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How Communities Die
Usually at the hands of mops, not sociopaths
Housekeeping: We’ve just launched a new podcast with Byrne Hobart called “The Riff”. Byrne is a mix of Matt Levine, Tyler Cowen, and Ben Thompson. In other words, a must-listen/read. Check it out and give us 5 stars if you like it.
David Chapman’s “Mops, Geeks, and Sociopaths” is a theory of how communities deteriorate. In his telling, geeks (creators and fans) make a community “cool”, contributing to it out of the love of the game, and then mops (normies) come in to enjoy the scene.
In theory, there’s a symbiotic relationship between all involved. As David writes, creators generate cultural capital (i.e cool), fans generate social capital (network of relationships), and mops generate liquid capital (i.e money that subsidizes the scene). But too many mops causes problems, mainly because they free-ride off the geeks and offer little to the community. David Chapman explains:
“However, as mop numbers grow, they become a headache. Fanatics do all the organizational work, initially just on behalf of geeks: out of generosity, and to enjoy a geeky subsociety. They put on events, build websites, tape up publicity fliers, and deal with accountants. Mops just passively soak up the good stuff.4
Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.”
But the community isn’t truly dead, according to Chapman, until sociopaths emerge, who pretend to be geeks but take advantage of the mops. Think SBF and crypto/EA, who claimed to be a geek but was actually a sociopath.
“After a couple years, the cool is all used up: partly because the New Thing is no longer new, and partly because it was diluted into New Lite, which is inherently uncool. As the mops dwindle, the sociopaths loot whatever value is left, and move on to the next exploit. They leave behind only wreckage: devastated geeks who still have no idea what happened to their wonderful New Thing and the wonderful friendships they formed around it. (Often the geeks all end up hating each other, due first to the stress of supporting mops, and later due to sociopath divide-and-conquer manipulation tactics.)”
So, to summarize Chapman’s theory again: a community is started by geeks, who then bring mops as fans, who then entice sociopaths to pretend to be geeks to sell stuff to mops but instead use the community for their own ends, spoiling the purity of the community.
I think that cycle sometimes happens, but I think it’s more common for a community not to be ruined by sociopaths, but rather too many mops, whose mere presence taints the community and the brand for everyone else.
Note the brand part. That’s key. Because while you can ignore the mops as a member of the community, you can’t ignore the stench they leave on the brand, and by extension the brand has on their reputation. Because remember, people join communities and follow brands partly because they want to associate with what that community or brand says about them. They are joining to be associated with their aspirational peer set, but they’re also joining to disassociate from people who are not worthy of their peer-set. The communities or brands people join or follow signal just as much who they are as who they are *not*. If the community or brand expands to include people they don’t see as their peer-set, a.k.a mops, they will leave the community in protest. Not only will they leave, but they’ll openly defect by disassociating. Whereas once they were a part, now they are actively *not* a part of. When a community or brand “jumped the shark”, that means let in too many mops. Not that the mops mess with their experience, since they can often ignore them, but they mess with the community’s brand, which is off-limits.
This is why colleges will never expand their class size. They instinctively understand that the value of the brand comes from its exclusivity and differentiation — from keeping mops out. I used to think this was just limited to communities that have explicit credentials (e.g. universities), but now I know it also applies to most communities or brands more broadly. After all, the same dynamics apply for other brands that have nothing to do with credentials, whether it’s an event (Burning Man) or a book (Sapiens). As soon as normies/mops flood, the geeks leave in droves, lest they be associated with mops.
I didn’t appreciate how widespread this is. Often a brand is disliked not because of what it does directly, but because its fans are perceived as annoying or lame. Similarly, a brand (or person) is sometimes liked because their *detractors* are annoying or lame. Someone's affinity here is more about signaling what kind of person they are *not*, less so about the substance of the underlying brand/person. Which is why it's really important to have the right first early adopters (or detractors), because once established, it can be hard to change. Picking the wrong fans can have significant costs, and the right enemies significant gain. Which is why so many people/communities pretending to be inclusive are actually extremely exclusive (i.e. avoiding the wrong fans as a retention strategy), and why there are so many people trying to take down brands/people who are perceived as annoying/lame (i.e. picking the right enemy as a growth strategy).
Looking at web3 and crypto as an example can be illustrative. Early adopters included Austrian economists, meat-headed libertarians, and nerdy cryptographers. Then, it got flooded with hucksters and beautiful people respectively, who brought different, uh, energy to the space.
Randi Zuckerberg singing about crypto was definitely the top.
Now, it just so happened that crypto was “nerd-first” and then more attractive and cool people followed along (whereas sometimes the cool people lead the movements rather than follow them). Nonetheless, the followers often didn’t represent the reasons that brought the nerds together in the first place, and thus the industry, while it grew significantly in dollars and people, also diluted its core message and appeal besides making money.
Now, in parallel, the sociopaths started to emerge, and they looked and talked like the geeks. The biggest of them all was SBF, who leveraged the spiritual and financial power of crypto to build one of the biggest crypto companies in the world, netting himself a $32B company in just 3 years, only to engage in fraud where he used customer money to further bet on shitcoins. He didn’t believe in the underlying principles of crypto, he was mostly there to make a quick buck to support the movement he actually did believe in (Effective Altruism), which we’ll get to momentarily. When FTX collapsed, trust in crypto for many collapsed along with it.
Although paradoxically, the FTX collapse might be a great long-term boon to the crypto space, because it allows the industry to reset. Sociopaths and mops are leaving in droves, and the geeks can rebuild the space’s credibility and spirit from the ground up and develop deeper roots and credibility for having stayed.
Let’s look at another community SBF hit, the Effective Altruism (EA) community. EA has lost a ton of credibility after SBF, since, unlike web3, he was an EA true believer, or at least he claimed to be for years, and had put up the work and money to prove it. SBF was using crypto to make money, and he wanted to use the money to promote the ideals of Effective Altruism.
But the truth is EA wasn’t primarily tainted by SBF. It was tainted long before SBF. It’s not that sociopaths ruined EA. You know who did? Mops. People who joined just because it was cool. EA had jumped the shark. It became mainstream. It’s not only that they got infested with status seeking sociopaths. They got infested with mild-mannered mops who weren’t *true believers* like the geeks who started it.
Take anything that was once cool and now is uncool. Wokeness for example. Jack Dorsey once dawned a #staywoke t-shirt and at the time it was edgy. Now those same true believers are embarrassed to admit they’re woke. Why? Because the mops embraced it. Sociopaths adopted wokeness too, but that’s not why it’s uncool. It’s uncool because mops flooded in droves. Those same people who embraced it just a few years later became anti-woke. One instantiation of that, The Intellectual Dark Web, developed so much momentum that the mops flooded the anti-woke scene too, making anti-wokeness deeply uncool in the process! The mops literally turned the Intellectual Dark Web into The Intellectual Dork Web. And this, like so many other mop invasions, had the geeks leaving again. Beliefs are fashions and ideological tribes are like night clubs — the cool people have to keep finding that next new club to escape the uncool people following them. For example see Richard Hanania’s most controversial post, why the media is honest and good. He’s counter counter-signaling. He can't be associated with these mops who love the media or the mops who hate the people who love the media, so he’s carving out his own lane, always outrunning the mops.
In order for movements to endure, they need to be either deliberately exclusive like universities — but cloak it in some greater aim like egalitarianism — or obscurely exclusive just by being hard to understand. Stanford accepts some clout seekers but it excludes orders of magnitude more on a deep fundamental level. It says they are not good enough.
That’s why crypto/web3 was cool initially — People were seeking new frontiers, not only to innovate, but also to separate themselves from normies. You’re supposed to never acknowledge any of this, but it’s true. Inclusivity in the streets, exclusivity in the sheets. Even the very idea of people engaging in this hypocrisy is frustrating to people who’d rather just do it discreetly by attending Ivy League universities and racking up all sorts of exclusive affiliations meant to subtly separate themselves from the masses.
This is actually happening with religion too. Mops flooded religion, so then cool people fled it to become atheist. But then so many mops became atheists too, so now cool people are fleeing to religion.
How do you know if you have too many mops? David Chapman writes:
“The optimal mop:geek ratio is maybe 6:1. At that ratio, the mops provide more energy than they consume. A ratio above about 10:1 becomes unworkable; it’s a recipe for burnout among supporting fanatics. Ideally, the ratio could be controlled. I think few subcultures understand this imperative, and I’m not sure how it could be done even if one did understand. Mops move in herds. Usually either there are only a few, or their numbers quickly grow too large.”
So, if you want your community or brand to be high status, find a subtle way to exclude mops, perhaps by raising prices, like Apple. Or be obscure to them so they can’t find you.
If you want to create something for *everyone*, you either need to make something so useful that cool people will dig it anyway even if mops join it. Then you’re not in the community or brand game, you’re in the utility game. Another approach is just to lean into being for mops all the way. Just own it, don't even try to appeal to the hipsters. Alienate hipsters so much that some cool people might join in to counter-counter signal.
Zooming out, I don’t want to reduce people to these labels (normies/mops, geeks, sociopaths) or see the world this way — I’d rather choose to see us all as something like God’s children ;) — but if you’re building a community or brand, it helps to understand this on an intuitive level, and then forget all of it when you’re interacting with people more regularly. Normie? What’s that. Live Laugh Love ❤️
In summary, all communities have a growth-maturation-death cycle, but some die prematurely at the hand of mops and never see the sociopath stage, while others are wrung to death by sociopaths. Careful mop management might allow communities to live longer and reach their fullest potential, or at least advance to the sociopath stage. This is the way most movements end, not with a (sociopath) bang, but with a (mop) whimper.
Thanks to David and Nadia and my other friend for reviewing