Tina He is the co-founder and CEO of Station Labs, a web3 tool built to help community leaders grow their communities and achieve real change. She tells Leo Nasskau about why the world is heading towards an increasingly niche cultural landscape, the role of tokens in holding everything together, and how to build communities in a way that scales and works for everyone.
“I think I’m driven by two things,” Tine He says on Curation, the Culture3 Podcast. “One is curiosity. The other is my personal passion for what I want to see exist in the world.”
Tina is a writer, designer, and entrepreneur, but connecting all of that is, as she puts it, “this vague thesis about how the forces of technology, narratives, and incentives work together.” A “counter-culture kid” with a passion for zines, Tina’s career has been spent thinking about how the intersection of culture and technology affects our world.
“The last decade of the bull run, where you see the formation of SPACs [special purpose acquisition companies] — and just crypto in general — is a highly narrative-driven market,” she says. Crypto, the sector in which Tina applies her thesis as both an entrepreneur and investor, is a particularly fertile field. Fresh, new, and premature, the blockchain ecosystem is a hub of new technology, narratives, and incentives.
“Tokens are not just economic engines, but also narrative engines.”
— Tina He
“I ended up working around token design,” she explains, brushing off the work as if it was a nonchalant pastime. Token design refers to the rules that govern how a token is used in an online community. In nation-state economies, these are rules like the interest rate. But blockchain makes it possible to create digital economies for communities built entirely online.
Digital communities have existed online for as long as the internet has been around. And digital currencies have always helped those communities develop, whether it’s loyalty points for visiting your favourite supermarket or coins for use in an online game. In other words, digital currencies have always been created and changed at the whim of a single company. Blockchain makes it possible for the community who uses those coins to govern the terms on which that coin can be used and earned themselves.
The idea is that, if a community of people wants to change the world, creating a token with real value can incentivise the behaviour which helps that community achieve its goals. Tina’s job is to embed the right incentives into the token’s smart contract on the blockchain, which controls how the token works, and connect its price to the value that the community is creating.
National currencies, however, are not just mechanisms for incentivising different kinds of behaviour. They also serve as votes of confidence and belief. When it comes to designing digital tokens, the core principles are not much different. “Designing these local economies is a manifestation of understanding how tokens are not just economic engines, but also narrative engines,” Tina advises.
Tina doesn't believe that designing a token should be complicated. It should start with a simple foundation: understanding what your community wants to do. From there, Tina asks three questions: what value does a community want to create? What behaviours need to be incentivised to create that value? How will this token intersect with the wider ecosystem? “Those are the main pillars,” she says. “Outside that, I think that people make token design way too complicated.”
To understand Tina’s passion for communities, you have to first understand her passion for the culture and interests that underpin them. “Something is cool, but then something’s not cool anymore. In the past, that trend just was much slower, whereas now it's been accelerated,” Tina explains. “You can no longer actually follow trends anymore, because all the trends are happening at the same time in a very pluralistic way.”
The result of all of these multiple, coexisting trends? More choice in the groups that you want to participate in. “Empirically speaking, I do feel like people feel less pressure to feel cool in a particular way. In the past, there was the deﬁnition of success. You own a car or you buy a house. Now it’s less so.”
Instead, there are cultural nooks and crannies. “Everyone pursues their different interests and lives in alignment with the niches that they have placed themselves within.” And with more niches to choose from, if you can find a community that is more aligned to your values, passions, and pursuits, you may feel those ties more closely; it means more to you. So, to care about culture is to care about community — how to grow it, how to knit it together, and, in Tina’s case, how to make a place for everyone.
That understanding explains why web3 holds such potential in her eyes. Today, Tina is the co-founder of Station. A blockchain-based community building tool, Station is designed to help leaders create, grow, and manage online communities.
“Station is really trying to make it super easy for any project and network to automatically distribute incentives and rewards,” Tina explains. “We call them tokens, but really, tokens can be membership, tokens can be governance rights, tokens can be currency, tokens can be just reward points. We just help automate the logic on how to distribute those tokens so you're actually incentivising the right behaviour over time, versus just incentivising speculation.”
“You’re actually incentivising the right behaviour over time, versus just incentivising speculation.”
— Tina He
And in many cases, people get it wrong. Token design can be too rigid or too permissive to speculate on. “If the incentives are not aligned,” she warns, “then in the future, we'll just create a pump-and-dump machine.” She points to Uniswap as an example, crypto’s leading decentralisation exchange, whose UNI token currently trades at around $5. “They give you UNI for contributing liquidity, but they’re available on open markets as well. Why would you contribute liquidity to the protocol and do all these hard things when you can just speculate and buy those tokens off the open market?”
“Figuring out the most valuable action within a network is the number one thing,” she advises. “I think that there are a bunch of smart people in this space that know tokens (as many projects currently operate them) are broken, but I don't know that many people that are vocal about this.” When public criticism can be interpreted as a lack of faith at best and an attempt to undermine financial investments at worst, it can be smart to keep quiet. A nascent subculture, criticism in blockchain is a delicate activity.
This is not to suggest that good, sustainable tokens do not exist. “They're emerging,” she explains. She points to Optimism, an infrastructure platform for the Ethereum blockchain, as an example. Governance of the protocol comes in two halves: an Optimism token that can be bought, sold, and used for voting in the Token House, and a second body, called the Citizens’ House, which comprises elected ‘citizens’, whose role is represented by an untransferrable NFT. “Using this Citizenship token as a check on power,” she explains, Optimism is “leveraging some of their most active contributors to balance out the speculative pressure on their token.”
“Figuring out the most valuable action within a network is the number one thing.”
— Tina He
Tina envisions a future in which everyone online is a member of digital communities. At Station, her aim is to make it as simple as possible for community leaders to access this technology. “We want to make it take just a few minutes to set up,” she says.
Success would imply enormous change for the digital landscape. It would mean a more powerful and flexible community building platform, and more meaningful connections and behaviours online. In blockchain, she sees a future where the mileu of “long-tail cultural niches” that already exist online can coordinate, self-govern, and create a bit of their vision in the world.
“I think that we're going to see all these mini empires attract people whose values are aligned,” she posits. “Little conglomerates will become talent networks, membership clubs, they will have their own kind of experiences, they will build their own distribution and shared IP.”
Fundamentally, Tina envisions communities across all walks and stages of life that leverage tokens on the blockchain to empower and incentivise their members far more deeply than is possible today. “That's something that I already think is happening, and we will really see more. That's super exciting to me.”
Amidst rising sea levels, the island nation of Tuvalu is exploring digitising itself in the metaverse. Clovis McEvoy writes that it is one of many extended reality experiments that show how the future of the internet lies in connection and collaboration.
If you want to make an AI model, it helps to have $100m. That risks putting our AI future in the few hands of companies able to pay. Can a games company find a way to put AI in the hands of anyone?
There are two camps of virtual fashion: the fantastical, physics-defying pieces that can only exist online, and the digital twins of real apparel that resemble items you expect to see in a shop. Which will emerge as the defining trend of digital fashion?