Posted on Jul 28, 2022Read on

How DAOs Can Avoid the Tyranny of Informal Structure

Author(s): MatterTurbulent#5161

Editor(s): chidi#5925

Last updated: 29th July 2022

Green Pill is a podcast geared toward audiences interested in harnessing web3 to improve society and preserve the environment. Kevin Owocki hosts the podcast, and many readers may know him as the founder of Gitcoin, an entity funding public goods in the crypto space. In episode 12, Kevin suggests an essay titled "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" should be fundamental reading for builders in Web3. So I read the essay, summarized the main points, and applied the ideas to DAOs.

Structurelessness Summarized

Activist Jo Freeman published The Tyranny of Structurelessness in 1970 in response to her observations of the women's liberation movement. The author argues human coordination cannot (by definition!) be fully "structureless." Instead, cooperation among humans either exhibits a formal or informal structure.

The informal structure will coalesce and control a social movement without a formal structure. Informal structures often consist of friends with similar demographics, aggressive or resourced individuals, but not necessarily those best suited to advance the movement. Informal structures instill backchannels and secret or implicit rules in the organization. Decisions may be based on furthering relationships among elites rather than furthering the organization. Worse, hidden decision-makers are not responsible to their group.

If a group doesn't possess elected or established leaders, some "star" members may in practice function as representatives, but their unofficial status shields them from accountability. Additionally, if tasks are not clear and accessible to the whole group, the organization may lose energy, become ineffective, or see infighting. Group members may leave for more engaging and actionable organizations.

So what is the tyranny of structurelessness? Rejection of formal structure may mask the reality: an informal structure runs the group. Or the intentional avoidance of formal structure will leave a movement vulnerable to a powerful group taking over.

Applying the Lessons to DAOs

Freeman prescribes 7 principles “essential to democratic structuring.” Here are my attempts to apply the theory to Web3 and DAOs:

  1. Instead of letting individuals choose roles by default, assigning roles via democratic processes (e.g., emoji voting/Snapshot/verbal consensus) holds the individual more accountable. What they're responsible for is clear to everyone. Although, at its early stages, a DAO environment might be "all hands on deck," boundaries are blurred, or only one person volunteers for a role. In this case, DAOs should still articulate role parameters in public places, along with the mechanism for contesting the positions.

  2. Those with authority, such as DAO leaders or multisig governors, should be responsible for the organization. The mechanisms for enforcing responsibility could be election cycles, a fluid delegate system, or spaces for feedback like town halls or a complaint box.

    I believe multisig governors should hold little decision-making power and execute the wishes of the community/voting body. Alternatively, DAOs could also use a veto model similar to the legislative process in the US, where the multisig can reject proposals with a supermajority. Still, the community can overthrow the veto by mustering its supermajority.

  3. Authority should be distributed, such as among core members and community mods. This prevents a monopoly of power and requires and leverages consultation before decisions. Dividing labor consistently allows contributors to develop specialized skills, increasing efficiency.

  4. Yet, Freeman also recommends rotating tasks among members. It’s a balance between giving members time to get good at a job (maybe a Guild/Team lead) and not letting the job become one person’s property. That dynamic could stifle organization growth or block new talent from upward mobility.

  5. Tasks should be allocated according to rational criteria rather than the contributor’s popularity. Criteria could come from written or verbal arguments about why the contributor is qualified, factoring in demonstrable experience, portfolio, or even POAP history.

  6. Information flow should be diffused, not centralized, because information is power. DAOs should strive for transparency in their discussions, budgeting, and policy development. It’s best to minimize back-channeling.

  7. DAO members should have equal access to resources. Bounty boards should be easily identified. Everyone should understand how to use tool subscriptions owned by the DAO. Experienced members should freely share, not hoard, their institutional knowledge. That way, DAOs can be a more meritocratic environment!


I hope you enjoyed this short op-ed. Here is The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. I recommend reading it. If you think of any other applications for DAOs, I’d love to hear them! Tweet me @MatterTurbulent.

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