Money is not the ultimate reward — connections and culture are
Social and Cultural Capital grow slowly but last long
To feed the next bull run, crypto rewards have to shift from “fast-food” to “slow-food-rewards”
“We will just hand out money — and they will come.”
That was my friend’s reaction to my question about how she wants to attract users to her DeFi protocol.
Rewards are fuel for the fire. They are candy for the brain. They attract users and entice them to stay. Most importantly, they are one of Web3’s core features.
Unfortunately, my friend's answer illustrates today’s common sense. Most think that handing out money does the trick for acquiring users. But that’s a problem — because it doesn’t. While rewards done right create positive feedback loops for growth, rewards done wrong are a death sentence for products and communities.
Apart from a product’s utility, capital is arguably the most powerful reward. But capital has many more shades beyond just money.
With the goal of creating better guidelines for those who design crypto rewards, this article builds upon the theory of someone who has been analyzing capital for a longer time than the existence of crypto — sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
First, we will take a deep dive into the three different types of capital that drive social interactions. Then, we’ll use Bourdieu’s framework to draw a clearer picture of the different types of rewards in Web3. Finally, we’ll derive reward strategies for builders.
When most people think of capital, they think of money or assets. But according to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), these are just one reward dimension. In his analysis, there are three main types of capital: economic, social, and cultural.
Let’s start with the type of capital we are most familiar with: economic capital. According to Bourdieu, this entails everything that can be converted directly into money, such as fiat and precious metals. It can also come in the form of property rights that pay dividends, like an apartment or stocks. It’s what you pay taxes on and put on your balance sheet. It’s the most liquid version of capital. Economic capital can be easily transferred to other people.
Social capital is the value one can derive from one’s connections. Social capital answers the questions: who do you know? What potential circles do you have access to because of your social position? It is recognition within a group, plus the recognition from those who are not part of it. Social capital manifests itself through emotions such as gratitude, solidarity, respect, and friendship.
Another facet of social capital is membership. It’s a perk for being a member of a group. Membership is about exclusivity; there are others who are not members. And there are barriers to entry that make it more difficult for others to join. These barriers themselves come in the form of different types of capital. For example, when you have to pay for becoming part of a country club, you have to pay a fee (economic capital). Cultural capital (more on this later) is at play when we need certifications in order to join a certain group. For example, doctors need certifications to become part of the “club of doctors.” Social capital opens doors, too, such as when a club requires potential members to provide recommendations. We all are multi-membership-holders: being an adult; an artist; an employee; a family member. Each membership equips one with the credibility of the respective group.
Exclusivity is a must to preserve the group’s social capital. That’s also the case for “inclusive” groups. There is a huge interest by the existing group members to carefully design the barriers as every new entry can either grow or destroy the group's social capital. Imagine you could simply pay to join the “club of doctors” and start treating people.
Defending the social capital of a group — such as families, nations, parties, clubs, or associations — is in particular the job of elected leaders who hold concentrated social capital because the group members have delegated individual decision power into their hands.
Social Capital is the reason why referrals and recommendations work. We intuitively trust the recommendations of friends and experts, because we know that their social capital will take a hit if the information is bad.
Two more quick bites from Bourdieu:
Social capital has a strong multiplier effect. The better a person’s connections, the more powerful their money. For example, the stronger an investor’s network, the better she will find unique ways to deploy it. And, social capital deteriorates over time, which is why we have to cultivate contacts. You might be able to buy lifelong membership for the country club — but it won’t yield the same dividends if you never show up.
The third type identified by Bourdieu is cultural capital which is made up of material and immaterial assets that enable a person to navigate social life, access groups, and manifest status. Cultural capital comes in three flavors: the embodied state, the objectified state, and the institutionalized state.
The embodied state means something went literally into someone’s body. It’s external wealth invested into self-improvement. This includes physical exercise, skills, knowledge, education, schooling, in addition to symbolic assets like taste and manners. It takes a long time to embody cultural capital, and its effects are long-lasting. Once we learn a skill, we continue to profit from it over and over again. At the same time, low cultural capital such as bad manners can make it hard for a person to find friends and build healthy relationships. Cultural capital in the embodied state has to be earned. It’s bound to its bearer. No one can go to the gym for you. No one can learn for you.
In contrast, cultural capital in the objectified state is transferable. Do you wear dAppcon shirts or Patagonia Vests? Do you go to work by SUV or public transport? Do you eat Oreos or organic food? Cultural goods such as clothes, pictures, books, instruments, and machines are cultural capital available for sale.
Lastly, the institutionalized state is certified cultural capital. Do you have a high school or doctorate degree? In these cases, an entire institution attests to your skills. The scarcer the qualification, the higher the potential to yield a profit. Institutions have to make sure that such certifications are earned and not bought. Otherwise, the value of the certificate itself becomes diluted. If it can be bought, it’s not worth anything.
Ok, we have learned that “cash rules everything around me” is NOT true. Connections and culture rule society, too. But which type of capital is most important?
When we try to decide which type of capital to optimize for, it turns out that everyday life asks us to leverage all types of capital to reach our goals. And each comes with different qualities. Money is quick, but social and cultural capital have longer-lasting effects.
Let’s look at how we use several types of capital to master a challenge of daily life — entering a techno club that has a strict door policy.
First, how do you pass the bouncers? Do you have the right look? This (objectified) cultural capital signals that you understand the cultural code inside. Another way to enter is by using your social capital. Do you know someone higher in the hierarchy? Then have them put you on the guest list. This will give you a harsh discount on what you need to wear and how to behave at the door. (If you have really good connections you could basically rock up naked). If you do make it to the ticket desk, it’s time to pay money (economic capital). Now, cultural capital probably won’t help you to get a discount. However, social capital could, if your spot on the guest list allows you free entry.
Economic capital is fast food. Social and cultural capital are slow food. While economic capital can be yielded quickly from social capital (e.g. getting credit because of your connections) and from cultural capital (e.g. selling your knowledge for money), buying cultural and social capital instead of earning it is either impossible or can yield counterproductive results. Another example: I can use money to buy a second-hand hoodie and yoga pants (objectified cultural capital) to look like Vitalik. However, this does not turn me into Vitalik. Acquiring his knowledge (cultural capital) and connections (social capital) would take more than a lifetime for me. Buying cultural capital could even turn into a very bad scenario: if hard-core ETH members see that I just copy Vitalik’s look without having earned my stripes, they will unmask me as a fake.
Similarly, it’s obvious that sending 1 BTC to a stranger won’t make them your friend. You can’t buy social capital. And if you try, the connection won’t have the same qualities as what we understand as friendship.
Society rewards us more for spending time than money. You can buy a T-shirt from dAppcon, but you can only build social connections from it if you have been there. Personalizing gifts is perceived as more valuable than just sending Amazon vouchers because of the additional time a person spends on another person.
The slow accumulation of cultural and social capital comes with a strong side effect: you can spend it multiple times. Money can only be spent once. On the contrary, social and cultural capital, grow with each use. That’s why, according to Bourdieu, multigeneration dynasties are not built on cash but on connections and culture.
Now that we have an understanding of how the three types of capital drive social interactions it’s time to explore their role in Web3.
Let’s map crypto rewards to the threefold model. This will show that economic capital is relatively well established, whereas we’re just starting to develop crypto rewards that live up to the potential of building social and cultural capital.
Crypto is well-suited to build economic capital. Starting with Bitcoin, which is economic capital in its purest form, economic capital is crypto’s best-developed paradigm.
We can count widespread utility tokens to economic capital. In order to not be classified as a security, Web3 projects are going all in to argue that they are not distributing money to users. Brave Browser claims that its BAT token “is not a digital currency, it is a utility token.” Talent network Braintrust argues that its token is not money but more like a voucher for offerings. Decentralized hedge fund Numer.ai distributes NMR to contributors. If Pierre Bourdieu headed the SEC, these projects would have a hard time. Even if some of these tokens are needed to facilitate on-chain utility, at the end of the day, they are very quickly exchangeable for fiat — and thus, closer to economic capital.
Property rights, a subtype of Economic Capital, are covered by the world of NFTs, where protocols such as Nina enable creators to earn royalties on secondary sales for a lifetime.
Let’s look at social capital in Web3. Bourdieu explained social capital in terms of connections, membership, and delegation of power.
Crypto rewards that model or empower stronger connections to other people are still nascent. Reputation points on leaderboards have been a popular tool to describe social ranks in crypto environments, but they are one-dimensional. Interesting experiments related to social connections include Lens, which allows users to own their social graph, and Coordinape, a salary tool based on points that group members give each other.
However, what makes those connections valuable are emotions, and those are hard to productize. While it's a great goal of a product to foster friendship and gratitude, you can’t mint emotions as tokens — or can you?
Membership is the next subtype of social capital. Web3 offers tools for both paid and earned membership.
Starbucks and Nike recently launched on-chain membership programs to enhance their customer experience. Other examples of how Web3 empowers membership include Web3 Incubator Crypto Packaged Goods and ENS domains.
While paid memberships can make sense in cases where financial skin in the game is important, earned memberships are gaining traction, too. POAPs — which stands for proof of attendance at (online) events — are handed out to capture moments shared with others. By holding a POAP one becomes a member of a community.
Lastly, social capital in the form of delegation has gained enormous importance, especially during DeFi Summer. Governance Tokens were aggressively handed out to attract users via Airdrops or liquidity mining programs. These tokens are not money but are the right to make decisions on treasuries or protocols. Some projects, such as Compound, have equipped their governance with a type of delegation that enables the community to concentrate decision power in the hands of a few hopefully well-informed, decision makers.
Projects like Otterspace are working on solutions to decouple delegation in DAOs from financial incentives. Optimism is pushing in a similar direction with the separation of its Token House from the Citizen House. While the Token House is made up of hundreds of thousands of addresses that got airdropped the OP token, the Citizen House is an experiment to fund public goods governed by select non-transferable Soulbound Token holders.
Embodied cultural capital is not tokenizable. No one can complete a workout for you, no one can learn for you, and Web3 won’t change that (sorry).
Objectified cultural capital on the other hand is growing at a massive pace in Web3. NFTs are the premise for unique digital art, in-game objects, and digital fashion. Cultural assets that can be either bought or earned will gain even more importance as the metaverse grows.
Lastly, institutionalized cultural capital is very early but advancing with Verifiable Credentials (VC) and Soulbound Tokens (SBT). The latter ties an NFT to a specific wallet equipping it with credibility from the issuing institution (learn more about VC vs SBT here). These models for decentralized credentials can be used to verify a user’s certificates like a driver's license and prove achievements in games, protocols, or curricula such as that from Buildspace.
Wow! Web3 is catching up to capture not only economic but also social and cultural reward dimensions. What does this mean for builders?
We started this article with a typical problem of a builder in Web3: my friend wants to use rewards to attract users to her DeFi protocol. Here are strategies she can take from our analysis.
If there is one lesson from this analysis, it’s this: carefully select the right reward for the right context. Economic capital works fast and you can buy food with it. Connections and culture move more slowly, but have long-lasting effects.
Are you building a DeFi protocol and want to reward users for making referrals? Then it makes perfect sense to issue a reward focused on economic value. At the end of the day this is what users came for. At the same time, integrating models like leaderboards will open up a new dimension for users that previously only came for the money. “They came for the money, they stayed for the community.” Bourdieu didn’t say that. But he could have.
An interesting way to combine social with financial incentives is a dual token system: Token 1 are reputation points that can be continuously accumulated but cannot be spent. These are tied to the right to earn dividends as Token 2, which is a liquid token tradable on the open market.
If everyone has it, it’s not worth having. All three types of capital share the principle that their value is a function of scarcity. If you give out monetary rewards without tokenomics that are designed for long-term value accrual, you are on the road to a typical pump and dump.
The same holds true for social and cultural capital. Don’t just hand out points — they should be a matter of hard work, rewarding those that keep coming back to contribute. Are you working with reputation points? Make sure that you can’t buy them. Make sure you can’t spend them, either. The moment you can buy a reputation, it’s worthless.
Economic capital is transactional. It has to be, otherwise it’s not liquid. But if you have long-term goals, incentivize for the long term with vesting schedules, token lockups, or by rewarding with social and cultural capital, which are less transactional. Economic capital is fast food. Social and cultural capital slow food. Can you design rewards that build your users’ social and cultural capital? This will result in stronger ties for your community and product. Cultural capital is a multigenerational endeavor. In this financialized fast-paced world of crypto, it might make sense to learn from a strange example — watch brand Patek Philippe’s slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” What enduring crypto reward can you give your users that will last for generations?