Argument: There is a Thing called Community Capital (closely related to social capital), and because it is based more on How Humans Work, you can get a lot more out of it than just plain old Money.

Epistemic Status: Opening a conversation. All these ideas are in sand.


I used to compare the prices of Various Weekend Activities to the pricetag of one of my main hobbies (we'll randomly call it "Ballooning" to keep it simple). I might pay $35 for a weekend of Ballooning, which would include lodging, delicious food and alcoholic beverages, classes and activities, and lots of one-on-one help. Other Various Weekend Activities tend to be... quite a bit more than that. You would think Ballooning events must be operating at a loss, but it turns out that they actually tend to MAKE money. So what's happening here?

My guess is that money is not actually an efficient unit of exchange, as compared to social or community capital. When you buy things with money you are paying people a premium to do tasks they are not inherently motivated to do, often in situations that are not convenient for them. I can do my own dishes in the two minutes that I’m in my kitchen waiting for my tea water to heat up. However if I am paying someone, in most cases they have to schedule a large chunk of time and travel out of their way to my house to do a task they have no motivation to do except for the exchange of money.

People in communities generally have an inherent desire to contribute to their community. They are often already in a position to help. They are preselected for being interested in many of the sorts of tasks the community needs (e.g. a swing dance community needs swing dance instructors and swing dance music djs). They have social ties to the people they are helping, as opposed to being strangers. They gain social status by contributing and thus find it satisfying.

When I go to a Ballooning weekend I am not just spending $35. I may spend 3 hours washing dishes after a meal. I may spend 10 hours prepping material for a class, and one hour teaching it. I may spend 20 hours making items that are going to be given away. I may spend 3 hours at a meeting helping to organize the event. I may spend an hour on setting up or cleaning up. I may spend 5 hours working with a new person one-on-one.

Sure, if I were to value my time at $20/hour, then my $35 Ballooning events would suddenly be a LOT more expensive! But with the exception of dish washing, which I view as “putting in my time”, these are all activities I enjoy to some degree, and they feel more like “participating in my fun hobby” rather than “doing work”.

I ENJOY making things that will be given to and treasured by my friends. I ENJOY working one-on-one with new people, and watching them fall in love with the things that I love. I ENJOY contributing to the community that means so much to me. If I could instead work an extra hour at my place of employment and then use that money to hire people to pack up… that’s not an exchange I’d want to make.

And it’s not only time that can be bought more cheaply with community currency than with money. Physical objects can also be bought with the currency of community. Sometimes you can borrow an expensive piece of equipment rather than buy it. Sometimes I buy nicer equipment for myself, and I enjoy giving away my starter equipment to new people to help get them started. Sometimes items are more easily bought in bulk sizes that you don’t need, and you’d rather give away the excess than store it forever or trash it. Sometimes I want to rent a venue for cheap, and if I have a large community all willing to do some simple searching in their networks, I can find a deal on a space that’s never been posted on a website.

As with all advice, you may want to reverse this. If you have infinite money and very little free time, it makes sense to spend the money rather than the time that is generally required for developing community capital. If you have Very Important Needs that you don't think your community can commit to or handle, it makes sense to buy them with money.


Attributions and Contributions:

  • I already had these thoughts but reading a similar comment by ingres inspired me to type them up.

  • Thanks to Raymond and Duncan who did read-throughs of the rough draft


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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:09 PM

ETA, because I think I didn't specify well enough:

Social Capital: Alice is travelling to Snoodsville. She acquires crash space with her friend (or friend-of-a-friend) Bob.

Community Capital: Alice is travelling to Snoodsville. She doesn't know anyone there, but acquires crash space by asking on the Ballooneers of Snoodsville forum. All her hosts know about her is that she is a fellow Ballooneer in good standing with the Ballooning community.

I think this is important enough to include in the post. I actually think in this case it'd be reasonable to list it first (as a sort of tldr)

Perhaps an Epistemic Status marker would be useful, because I don't actually feel like I have it nailed down as much as my declarative sentences might convey.

Community Capital could ALSO be the resources that the community itself has. Or it could be an interconnected network of social capital. It could be like a bank where you put resources into the community-as-a-whole, trusting that the community will be willing to pay you back somehow.

Am I conflating two or more ideas into a single term where I shouldn't be? I don't know!

Putting it in the post makes it sound like a Decision Has Been Reached, whereas leaving it as a comment makes it feel like A Discussion Topic Has Been Opened.

Ah, makes sense. Upvoted for reasonable-application-of-epistemic-humility. :)

I like "Community Capital" as a generic term that could encompass a lot of things, and maybe having more specific terms for more specific things.

I'm confused on one point: how do the Ballooning events make money?

(And who gets this money?)

If I understand correctly, ballooning groups make money while being noticeably cheaper because they're paying for a lot of things with community capital rather than money. A normally purchased activity is done for free because it is fun (like teaching) or because you're paid in community capital (washing dishes feels better than it would at a restaurant, because you're getting the esteem of your peers), which may itself be exchanged for goods or services that were acquired at below market rate (starter gear, loaners, leftovers from bulk purchases).

Making sure I understand, then:

The idea is that there is some organization or group of individuals who "host" or "run" or "organize" Ballooning events (call this group Balloons-R-Us). These events are attended by people who enjoy Ballooning (but are who are themselves not in any way part of B-R-U), who:

a) Pay money directly to B-R-U, as the price for attendance; and

b) Also, additionally to paying money, also contribute resources / time / effort toward making the event a fun and rewarding experience.

Because (b) is so substantial, (a) turns out to exceed the costs that B-R-U incur in hosting / running / organizing the event. As a consequence, B-R-U is left with excess money, which they then dispose of as they see fit (such as storing it for future use, e.g. to fund the operation of events which do not turn out to be cashflow-positive).

Does that sound accurate?

The specifics of Ballooning itself is rather irrelevant, but not quite.

All Ballooning takes place under the umbrella of the Ballooning National Organization. All Ballooneers are automatically a member of their location's Ballooning group. So the attendees of the event are either members of the hosting group, or of nearby groups.

The specifics of Ballooning are of course irrelevant, but what is very relevant indeed is the organizational structure (formal and informal) of "communities", and the incentive structures that arise (or are constructed), and what even constitutes a "community" (and perhaps there are multiple types of "community", which are critically different in certain ways?). That's what I was trying to get at, with my questions.

Edit: For example, the structure that (it sounds like) you are describing is very centralized, hierarchical, organized in a "star" or "hub" topology. This is an importantly different kind of community than a more decentralized one.

Likewise, the existing of a National Organization that (it seems) is required in order for Ballooning activities to take place, is an important factor. (And whence this requirement? Regulation or other legal issues? Control of necessary resources? More informal matters of legitimacy? Is it possible to undertake Ballooning without affiliation of any sort with the Nat. Org., and merely not done—or in fact impossible?)

Are there authority structures in this community—decisions to be made, and people to make them? Whence do these structures arise, and how do they change? What are the financial incentives involved?(And clearly there are such! There are the events, of course, and National Organizations do not tend to be costless to run…) These things are important! They very much affect how, and how much, "community capital" develops, and whether it can be maintained, and how resilient it is to certain shifts, and so on.

Edit2: … why on earth is this comment being downvoted?

That is a really good summary, elizabeth!

Ballooning events make money from the $35 that everyone pays to attend. Most of it goes to pay for the venue and the ingredients for the food, but anything that's left over goes to the Ballooning group that hosted the Ballooning event.

They use it for things like: events that operate at a loss, buying balloons to give to new Ballooneers, buying an air pump for use at future Ballooning gatherings.

But anyways, I obfuscated Ballooning because I'd rather talk about the general thing of Community Capital than get into the specifics of how my random hobby functions.

I found this particular obfuscation distracting, because I imagine hot air ballooning to be a much more expensive activity than this. And I think an important part of your claim was that was that you can do this weekend activity cheaper than one might expect, because of Community Capital. But I couldn't suspend my disbelief that you could do a weekend of hot air ballooning for $35 per person.

If it's helpful, in my head I was thinking like "blowing up (regular) balloons" and then making balloon art or something. I could change it, but I don't know if that would be the most useful now, since a lot of the comments mention it.

I'd actually be very interested in hearing what specific community this is, as a case study in How To Do This Right.

I'm still not clear on the exact definition of Community Capital. Could you provide an explicit definition?