Image: Sofia Sabbagh (CoopWorkshop artist-in-residence)

The second Platform Cooperativism conference is about to begin in New York. Melburnian Darren Sharp will be a speaker. Last June we had our own Platform Cooperativism gig here in Melbourne (featuring Van Badham moderating), and it sparked quite a bit of interest.

A follow up event at Church of All Nations was also held with two prospective Australian platform cooperatives being showcased (Open Food Network and AbilityMate) (as well as the work of Australian Eric Doriean in the beta platform co-op startup AnyShare).

Nathan Schneider, Serenity Hill (Open Food Network), Eric Doriean (US based AnyShare), Antony McMullen (CoopWorkshop) and Darren Sharp (Commons Transition Coalition)

Nathan Schneider, Serenity Hill (Open Food Network), Eric Doriean (US-based AnyShare), Antony McMullen (CoopWorkshop) and Darren Sharp (Commons Transition Coalition)

Darren (pictured above) will be talking about these and other nascent platform cooperatives in Australia, and will be forging closer links between communities that are geographically distant, but who share a common vision about democratising the internet.

Platform Cooperation at The New School

While all of this is going on there is a not unrelated campaign gaining interest called #WeAreTwitter that aims to change the ownership structure of one of the biggest investor-owned online platforms in the world, Twitter. Twitter hasn’t been faring too well of late. How does it make enough money to keep the investors happy? Could a co-operative model turn things around?

Before we get too deep into the cooperative turn to Twitter, it might be worth asking, ‘exactly what is Platform Cooperativism’? You can go to the official website here.

Trebor Scholz, of the New School in New York, who coined the term, says it is ‘plain-old Cooperativism—a movement founded in the 19th century on precepts like one worker, one vote, mutualism, and collective ownership—and adds in social media, online markets, and apps‘.

We know what platforms like Airbnb and Uber are; but what exactly is a cooperative? It has an official definition set by the International Co-operative Alliance; it is, “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. One can only guess how many committee meetings it took to get that sentence! However, it says it all. The Platform Cooperativism movement is simply taking ‘jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises’ online for mutual benefit (rather than simply profit for arms-length investors).

The ‘sharing economy’ boom as we all know features businesses that use an online storefront (platform) to facilitate ways for people to communicate with each other – allowing them to connect and to share access to untapped resources, or capacity, for economic benefit. The most obvious example is aforementioned Uber – with a counter-example being Cotabo in Bologna that joined a consortium of taxi co-operatives which now unites some 5000 cabbies all over Italy.


Cotabo for the cabbies of Bologna






The key difference between the two is ownership. Uber drivers don’t own the online platform that assists them to get to jobs. The Bologna cabbies can have more of a say about the way their working lives are structured – and profits made go back to members, i.e. the drivers, as well as into the business itself rather than just to external investors whose primary interest is shareholder return.

Click to sign up to the campaign

So what of Twitter? Nathan Schneider, is leading a campaign for a cooperative buyout, and a number of options are being seriously considered – one being that transition could be achieved with less than 1% of users buying $2,300 worth of shares – each subsequently being paid back through a membership fee that could average up to $10 each year for each member of the Twitter community. The future of Twitter could be more secure. Perhaps the cooperative principle of ‘concern for the community’ being applied to this social media icon could result in less trolls seriously bullying other Twitter users.

Just as important, it could show the world that another way of engaging and working online is possible. The wealth generated could be better shared. Isn’t that what the ‘sharing economy’ was meant to be all about?

Even Catherine Deveny back here in Australia has expressed some interest.

Antony McMullen