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In Oct. 2021, a group of 17,000 people got together as an internet collective called ConstitutionDAO and crowdfunded $46 million in cryptocurrency to purchase an original copy of the US Constitution. While they lost the bid, the collective has since opened new avenues and possibilities for DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations.
After the auction, ConstitutionDAO tweeted, “We showed the world what crypto and Web3, onboarding thousands of people in the process, including museum curators and art directors who are now excited to keep learning… We were the first DAO Sothebys has ever worked with, but we’re sure we won’t be the last one.”
In September 2021, Sotheby’s announced it was auctioning off one of the 13 existing copies of the US Constitution. Following the announcement, groups of internet friends on Twitter jokingly speculated about buying the constitution. This banter led to a Zoom call among interested participants, and what began as a joke culminated in a collective decision to buy the constitution.
These 35-40 core contributing members who came up with the idea then attempted to organize a collective effort. They created a Discord group and website for interested members, began marketing, navigating legal and financial barriers and started conversations with museums and vendors. The group’s mission was to “put the Constitution in the hands of the people.”
According to David Silverman, one of the group’s core members, people were drawn to their project because of the power of the constitution.
“It’s a document that a lot of people care about — it has a lot of different meanings for a ton of different people,” Silverman said. “It was a tangible document … a lot of times you see NFTs and they’re not physical, but we had this cool concept and narrative of we the people taking ownership of [the constitution].”
Within a week, ConstitutionDAO had a representative making a bid for the US Constitution at Sothebys.
A Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or a DAO, is a collectively owned internet-native community that runs on blockchain technology. In connecting people with a shared mission, it automates decision-making and capital pooling for the community. It’s different from traditional organizations because there lacks a hierarchy — instead, all members that hold tokens have the power to vote.
When people contributed to ConstitutionDAO via cryptocurrency, it gave them governance rights over the US Constitution document. In this case, $4,000 in Ether was worth 1 million tokens. If purchased, the DAO would collectively own the copy of the Constitution. The group had plans to display the Constitution at a public location, and members would vote on where it should be displayed and how it was to be exhibited.
Jonah Erlich, another core member of ConstitutionDAO, described the excitement and curiosity around owning the document on Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel’s show.
“People could leave messages of why they were contributing, and they wrote some really beautiful, heartfelt things: talking about how they were descendants of slaves and they were really excited to now own this document … Immigrants wrote in, as did parents who were excited to share this with their children one day,” Erlich said. “The different emotional stories that this project evoked in people was really the thing that pulled me in.”
On the day of the auction, a nonprofit called Endaoment was given custody of ConstitutionDAO’s documents in order to bid on their behalf. Unfortunately, the document went to billionaire Ken Griffin for $43.2 million.
In the past few months, despite losing the bid, the ConstitutionDAO has quickly become one of the most prominent examples of a DAO. Over one-third of members contributing to the organization were joining a DAO or buying cryptocurrency for the first time.
The group has since made full refunds available to the community, at the same ratio at which contributions were made to the initial crowdfund. Recently, the Discord server was also shut down.
However, Silverman likened this project to an experiment, and said he believes it succeeded because it spurred conversations about DAOs and the power of user-owned movements among thousands of people. He noted that the community formed was “incredible,” and that it has sparked “real conversation and a ton of really awesome movements.”
In November 2021, for instance, a DAO fund called Abolition in Progress won the bidding for the Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention. In December, a new DAO called FreeRossDAO raised funds to buy Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht’s NFTs in order to free him and advance prison reform.
Silverman hopes these movements will push people and institutions to clarify some of the legal questions introduced by DAOs, such as how digital entities can own physical goods. He is hopeful about the future of DAOs.
“We’ve seen the web3 community at large take a look at what’s possible,” Silverman said. “It was very fitting that a billionaire outbid the people this time … this might be the last time you see something like that — I think that DAOs are really going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Freya Savla is a Tech Innovation Fellow from Yale University, where she is exploring the political economy through the lens of economics, policy and journalism.
Contact Freya at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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