The Combine DAO


Building a DAO with Pseudonymous Reputation on Urbit

Posted on Jul 19, 2022 by ~poldec-tonteg

The Combine DAO is a DAO built on Urbit to invest in promising projects on the network. While building the DAO, we did a survey of the existing identity solutions and found our solution close to home: Urbit ID provided the best balance of trust and anonymity due to the Urbit networks’ pseudonymous reputation. In this post, we’ll discuss the challenges facing DAOs and discuss why Urbit ID presents advantages over current approaches like token gated DAOs.

Trust, Anonymity and Pseudonymous Reputation

Anonymity is a core feature of most DAOs. It’s great in theory. No one wants to trust that the humans operating Robinhood will execute trades how and when they say they will (much less know their names). We’d all prefer if a smart contract handled it for them.

The problem is that trust and anonymity don’t mix, and trust is essential to the practical operation of any organization.This is why existing DAOs take shortcuts to establish trust hierarchies—things like delegating multi-sigs to small groups of trusted leaders, or trusted leaders establishing authority via exclusive Discord channels.

Put simply, if there’s no human to trust, there’s no human to hold accountable. Lack of accountability is a major hurdle for any organization.

We were aware of this fundamental flaw when building Combine DAO on Urbit, and we’ve found a solution in Urbit ID. Urbit ID is the decentralized identity system at the core of the Urbit project. Urbit IDs are the “decentralized IDs” that DAO builders yearn for. They’re endowed with what we call pseudonymous reputations that unlock the ability to run DAOs in ways that more closely resemble successful IRL organizations, while maintaining the automation that makes them so attractive.

What is Urbit ID?

Why is your Urbit ID so different from every other online identity you’ve ever had? The substantive answer is simple: it’s a lot more like your IRL identity. It’s permanent and owned by you. And because it’s the same throughout the Urbit network, it can accrue a reputation.

You’ve probably seen Urbit IDs like ~ravmel-ropdyl or ~mogmet-tadnem in Twitter profiles. Each is a unique NFT that can be transferred and sold like any other cryptographic asset. Your Urbit ID is your username, network address and crypto wallet all in one.

Like wallet addresses, Urbit IDs are anonymous. Like Discord, Twitter, or Notion accounts, they are also pseudonymous. Pseudonymity is the kind of anonymity you find in most online communities: a common username that people recognize even if it’s not your “real” name.

Your Urbit ID is to your urbit ship what your deed is to your house or your keys to your car. It encrypts all of your ship’s communications and provides access to your online communities, which in this instance are DAOs.

Using Urbit ID’s pseudonymous reputation model, DAO participants know Urbit ID holders’ past behavior before relying on them, and without sacrificing anonymity. Why do reputations stick to Urbit IDs? Because, like your physical person, every action you take with your Urbit ID affects your reputation. Urbit Maximilalists often ask “How high of a ransom would you pay if your Urbit ID were ‘kidnapped?’” That’s because the reputation of your Urbit ID is the result of years of labor. Imagine every social account you’ve ever had in one immutable chain tied to one immutable pseudonym.

Thus, unlike an anonymous wallet address, Twitter handles or Discord accounts, there are high incentives for keeping your Urbit ID’s reputation squeaky clean.

Urbit ID for DAOs

Many DAOs gate their membership on the ownership of a cryptographic asset like an ERC-721 or an ERC-20 token. Token gating is used to create a flat, anonymous membership. This was initially seen as a good thing. “One member, one voice.” All decisions made anonymously via multi sigs and voting apps secured via smart contract.

Token gating also adds utility to NFTs; it unlocks access to perks like special releases or events apart from the core asset. To get into the Milady Rave you need to buy a Milady NFT. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how capable you are of participating in the community’s goals, if you buy a Milady, you’re in. You have the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

In reality, many DAOs move inexorably back towards a more conventional model of “human trust” simply because organization requires it. That’s why DAO builders have long sought “decentralized IDs” for members. “One member, one voice” doesn’t work for complex, efficient decision making; it risks chaos and endless discussion. It creates the need for offchain governance executed by smaller groups, which is cumbersome, requires a patchwork of Web2 apps (i.e. Google and Notion), and undermines the “trustless” nature of the DAO.

To return to a prior example, imagine Robinhood was a DAO of its members. If it was run like DAOs today—e.g. those not built on Urbit—a group of Robinhood “elites” make and execute trade decisions via private Discord channels. DAO members vote to approve, but participation is low (Some DAOs even cold-call members to garner participation). Not only is participation low, it’s also low quality: banter about the issues of the day.

Urbit ID mitigates membership participation issues by adding permanent, pseudonymous reputations to the mix. As in: Who are you letting into your DAO? And whose DAO are you joining?

As a leader of an organization, you want high quality members. You want to avoid Dumb Money: people passively investing in your DAO because it’s cool, but without the ability to add value. You also want to avoid oversubscription/underparticipation: a dropoff in engagement from most members as they become interested in newer, shinier things.

When it came time to recruit members for Combine DAO, we didn’t have to leave Urbit. We only considered those with strong pseudonymous reputations on the network, many of whom were anon outside of Urbit. Some of the Urbit IDs in Combine DAO like ~bitmep-faswyn have been on the network for years. Some like ~timluc-miptev have created valuable groups and built companies on Urbit. Selection blindness was both unneeded and unnecessary—members were selected not in spite of “who” they were on Urbit, but because of it.

Pseudonymous reputations also allow prospective DAO members to better evaluate leaders. Urbit ID reputations subsume the need for patchworks of authority. You know exactly “who” ~mogmet-tadnem is. You don’t need to google his Twitter handle and figure out, oh maybe he’s also the guy behind this or that DAO or NFT release. Leaders benefit from the past and are held accountable for future actions.

Now, the organizing forces behind Combine DAO are ~poldec-tonteg and ~wolref-podlex. In this case, their real world identities are known to many, but they needn’t be: their actions on the network speak for themselves. ~poldec-tonteg is the former CPO of Tlon and ~wolref-podlex is the Executive Director of the Urbit Foundation. Prospective members of Combine DAO know who they are aligning themselves with.

To sum it up, Urbit ID is a solution for the reputational problems faced by DAOs in their current form. While good in theory, the trustless nature of DAOs leads to practical issues around organization, leadership, membership, voting, and participation. This is why DAO builders need ways to give their membership durable reputations that can travel with the members as they participate.

Urbit offers just such cryptographic identities with portable reputations in the form of Urbit IDs. We put pseudonymous reputations to the test in building Combine DAO, and discovered they enhanced leadership formation and membership curation, eliminating some of the organizational problems that DAOs struggle with today.

Introduction to The Combine DAO

Posted on Jun 28, 2022 by ~poldec-tonteg


Until a couple of weeks ago, The Combine was a subdivision of the Urbit Foundation with a budget earmarked to invest in new projects. As of Urbit NYC that all changed. Now we’re an honest-to-goodness DAO built on Urbit—by Urbit maximalists, for Urbit maximalists. We pool assets to invest in teams building new tools, products and services for the Urbit Universe. Our members are investors, engineers, founders and galactic senators.

In this post we'll talk about what we're aiming to do and why we’re in the best position to do it. In a future post, we'll dive into technical and strategic insights drawn from building a DAO on Urbit.

Our Objective

Our objective is simple: support organizations in building high-value projects on Urbit. Urbit address space has intrinsic, tradeable value, as is the case with many crypto assets. But, unlike most crypto, that’s just the tip of the Urbit iceberg. Where most crypto assets are built to be owned and exchanged, Urbit is built to be owned and used. It has the potential to replace virtually every centralized part of Web2 you use (but don’t own) today.

The Combine DAO invests in teams working on projects that generate and capture value beyond Urbit address space. The price of address space reflects confidence in Urbit's user growth, but every increase in utility to an Urbit user — that is, every time a user can do more with their Urbit — creates additional value. The Combine takes advantage of this upside.

For example, one of our portfolio companies, Uqbar, is building a smart contract platform on Urbit. The Uqbar network will use Urbit ships as nodes in their network, as ZK provers and sequencers, creating an ZK Rollup L2 with the full power of general compute and identity. While their use of the Urbit network as part of their infrastructure will drive demand for planets, stars and galaxies, the value of Uqbar is potentially much greater than that demand.

So, members of The Combine DAO should believe at least one of two things:

  • 1: That products built on Urbit can outpace the value of address space alone, and that The Combine is in the best position to capture that value.

  • 2: That successful projects built on Urbit will enhance the value of Urbit address space.

Our Pipeline

The Combine works hand-in-hand with the Urbit Foundation, meaning we have unparalleled visibility into the development of new projects and teams on Urbit. The Foundation has been working hard to shore up Urbit's developer pipeline, with Hoon School constantly bringing in new developers. The last cohort had 61 finishers, seven of whom had no previous programming experience. The Foundation’s [Grants]]( program is active with over 40 active grants. The Combine and The Foundation continue to work together to identify, nurture and launch projects in need of funding.

Our Membership

Startups are risky by nature. Add Urbit’s novel technology and you’ve got more than your share of pitfalls. The Combine mitigates these risks through its membership. Combine members are long-time supporters of the project who have run startups, exchanges and have invested in successful technology on Urbit and beyond. The membership can help lead teams past challenges inherent to all new ventures. We're familiar with the technical and product landscape of Urbit and its adjacent technologies. All of us have experience building technology, on Urbit and outside it, which enables us to provide valuable coaching and due diligence.

Another of our portfolio companies, Holium, is building unified tooling for DAOs. They started with an application that the Combine DAO uses internally: a voting app called “Ballot.” Holium’s founder has been working on a unified environment for DAOs for some time, but it wasn’t until he came to Assembly 2021 that the pieces finally clicked and he realized that Urbit was the correct stack for Holium’s projects. As he built Ballot on Urbit, The Combine provided product feedback, investor intros, and access to experienced contractors and personnel. Now we’re actively dogfooding Ballot as a core element in The Combine stack.

In the coming weeks we’ll dive into the details of why we think Urbit is the natural home for DAOs. For now, we’ll just say that Urbit’s unified stack opens up a unique level of ownership and customizability to DAO builders. The Combine, as a DAO built on Urbit, to support Urbit, is test driving this use case. What we learn here will feed back into diligence, outreach and development priorities for the Foundation.

In the next post, we’ll share technical insights for DAOs gleaned from our own experiences building The Combine DAO on Urbit.