Does IRL Matter For Community?
Why we won't live in Discords & the negative selection bias around events
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s Whenever-I-Have-The-Time-To-Write magazine on the intersection of community, society, web3, F&B and more — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick and how tech is changing it, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club in Tribeca, check out the photos on Instagram.
The seed of Maxwell Tribeca really started 5 years ago with a dinner series we threw called SupperClub. Inspired by an article I read in Wired by the lovely Kristen Berman about No Small Talk parties, I asked 8 friends if they wanted to throw a “No Small Talk Dinner” and gave them each 3 invites.
It was a hit, and we realized there was something there and decided to scale it up to be a monthly thing — every dinner had 8 cohosts with 5-8 invites. We asked for everyone to share an embarrassing, funny or interesting story in advance and announced the funniest ones at the beginning of the dinner, switched tables in the middle and gave the same spiel at the beginning of every dinner: “You aren’t supposed to discuss sex, politics and religion in front of polite company — this isn’t polite company.” In a year and a half in 2017-2018 that I was traveling between San Francisco, New York and London every month for my first company Mozio, we scaled the dinner series to those three locations, popping up in wealthy angel investors households that were nice enough to let me store all my chafer dishes in their basements. It got so popular that we scaled certain cities up to 2 sittings in a night, 120 people total.
But we quickly noticed a problem.
The Six Month Cliff
Every single city had an amazing first few dinners — royalty sitting next to startup founders you’ve heard of sitting next to professional ballet dancers. We heard unequivocally that it was the best event they had been to all year.
And then the coolest people didn’t come back the next month.
So we asked ourselves, were they just trying to make us feel good by giving us that initial positive feedback and actually DIDN’T have a good time?
But 3-4 months later she would indeed return and apologize, assure me that it was really an awesome event but sorry, she was vacationing in Italy in month 2, and LVMH invited her to some party in month 3, and then month 4 she had some girlfriends in town who she had to see but she was back because she loved Supperclub!
But unfortunately the person she had connected with the last time had their boys night tonight, the guy across the table who she loved and was in a Broadway show had to well, perform in that Broadway show tonight, and the other lady she thought was interesting was on a date.
But the guy she had found a little bit annoying? He was here! He had been every. single. month. This was by far the coolest event he had been invited to all year! And he couldn’t wait to talk to her and annoy her!
We noticed the pattern in every city and realized something.
There Is A Negative Selection Bias When You Compete For People’s Time
Simply, the coolest people had the most other things to do — you could throw the COOLEST events in the whole world but it didn’t matter — the coolest people were going to come the least often.
There was a natural gravity to every event series — eventually you reverted to the lowest common denominator.
And you can’t build community when your most desirable community members show up the least often.
It led to our biggest conclusion — real communities can’t thrive without campuses.
Campus is Key
I served on a panel of community builders a couple months ago that asked the question: “what community other than your own do you love being a part of.” I started panicking, feeling like if I didn’t have an answer that I’d appear like a douchebag. “Uhhh none everyone sucks” isn’t really endearing.
I answered truthfully that I hadn’t loved a community since college, because our view of community at Maxwell is that campus matters, and there were no real communities that had a real campus in this day in modern, secular, urban society.
This is a point that most people emotionally understand but often needs to be pointed out. Everyone understands that commuter colleges are not the same as living on campus. Hell, our college campuses have campuses within the campuses — you join fraternities & sororities, co-ops, shared housing and dormitories, all of which are mini-campuses at college. Everyone understands that the “main street” in a small town is what makes it special, the central campus of the village. And every single sitcom, as this thread on “how to maintain a friend group in your 30’s” emphasizes, is centered around a central gathering spot — McLaren’s in How I Met Your Mother, Jerry’s house in Seinfeld, Central Perk in Friends and more.
The Discords & Digital Community
Which makes it all the more frustrating when I’m pitching an investor and I get pushback that goes along the lines of look, we agree with your thesis on community but why wouldn’t you START with digital communities first? A lot fewer moving parts!
The comment always frustrates me because it comes from an urge common in the tech industry to make everything as scalable and clean as possible, the urge to AVOID complexity instead of TACKLE it, work on tech outside and separate from the world instead of tech that interfaces with the world.
But I think it reveals an essential question that, post pandemic, we’re all grappling with right now — does IRL matter, for what in particular, and if so, what KIND of IRL?
And it led to one of our favorite tag lines.
You LIVE in your community, you don’t LOG ON or ATTEND it.
The fundamental problem with digital communities is that they have the same negative selection bias as events — the coolest people on a Discord or Telegram or Slack chat room have shit to do!
They are building their company. They are hanging out with friends. They are living their life.
It’s the problem that Clubhouse has come up against — while Elon Musk can spend 20 seconds composing a tweet that reaches millions of people and is seen over the next week or so, Clubhouse requires time — you have to be in a discussion for the entire hour or however long and only the people tuning in that moment even hear what you have to say.
Engagement requires taking time away from other things in your life, and well, if you have a lot of things going on, you’ll be less active on the platform, plain and simple.
Campuses Don’t Compete
The beautiful thing about campuses is they don’t compete.
That hot date the woman skipped SupperClub for? She needs to have it somewhere . . . why not at Maxwell. The boys night? Why not have it at the place where you store your bottle of gin and not run up a tab. The friends in town you have to meet up with? Why not bring them to Maxwell. The guy can’t have his broadway show at Maxwell but I think you get the point — campuses acknowledge the diverse priorities, interests and friendships of community members and say “we see you, you do you, just do it HERE.”
Events and digital communities say “screw your priorities, come spend 3 hours with us.”
Our mission at Maxwell is to change the fundamental business model around social spaces, to create a model for community spaces that are funded, built and run by their communities and that emphasize the members over services. Those members don’t need nightly dinner parties — many of them have insane schedules and existing friends. They need a campus, a 2nd home, a place that is full of people they want to run into, that yes, throws enough regular events that they can attend a couple of them a year so they can meet some new friends, sure, but a home where, mostly, they can just do their thing.
You LIVE in your community, you don’t LOG ON or ATTEND it.
David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle, Cara