that too per transaction. PayPal was sort of, I don’t know, to my mind as someone who has used the internet for 20 years, PayPal was the first sort of like, “Wow, with PayPal we can spend money over the internet.” But then, if you want to send like 50 cents or a dollar, like you’re really only sending 60 cents or 25 cents, depending on how much you’re actually sending.
Where with this type of, I think it’ll probably come in the way of a plugin for community software as sort of the easy way to get into the door. I think there’s one for Discourse that’s at least in development or finished, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one for other mature community platforms out there, that integrates some sort of Bitcoin-based tipping currency exchange so that you can tip the person who helped you with your PC problem.
I’m sure there’s PC support forums where this is already going on, I just don’t know them, but that is a really kind of good, simple way to enable a feature that maybe users want, that can build on a trust-release system and not have to use something that really discourages them from making small transactions.
[00:36:26] Eric: Yes, on exactly that point, community managers really should pay attention, not only to Bitcoin, but to the Lightning Network, which is a very exciting system being built on top of Bitcoin by a wide array of companies, developers, individuals, to basically perform sub-cent payments instantaneously. That’s the whole idea, it’s a concept called a payment channel, and I won’t bore everybody with the technical details, but we can make payments today in effect a millionth of a penny, and that’s something that just simply is completely unsupported by existing payment gateways like PayPal and Venmo and all the various tools that we have out there.
In fact, if you wanted to do that on your local database, that would probably be fairly difficult. The Lightning Network is the most promising payment system that’s being built on top of Bitcoin today, and Bitcoin, as the most sophisticated digital currency in existence, I’m really positive on what it holds for the future and looking at it as a significant investment for community managers looking to connect their users over the exchange of value.
[00:37:40] Patrick: Last question. When we were talking before the show, you gave, I found it to be an interesting dialogue about the hype of blockchain and so I wanted to ask you, because I talk about community with people and I often say like, “Okay, you shouldn’t have a community, do something else. [laughs] Based upon what you want to spend time-wise and your timeframe of how long you think that should be.” Like, “This isn’t right for you or this tool isn’t right for you.” Similarly, what should we not be looking at blockchain for? What should we not be looking at blockchain to change or a place or to turn to?
[00:38:11] Eric: I’ll flip that question around and I’ll give you one good answer of what blockchain does provide. I will tell everyone to be extremely skeptical of anything that claims to use blockchain to solve a problem that’s outside of this. Blockchains are very good at solving the censorship problem. For example, in the case of Bitcoin, Bitcoin is a censorship-proof money and that’s the one use case that it seems to be good at.
Any time you hear the phrase, “What do you think of blockchain?” and you don’t put a definite article in front of it, chances are it’s going to be one of the people that are excited about the hype and the excitement of the phrase, but really, just replace that word, replace the word blockchain with the word database and see if it makes any sense. If it doesn’t make any sense, then it probably isn’t a very good use case because what a blockchain is is a highly inefficient database.
In the case of Bitcoin, it’s used for money but it’s inefficient but it solves a problem of eliminating censorship by eliminating central authorities. If you hear something that isn’t really focused on the elimination of censorship, it’s most likely not a very good use case for blockchains.
[00:39:37] Patrick: Eric, this has been super helpful, I have enjoyed the conversation very much. Thank you for making time for us, staying up late at night in Berlin.
[00:39:47] Eric: [laughs] Absolutely, Patrick. Hey, it’s been a blast. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
[00:39:52] Patrick: We have been talking with Eric Martindale, founder of Fabric at fabric.pub and the RPG community at roleplaygateway.com. Follow him on Twitter @martindale. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. See you in the next episode.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.
Thank you for listening to Community Signal.