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From one to many: Self-governed communities in three steps

I think there is merit in being part of a community for a cause. The cause can be anything, from a hobby to a societal issue. Sometimes the creation of the community just springs out of conversations and shared values. Some other times it starts in the mind of one person. How do we start from that One person’s thought and end up in a community of shared ownership?

We might unconsciously associate communities with grassroots movements and democratic governance but this doesn’t have to be the case. Not all communities are democratic and many times it’s hard to say whether one is.

For this text, though, let’s assume we aim for democratic self-governance. The hard question we aspire to answer is how we start with One founder and end up with many collective owners while also being a sustainably self-managed group of people.

Step 1: Get people hyped

The cause drives the community. The One is firstly part of the cause. This cause will probably already have some established gathering places (virtual or IRL) in some form or another.

Even though our economy is competitive, our communities can only survive through cooperation. Interdependence is crucial and through that network communities can flourish. Being as independent as possible is considered important for survival yet I have found out that it’s usually the opposite that happens. However much independence a community has, it’s impossible to survive; it is through dependencies to other communities (through the edges of a graph) that make the the communities themselves (the nodes of the graph) more powerful.

This is why I think it’s an important first step for the first One to join these communities and their gatherings. This can mean a number of things in reality. Maybe the cause organises on Facebook Groups or through meetups. Or maybe they are under another umbrella cause or organisation. Whatever the case, this is where One starts.

To illustrate further, maybe:

  • The cause is about fixed gear bicycles, and the gathering square for many is at a specific bike shop.
  • The cause is about helping refugees in a city and people coordinate through Facebook Groups.
  • The cause is about functional programming and there is a meetup group that organises presentations every month.

Once One has joined the existing communities, they can connect with them and share their vision. This is what gets people hyped. On our examples above:

  • “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a fixed gear bicycle race in the streets of our city?”
  • “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually provide shelter to the newly homeless refugees?”
  • “Wouldn’t it be great if we had more people write in functional languages and subsequently raise the quality of our libraries?”

Once people are hyped, they are ready to dedicate themselves for the cause. They are ready to spend a few hours per week or per month to realise this awesome vision that was conceived and shared with them.

Step 2: Share ownership

Once there are some additional members, the first thing the One will notice is that this is the One’s thing. It’s their baby. They made it an entity and the fellow associates try to improve it. Some may contribute a bit, others more, but maybe no one as much as the first One. This is a crucial point. It’s when the One might want to share ownership. In this way, the One actively shows to the associates who believed in them and followed them that this is their baby too. The babyness metamorphoses into a distributed essence.

In order for the One to share ownership, they need to actually share the ownership. Hand the keys to the associates, whether those are login credentials or actual keys of an office; or maybe adding them as directors in a limited company. Convince them with actions that it’s their baby too.

In my experience from the past decade, people embrace that. They respect it and do not betray it.

To judge whether the ownership sharing process was successful is to ask whether the concept of the One within the community has died.

Once that’s done the community will be entering—among other things—a spiral of informal and formal ceremonies. The formal ones are usually the essence of the community. For example:

  • Cycling communities go for bike rides. Maybe every Friday at 9pm. That's the formal ceremony. But some evenings, people gather at the aforementioned bike shop and talk and drink beers. This is where they schedule the bike rides. This is the informal ceremony.
  • Refugee Facebook groups donate food and clothes and help refugees. They have a weekly meeting where they gather all the food and clothes and deliver them to the shelter (formal ceremony). Everyday at lunch and afternoons, they learn about the news of the cause, think of new ways to help and share views (informal ceremonies).
  • Programming communities do meetups or hackathons or conferences. They have scheduled events (formal ceremonies) or casual hangouts offline or online (informal ceremonies).

It’s a spiral because it’s a cycle yet also slightly different every time. There is progress to it. There is a certain directionality, which is hopefully towards improvement.

Once these ceremonies are set, they are hard to change. They become part of the culture of the community. This is important to be aware of in case of the ceremonies not being nice.

Even though ceremonies are processes, they are not explicit processes. They are implicit processes and this is the reason that they are not enough to fight inherent entropy.

Step 3: Establish processes

To tackle inherent entropy, a community needs processes—the explicit kind.

These are the boring bits which if not existent, the harder it will be to keep the community from withering away. It will also not be obvious the community needs processes until too late. Thus, they need to be set early. Too early and people will lose their enthusiasm from the bureaucracy; too late and they won’t be bothered to participate at all.

These processes establish the community, like a ship sailing on its own. They need to include answers to things like:

  • How do we get new members?
  • How do we introduce new projects?
  • How do we make decisions collectively?
  • What kind is our entity towards others, such as the city, other communities, the government?
  • What are some of the values we share and actualise in this community?
  • How do we handle disagreements?

Furthermore, it should be noted that in this balance of processes that needs to be achieved, there is another factor that usually causes derailment. Arguing for the point of arguing and not for the point of practical progress. Some people are more susceptible than others in this, but in general, there needs to be active re-evaluation of the scope of the processes.

“What if someone evil comes and decides to do a hostile takeover of our community?”

The above is an example of a question that tends to extend the scope of process definition infinitely. My advice is to contain these kind of discussions, either temporally (eg. timebox them) or by their cardinality (designate a working group of a few people to figure it out).

The general rule is to create processes for the current people and the current problems. Beyond that, it can wait.

Now, to provide an opinion to the question above, I think the balance is between shielding old members and sharing ownership with the new. If you shield too much, then you’re less democratic and new members are not as genuine members. If you share ownership too much, then it’s easier for new members to change the community faster than the community’s culture has got to them. I generally vote sharing ownership more and risking takeovers as—usually—moving into a new community is easy enough.


Democracy is hard, but I think it’s worth it. Especially for communities which usually begin with volunteer work, democracy is both of vital importance and—sometimes surprisingly—the default form it starts with. In addition to that, the less people there are, the easier democracy is to implement. For instance, in a city or country level implementing democracy is orders of magnitude harder. Thus, if one values democracy, it’s worth practising it in a small community.

The crucial thing to accept in these kind of communities is that this is everyone’s baby and that ownership only exists as shared ownership. Even though one started it, or one has made the most significant contribution, or one fights for it more, it’s still fair and possible for that person to be voted out tomorrow. Avoiding that is definitely an objective, but accepting it is the key. This acceptance is what solidifies the distributed ownership.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

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