“Twitter is under threat of being sold, and selling out its users,” reads the petition urging Twitter shareholders to say Yes to a co-op. What is the motivation for such a move? What might be the impact? Could this happen?
The impetus for the #buytwitter #wearetwitter campaign started with Nathan Schneider, a journalist and a scholar in media studies at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Schneider was responding to concerns that Twitter might be sold to Disney, Microsoft, or Alphabet (Google’s parent). The reason for the sale? Although Twitter’s user base and ad revenue are growing, they are not growing quickly enough. In his article in The Guardian, Schneider suggested that such a sale would alter Twitter’s nature and cause it to be less responsive to those who use it on a regular basis.
As has been done countless times over the last nearly two hundred years, Schneider looked to the co-operative model as a way of addressing the problem he saw. Simply put, Twitter users should buy the company instead of allowing it to be sold to one of the large data/media corporations. As Schneider notes, it was not clear that this idea would gain acceptance — “Usually when I throw out a somewhat crazy idea, it remains just that — a somewhat crazy idea, out there in the ether.” Instead, and to his surprise, people started organizing a campaign to buy Twitter and make it into a co-op.
Like other ideas for co-operatives, Schneider’s suggestion highlights the difference between co-operatives and other forms of business, specifically that what might be good for profitability is not necessarily good for the users of the product or service, and vice-versa. Davey Alba from Wired talks about how there is still a lot to value in Twitter. “No other social network has built up quite the same kind of cultural currency — and for good reason. Unlike other networks, Twitter’s influence is decentralized; it lies in its power users, the ones who use it to give voice to people and movements that may not have risen otherwise.”
To shift the emphasis of Twitter away from investors towards its users requires a different governance structure, one that recognizes the legitimacy of the users having a say in Twitter’s operation and one that explicitly gives some power and authority to users. How could Twitter be governed? Bruno Roelants, secretary general of CECOP, the European confederation of industrial and service cooperatives, makes the following suggestion:
With regard to governance issues, control of common ownership becomes almost more important than the very issue of ownership. Cooperative platforms should specify who makes the decisions and who controls. Democratic control does not only depend on the principle of “one person, one vote” (the “agora” component of democracy), but also through checks and balances between different bodies of the cooperative (“republican” democracy, characterized by the balance between different powers).
The #buytwitter idea is part of a larger discussion going on around the necessity for user ownership of our digital information and communication. Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet is a collection of essays edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider that calls for a new kind of online economy: platform cooperativism.
The concept of “platform cooperative” has been proposed as an alternative to the “sharing economy” firms such as Uber and Airbnb. A platform cooperative is an online platform (e.g., website, mobile app) that is organized as a co-operative and owned by its employees, customers, users, and/or other key stakeholders. Examples of platform co-ops include Stocksy United, which provides a curated collection of royalty-free stock photography and Green Taxi, a driver-owned taxi co-op.
Twitter is one of the ultimate platforms, which is the reason people are motivated to conceptualize how it might work. The discussion and writing that has taken place around the Twitter campaign is important because it pushes people into new territory regarding what it means to own our social media and digital information. As with all types of social innovation, the outcome is not just a new technology or a new way of doing things. Even more importantly, it is also about altering the way we think about things, accepting new forms of evidence, and changing the values that guide us. One of the measures of success will be getting to the point where the next social media phenomenon will be a co-operative from the onset, such as the sharing tool Loomio (the open-source software co-op based in New Zealand), and there will not have to be a discussion about buying it since the users will already own it.
Whether or not Twitter becomes a co-operative, the conversation around users owning technical platforms is one that needs to continue. We have added some new curated content (here and here) focusing on the #buytwitter campaign and platform cooperativism. Please check it out to learn more about the conversation. And by the way, the proposal to buy Twitter is up for a vote on 22 May 2017 at Twitter’s annual general meeting. The proposal must receive 50 percent or more of the votes to be successful. However, even if just 3 percent of the shareholders vote in favour, there is the possibility to do more research and resubmit a proposal next year.
Danielle Potter is a communications specialist at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.
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