This past weekend I spoke at and attended FWB Fest, hosted by the social DAO Friends With Benefits, at an arts high school campus in the beautiful mountains of Southern California. The event was quite special, and raised some very interesting questions about where things might go from here. Here are ten impressions from the first Friends With Benefits Festival.

The good

01 It felt like internet heaven. Surrounded by people I knew IRL and online in a space that was special enough and safe enough where you could merge your main and alt and be yourself without the need for social anxiety, it felt like a giant destination wedding, a temporary family that lasts only for a moment.

02 The setting made a big difference. Held at an Arts School in Idyllwild, California, high in the mountains above the desert, with no cell reception and astonishing nature and tree groves all around. It felt connected to the land. It felt part of some deeper time (a temporal depth field, to quote Venkatesh Rao, quoted to me by Other Internet’s Aaron Lewis).

03 People — shockingly — weren’t on their phones very much. Because of the lack of reception there was little reward, and for a lot of us probably the people we would’ve been talking to online were actually there in front of us. Instead people were always talking with each other. If you needed alone time you walked into nature or got lost in the beautiful parachutes hanging over the amphitheater. But not the phone.

04 The musical programming was exceptional. Standouts included: James Blake solo on the piano, covering Frank Ocean, dealing with sound issues with kindness, and showing true warmth to the audience. Pure magic. Also: Julianna Barwick, Sudan Archives, and Pussy Riot.

05 You can tell a lot about who a group of people are by what kind of events they throw and what kinds of people they attract. I was extremely impressed by the experience and felt it was a real demonstration of how much heart and soul are present in FWB and how much talent and care there is in the group from the leadership on out.

The unexpected

06 There was zero crypto flash, crypto cringe, anything at all like that. The space, the people, the conversations, were all heart. There was a sincere feeling of fellowship that zero percent resembles every preconception I have about crypto. Compared to the experience of, say, ETHDenver, this felt like going to the Getty Museum with a giant group of friends and lots of great music.

07 How much are people interested in going to events versus being interested in the governance, design, and decision-making about how the group functions? As you might expect, the number of people who just want to hang out and enjoy is significantly larger than the people who are interested in the more nitty gritty, as was evidenced by a very sparse attendance at a “Community Jam” event where attendees were invited to discuss the future of FWB. It was a late addition to the schedule, but several people remarked on how few people showed up and the questions that raises about what it means to be a DAO.

08  The “Required Reading” talk format was especially effective. The format was: here’s a topic that’s been identified by a handful of community curators, who then identify five articles to read to get context on the area of discussion. Then, a wider group gathers to have an open, guided conversation exploring the space. There were three of these: one on social justice, which was great, one on the future of NFTs, which was packed and very interesting, and one on what’s after crypto, which I cohosted along with Austin Robey and Eileen Isagon Skyers. We had extended dialogues in giant circles that everyone wished could have gone on longer. This is a great format to explore and go even deeper with.

09 Someone made a bootleg t-shirt for the festival and was selling them by hand. By the time we found the guy he was sold out, but it was pretty amazing to see: when have you gone to a festival and seen the merch get forked before it even begins?

The lingering question

10 What does it mean to be a member of FWB?

I became a member during the pandemic by buying a specified number of tokens, however I’ve never been active on their Discord (which I find overwhelming). I have now attended two events and I’m glad to be a member, but I also don’t really feel like a member in any deep way, nor am I especially interested in doing so. I don’t want to be part of any decision making. I trust in the wisdom of the people who have been making decisions to date — it’s ultimately why I joined!

My instinct is that most members would put themselves in this bucket, and that maybe something like 5-10% want to step forward to make contributions to the operations and goals of the group in some form. In one sense this feels out of step with the reputation of what a DAO is “supposed to be,” which assumes a desired future of pure, 100% collective cooperation.

But I also found myself wondering whether this ratio of operators/governance participations to members is similar to what might have been found in past social institutions like bowling leagues, rotary societies, 4-H clubs and others. Is this, in some sense, how social institutions like this have always been run, with a 10-1 participant-to-worker ratio?

Now social institutions like these have been in decline, especially as a result of media and technological forces, so this feels like a return of an important spirit that has been drifting away. Compared to the hierarchies and capital-focus of our workplaces, the FWB energy is very different. But maybe rather than being brand new, it most strongly echoes dynamics we’ve seen before and that have served past generations well. Something doesn’t have to be new to be worth celebrating.

So, taking all of this into account, what does it mean to be a member of FWB?

Is FWB a membership club with a one-time lifetime membership dues?

Is FWB an experiment in active culture creation that includes a Discord, but also includes high-production events, the release of useful products for other groups like theirs to use, with further cultural experiments and products?

Is FWB a metalabel where the community is one of their cultural products, but there are others too?

My instinct tells me this is a big question for FWB to answer. But so long as FWB stays focused on manifesting meaningful cultural experiences, I’m going to keep coming back to hear what they have to say.