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Hamsterdam as a metaphor for building online communities

The story of Hamsterdam, which is one man’s attempt to transform a black market into a quasi-legal, regulated market, is one of the most memorable arcs from The Wire’s five seasons. The narrative imparts a valuable lesson about the various dimensions of the ongoing struggle against illegal drugs. But looking back on it, the Hamsterdam account also provides some helpful guidance into building an online community.

Hamsterdam as a metaphor for building online communities

One of my favourite arcs from The Wire’s five seasons is the rise and fall of Hamsterdam, a quasi-legalised drug zone in Baltimore.

Close to retirement, Colonel Howard “Bunny” Colvin secretly breaks his chain of command to put his resources into creating a zone in his geographical precinct where drug enforcement is nonexistent.

Colvin has his reasons for doing this.

He recognises that too much time and resources went into policing addicts and low-level dealers. It ultimately doesn’t seem to improve the situation in his district and leaves his officers with little time for “real” work.

Someone refers to this area as Amsterdam because of that European city’s laissez-faire approach to drugs. Being that it’s Baltimore, everyone refers to the area as “Hamsterdam” because they can’t quite pronounce it correctly.

The name sticks.

As of late, I have reflected on this fictional narrative as a metaphor for building online communities. Thinking about Hamsterdam in this sense imparts three critical insights that creators can consider when setting up their online communities.

1. Building a minimum viable community

At the outset of Colvin’s experiment, he looks for derelict, quiet territory in his district to set up Hamsterdam. The drug trade had to be moved into a controlled, uninhabited area to clear drug dealing off the residential street corners, along with its attendant violence.

Over time, we see Hamsterdam’s “minimum viable community” come into shape. Colvin clearly outlines:

  • Why the community exists
  • What are the different roles that members play in this community
  • Who the community is for and the membership selection process
  • In the next three months, what metrics will define success for this community

In doing so, Colvin breathes clarity into Hamsterdam’s vision. As a result, everyone involved can better communicate the community’s ideas and values to its members and the outside world.

2. Solving the chicken and egg problem

Colvin opts to bootstrap his community with drug lieutenants, as he can sympathise with their position as middle management.

He makes them an unenviable proposition: they may operate freely within the three drug-tolerant zones, but he will arrest them if they do business anywhere else. After some initial suspicion and unwillingness, the lieutenants comply. As a result, Colvin can accumulate a critical mass of drug supply in Hamsterdam and start increasing the community’s value.

Early on, it helps to focus on satisfying the needs of one distinct class of participants in your community.

Pick a side, chicken or egg, that can see the value of your proposition early on.

3. Doing things that don’t scale

Once the lieutenants finish setting up shop in Hamsterdam, a new problem surfaces — there are sellers but no buyers.

Colvin gets his officers to round up buyers for the dealers. They all get into a van, drive around the city, pick up drug addicts from the street corners and drop them off at Hamsterdam.

When starting something new, community builders often resist going out and recruiting users individually. Paul Graham remarks that it’s because the absolute numbers seem so small at first.

But the mistake here is to underestimate the power of compound growth. If there’s any interest in your community, you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods.

Closing thoughts

Getting a group of people to agree on anything is just about impossible. The act of creating Hamsterdam involved the impossible feat of getting a legion of cops, criminals, addicts to all agree on neutral turf.

Starting an online business or community is no different.

You’re still attempting the impossible - convincing a bunch of strangers online that your product or service is worth their time and money.

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References

Owen, P., 2009. The Wire re-up: season three, episode nine – is Hamsterdam realistic?. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/organgrinder/2009/oct/13/wire-drugs-season-3-episode-9 [Accessed 26 March 2021].

McMillian, L., 2012. Drug Markets, Fringe Markets, and the Lessons of Hamsterdam. Washington and Lee Law Review, 69(2), p.849.

Graham, P., 2013. Do Things that Don’t Scale. [online] Paul Graham. Available at: http://paulgraham.com/ds.html [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Myers, D., 2017. Could Hamsterdam work in real life?. [online] Quora. Available at: https://www.quora.com/Could-Hamsterdam-work-in-real-life-For-example-could-Bunny-Colvins-social-experiment-in-season-three-of-The-Wire-be-pulled-off-successfully-in-the-real-world [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Pfortmüller, F., 2017. Introducing the Minimum Viable Community Canvas. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/together-institute/introducing-the-minimum-viable-community-canvas-summarizing-the-core-elements-of-a-community-on-1-c7c9bde8ea99 [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Bronsteen, J., 2019. Would “Hamsterdam” Work? Drug Depenalization in The Wire and in Real Life. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 2018(1).

The Wire Fandom. 2021. Howard Colvin. [online] Available at: https://thewire.fandom.com/wiki/Howard_Colvin [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Wikipedia. 2021. Howard “Bunny” Colvin. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_%22Bunny%22_Colvin [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Wikipedia. 2021. Homecoming. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homecoming [Accessed 26 March 2021]

Wikipedia. 2021. Straight and True. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straight_and_True [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Wikipedia. 2021. Hamsterdam. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamsterdam [Accessed 26 March 2021].