In late November 2021, the writer and venture capital investor Li Jin tweeted, “DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) represent the next step forward in the labor movement.” In her 20-tweet thread, Jin gave a brief history of the American labor movement, including issues with declining membership, bureaucracy, and bloat, before pivoting to DAOs as a new paradigm for worker ownership: “Versus unions, transparency of DAOs’ governance and on-chain flows of capital lessens risk of embezzlement and corruption, since there is visibility into how funds are flowing into & out of the treasury. And open rules for member admission mitigate institutional discrimination.” The response from many leftists on Twitter was swift and negative, reacting to the perceived implication that technology—cryptocurrency especially—could be a substitute for political and social change.
Black Socialists in America reacted with consternation for another reason: The group is already working on this technology and hasn’t received much support from the crypto community. Its Dual Power App is a tool for decentralized digital organizing and securely coordinating collective ownership of housing, health care, or banking assets.
As the cryptocurrency investor and influencer Cooper Turley defined them, “DAOs are Internet communities with a shared cap table and bank account.” A cap table is the spreadsheet that tracks equity and ownership in a business. In a DAO, this ownership is registered through token-based governance rather than in shares of stock. DAOs are different from cooperatives, because they exist on the blockchain—a ledger of transactions that publicly records every time cryptocurrency changes hands. DAOs are part of a new collection of Internet structures called “Web3,” which includes virtual environments, digital art known as “nonfungible tokens” (NFTs), and cryptocurrencies. I think Jin was wrong about unions: If you are working in the digital economy, you should still organize your workplace—but you should also join a DAO.
In 2018, I was a founding member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division of the National Writers Union dedicated to improving the lives of gig workers in the media world. I also cofounded a media company called Dirt, which until recently was entirely funded by NFTs and is cited as one of the first efforts to form a media DAO. We’ve distributed tokens that will soon allow their holders to steer the work that Dirt publishes.
Journalists are an especially promising case study for the future of DAO-based digital work, because journalists prefer to be steered by other journalists and not by outside capital. Qualified individuals could purchase or be given tokens that have value on the blockchain and enable proportional governance of the DAO. They can vote on which projects to fund while still maintaining editorial independence and their own ethical standards, as codified in the DAO. Because of the smart contracts governing DAOs, money is immediately distributed once a vote is complete—no more invoicing for payment.
Here’s a brief sketch of Web3 incentives for journalists as I see it, viewed from the perspective of the past few decades of media disruption. The dot-com boom and bubble started in 1995. Journalists who saw the opportunity might have gotten involved, but the bottom hadn’t yet fallen out of magazines and newspapers. By the 2008 recession, the media was in trouble. Some journalists might have chosen to join the social technology “gold rush,” but the pitch to them wasn’t to become financial stakeholders in Facebook; it was to use Facebook’s tools to promote their work for free. Next came the so-called pivot to video—the elimination of reporting jobs in favor of video jobs built on faulty metrics that didn’t translate into revenue.
People have been saying that media companies are technology companies for a long time. But the incentives for individual media workers to get involved are only now coming to fruition.
DAOs aren’t a substitute for free child care, universal health care, or student loan forgiveness—in fact, all those things would strengthen both union and DAO participation. But they can be a powerful tool to fund creative projects together: no banks, no overhead, and no disparities in the geographical ability to participate.
In his essay “Notes on Web3,” Robin Sloan writes, “I think Web3 is propelled by exhaustion as much as by excitement.” It’s not enough to ask media workers, “What do you have to lose?” It is incumbent on DAO evangelists to outline what can be gained. To me, that means cooperation and coexistence between the labor movement and new paradigms of digital work. I think we should all dual-card.