Why I Built Zuzalu
Can online networks become viable communities and further their goals in the real world? I brought two hundred people together in Montenegro to find out.
This article by Vitalik Buterin was originally published on Palladium Magazine on October 6, 2023.
We tend to think about physical places, as well as the activities and cultures that come with those places, as being immutable. As an individual, you may have a choice to move to a particular place: to San Francisco for its open culture or its AI development scene, to Berlin for the open source hacker culture, or to be part of a new and rising world in Asia. At the same time, we take all of those features as given, as an exogenous and fixed part of the human world—there are tradeoffs, and you have to choose. But what if this could be different? What if cultures or tribes that have formed online with their own goals and values could materialize offline, and new physical places could grow due to intention rather than random chance?
Ideas like this have floated around online philosophical circles for decades. In 1988, the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli wrote a book called The Time of the Tribes, arguing that the next era will see more agency exercised in groups defined by common interests, rather than common history or blood and soil. More recently, Balaji Srinivasan wrote The Network State, arguing that communities defined by common interests can start off as purely online discussion forums, but then "materialize" into in-person hubs over time. From his perspective of trying to further economic democracy, David de Ugarte's Phyles advocated for cultural and economic collaboration between transnational groups that would coordinate both online and offline.
The virtual transnational community that this author calls home is the crypto space, and it is a unique place from which to view these issues. On the one hand, it is a "tech" industry. The whole space runs on advanced software and mathematics like blockchains and zero-knowledge proofs. Users interact with it through applications that they run on computers and phones that receive data served over the internet. But it also has plenty of its own unique characteristics. Unlike other tech industries, which typically consolidate around San Francisco or sometimes New York City, crypto has strangely resisted the gravitational pull of geographical centralization.
Ethereum is legally based in Switzerland, with a second major entity in Singapore. Many of its developers are in Berlin. Major development teams are based in places such as Romania and Australia. One layer-2 scaling protocol is based in India and another is in China. In some sense, Ethereum already is one of these digital internet tribes. It already frequently "materializes" through regular conferences that happen in all parts of the world and attract many thousands of people each time. These give participants the opportunity for regular in-person interaction and serendipitous connections without the need to get a U.S. visa or pay sky-high rents. For weeks at a time, the Ethereum community is already shaping human geography to a significant extent, not just responding to it.
The Beginning of Zuzalu
By 2022, I had been thinking about many of these topics for a while. I read and reviewed Balaji Srinivasan's book on network states, wrote posts exploring what a crypto city might look like, and had been exploring issues of governance in the context of blockchain-native digital constructs like DAOs. But the discussion seemed like it was remaining too theoretical for too long, and the time seemed ripe for a more practical experiment. And so came the idea for Zuzalu.
Zuzalu was an experiment in taking these ideas to the next level. We already have hacker houses, and hacker houses can last for months or even years, but they usually only fit around ten or twenty people. We already have conferences, and conferences fit thousands of people, but each conference only lasts a week. That is enough time to have serendipitous meetings, but not enough to have connections with true depth.
So let's take one step in both directions: create a pop-up mini-city that houses two hundred people, and lasts for two whole months. This hits a sweet spot: it's ambitious enough and different enough from what has already been repeated ad nauseam that we actually learn something, but still light enough that it's logistically manageable. And it also intentionally does not center any specific vision about how something like this should be done, whether Balaji’s or otherwise.
The work started in January. A team that started with four people scouted out locations and decided on a resort in Montenegro. The resort is ordinarily quite expensive, but the negotiating power of renting a hundred apartments at once, plus picking an off-season time when the resort is usually empty, pushed the costs much lower. We invited about a dozen inviters, who in turn invited more people, along with sharing an application form in a few communities: the Ethereum community, with a focus on developers and researchers working on zero-knowledge proofs, the longevity and broader biotech industry, and European rationalists. We also engaged researchers and builders of "the meta:" internet tribes, network states, community building, and governance. By February, the team expanded to about eight people and worked quickly on logistics. It was a challenge but working with an existing resort made it surprisingly manageable.
On March 25th, the event began and the two hundred guests quickly began rolling in. The parts of Zuzalu that were "centrally planned" were available from the start. We cooperated with a local restaurant to make a breakfast buffet based loosely on longevity guru Bryan Johnson's Blueprint menu. The meals fused Bryan's ideals of identifying the healthiest possible diet and lifestyle with the needs of practicality, such as sticking to a budget of $15 per person per day and dealing with the constraints of shipping to a small country. On the crypto side, the 0xPARC team created Zupass, an identity system based on zero-knowledge proofs that you could use to prove that you were a resident of Zuzalu without revealing which one. This could be used both in-person and online, including to anonymously sign in to applications like Zupoll. Soon after, we turned the balcony of one of the apartments into a gym.
What happened from that point forward, however, was completely bottom-up. A tradition of taking daily morning cold plunges emerged on its own and grew over time. Groups started to independently cook their own food. After a month, we started to have karaoke sessions. In the beginning, the core team organized a meeting room with high-quality audio-visual equipment and created a webpage that any resident could use to permissionlessly book a time slot and make their own event. Soon, residents were creating sub-events and tracks started to emerge. All in all, it felt like Zuzalu had achieved its core objectives: it brought together a new combination of cultures and it felt like a city.
What Did We Learn?
The "form factor" of two hundred people coming to live in a place for an extended duration really did work. People were willing to come, and those people who came almost universally reported enjoying the experience. This reflected something I also experienced later at a four-day blockchain conference in the Pacific island nation of Palau: the event was deliberately light on sessions and heavy on informal spend-time-together activities, and many attendees reported being very appreciative of the unique form factor. Over time, the longer duration of Zuzalu succeeded at creating a different mindset. A four-day conference is a break from your life, but a two-month stay is your life. And for at least some people, it turned out that the small but highly focused network effect of a few hundred people who care about the precise thing you care about really can substitute the massive but much more unfocused network effects of the global megacities.
The idea of building and beta-testing a technology inside of a community of dedicated enthusiasts also proved a success. Zupass started off as essentially a clunky piece of hackathon software, but through real-time use and feedback from users, usability quickly and noticeably improved to the point where it became more usable than many multi-year-old blockchain applications. A healthy lifestyle is also a technology—one which works best as a social technology—and this too improved quickly at Zuzalu. We did not quite reach the goal of developing a less costly and time-consuming version of Bryan Johnson’s extreme longevity lifestyle but we did make significant progress. Technologies that have a heavy cultural component, where new software tools and new human habits are being developed at the same time, are likely a great fit for this approach.
That said, there remain plenty of experiments still left to do. Crypto payments, a long-time dream of the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities, were present but limited. No one even considered governing Zuzalu with a DAO, a decentralized autonomous organization running on a blockchain. A two-hundred-person community lasting for two months was either too short, too small, or both for such a thing to really make sense. But these two dreams are important enough that future experiments, whether run by the Zuzalu community or by independent spinoffs, will undoubtedly make a much more concerted effort to realize them.
Zuzalu also succeeded at being a highly international community: no single country was the source of more than one-third of the attendees; the top two were, unsurprisingly, the United States and China. This diversity was in large part deliberate, an intentional strategy to avoid getting captured by the internal struggles and excesses of any one single national culture. As far as subject areas went, Zuzalu was less diverse: while non-crypto communities were present and appreciated the experience, the Ethereum community was a clear forerunner. But perhaps this is not a failure: diversity done well is not about equally representing all of society or humanity, it's about strategically bringing together groups that would otherwise not care for each other and building bridges between them.
What Questions Remain Unanswered?
What the experiment did less well at was showing a clear picture of where to go from here. Balaji's The Network State did talk about the multi-century history of small-scale "communistic societies" in the U.S. and elsewhere, but also highlighted a grand geopolitical vision: the Decentralized Movement, a twenty-first-century non-aligned movement that can protect freedom in an unfree and high-conflict world. Perhaps such a movement could even provide a peaceful alternative to the unstable geopolitical bipole of China and the U.S. Zuzalu, however, did not yet feel like something that was actually achieving such a lofty goal.
Many cultural movements—digital nomadism, cryptoanarchy, and others come to mind—excitedly grow at first, but then settle down into becoming part of the global political and cultural landscape. They are stable and even significant, but ultimately not world-changing once they saturate their natural base of enthusiasts. Would "Zuzaluism" meet the same fate? And might it in fact be good to decrease ambitions somewhat and let that happen?
It is easy to argue the case that Zuzaluism in its current form is destined to be fairly niche. The community that is attracted to Zuzalu, while impressive, has clear biases: many of the attendees are young, there were few families with children and those who did come only stayed for a few days, and roughly a third of the attendees were already digital nomads. Thanks to subsidies, many people who were not rich in money were able to come, but they were still quite elite in terms of their social connections.
More broadly, many strands of evidence show that unless faced by a "push factor" as strong as a literal war of conquest taking over one's land, it is very rare for a demographically significant portion of a previously static population to pick up and move somewhere else. Even in Russia, less than one percent of the population has left the country following the start of the current war. Certainly, many of those who left are Russia's best and brightest, serving the function of weakening an aggressive power and setting an example to others who might do the same. But it’s also clear that large-scale emigration is still far from a grand solution to major geopolitical problems.
And so this leaves the question: where do we go from here? There are plenty of historical examples of intentionally created, medium-sized, and longer-term gatherings that don’t overturn the world, but still leave a worthy impact. Universities are one good precedent to think about—an ironic precedent, given how many of us a decade ago were enthusiasts of disrupting in-person universities with online MOOC services such as Udacity and Coursera—but an underappreciated precedent nonetheless.
Monasteries are another example; a few years ago, the philosopher Samo Burja asked why there are no monasteries dedicated to perfecting software, given that many software engineers have made enough money and now desire personal spiritual progress. That said; that may be going too far back down the ambition ladder: many in the Zuzalu community do have dreams that stretch somewhat higher than creating new universities and monasteries, even if they are lower than fixing global politics. And in any case, the model that makes sense to apply somewhere new is rarely exactly a carbon copy of any specific thing that came before.
One likely possibility is that Zuzalu will in part become a structure that has aspects of universities, monasteries, and digital nomad hubs. But it will also introduce entirely new activities like “incubating” novel technologies, including social technologies, by testing them out within a dedicated community. It may also find its niche in “the meta” by being a gathering spot for the future builders of new physical places and new societies of all kinds. That said, there is a long way to go. Many paths remain unexplored or even unknown, and so the journey is just beginning.
Vitalik Buterin is the founder of Ethereum. You can follow him at @vitalik.eth.