#BuyTwitter and Beyond

Danny Spitzberg
Dec 9, 2016 · 6 min read

“Care to buy this lovely bridge?”

It’s unknown exactly how many hapless saps bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

Every few years, from 1883 to around 1930, New York police would dismantle a makeshift tollbooth and cart away its baffled builder. Most of the victims were recent immigrants.

Selling public property has been cruel sport for con men, and booming business for those with the law on their side.

Campaigns to protect public assets are great untold stories.

As a platform for public opinion, Twitter has always been on shaky ground. It functions as “a public utility,” and CEO Jack Dorsey calls it “the people’s news platform.” Twitter, Inc. is a publicly traded company, but like any corporation, its board and executives and major shareholders are in control — they can cash out any time.

One day in September, they started looking for someone to buy the whole thing. The Guardian ran an article the next day proposing to save Twitter from Wall Street through cooperative user ownership. Readers with wickedly different politics rallied together, and the #BuyTwitter campaign came to life.

Within a month, over 3,000 people signed a petition urging Twitter not to “sell its users to Wall Street” but instead, sell shares and make the world’s largest cooperative. Some 200 individuals organized the campaign using an open discussion tool called Loomio. Perhaps most importantly, over 300 shareholders signed on, too.

Was the #BuyTwitter campaign realistic when it started? Yes. Barely. For many of the organizers involved with #BuyTwitter, this campaign was their first experience facing a company as large as Twitter, Inc. We had the challenge of setting expectations while stoking excitement.

This campaign was a journey of 1,000 miles, with countless steps. The immediate strategy revolved around a petition to Twitter, which guided everything from leveraging relationships with staff to earning press coverage. The long-term goal involved mobilizing $7b from user-owners to buy 51% or more of the company.

However unrealistic, #BuyTwitter has made the road by walking. And more importantly, every step along the way is valuable for the broader co-operative movement.

Whatever Twitter, Inc. says in response, our campaign is always looking over the horizon. Our handle @BuyThisPlatform is obviously not limited to Twitter. We’ve met projects like Mastadon and Patchwork that are developing microblogging alternatives. Through Co-op Barn-Raisers in the San Francisco Bay Area, over 100 individuals in law, finance, and software were inspired to start drafting a general plan to assist any platform transform into a user-owned co-operative.

Overall, the campaign is a call for generating revenue without depending on unsustainable growth. That point comes from douglas rushkoff, who moderated a webinar we hosted, “#BuyTwitter and Beyond: Practicalities of User Ownership.” You can watch the recorded talk by clicking this link, or in the video below:

But not everyone has 68 minutes to spare, so here are screenshots of tweets, which load 1,000x faster than embedded tweets (ahem, Medium Staff).

Happily, the petition is still gaining traction, and there is a lot Twitter could do for cooperative platforms, even without becoming one itself. It could conduct market research by running ads asking, “Care to buy a share?” One casual poll of 174 people suggests that subscription revenue from 100m paying users (out of 300m accounts) could add up to $1b/month:

Of course, this assumes Twitter gets rid of ads and Nazis.

#BuyTwitter presents an interesting challenge, to say the least.

As the rate of signatures started slowing from over 100 per day to just two or three in November, we realized our campaign made a material difference, but conversations on the Loomio group were clearly in need of a direction forward.

We saw an estimated 100,000 individuals become aware of co-operatives, thanks to our hashtag, handle, and press coverage in WIRED, Der Spiegel, and beyond. More excitingly, some two dozen influential people referenced #BuyTwitter in their own gripes at Twitter.

The case to make Twitter a user-owned co-op is as strong as it was in September. Twitter stock is valued at an all-time low, and popular interest in who runs the platform is at an all-time high. Search “buy Twitter” on Twitter and you’ll see hundreds of tweets about protecting free speech, preventing a certain individual in the USA from starting World War III — or both.

A petition is only ever the beginning of a conversation. That’s why, in early December, we evolved the petition into a form any co-op member knows to be a more effective: a proposal.

This step sprang out of a conversation with Sonja Trauss, a Bay Area housing activist who had petitioned Twitter a year ago. She told me that in her view, “owning Twitter” didn’t make sense; it’s a publicly traded company, and anyone — including Twitter users — can own shares. What’s more, shareholders can attend the annual general meeting and speak their mind to the CEO, board, and investors. Why make Twitter a co-op, she asked, when it’s pretty much there?

I hope you, dear reader, take pause with this question. Easy answers like “democratic power” or “one member, one vote” are not enough. At best, they are bumper stickers.

Well-organised shareholders could effect change without first overhauling corporate governance. By building informal power and leveraging voting rights, individuals like Jim McRitchie, publisher of CorpGov.Net, have succeeded in making oil companies move beyond fossil fuels, or at least evaluate alternatives.

Jim joined our effort thanks to #BuyTwitter’s open organizing on our Loomio group. A week earlier, media scholar douglas rushkoff moderated an online panel discussion the organizing group had been clamoring for. It was light on analysis of our campaign’s viability, but there were exceptions. Maira Sutton of Shareable.net highlighted the value of deliberation itself. IP lawyer Rachael Lamkin argued that while venture capital makes opportunities out of market volatility, our efforts could grow if we “pick an issue and calmly dig in.”

Co-ops struggle with the stereotype of having too many meetings, not enough action. For all of its wisdom, the discussion felt to me like our campaign might abandon its potential. So, I relayed my conversation with unconvinced activist Sonja to the #BuyTwitter organizing collective and proposed we start organizing with shareholders. A few days later, with former Wall Street worker Mark Latham recruiting Jim McRitchie to help, two dozen individuals collaboratively drafted a shareholder resolution. Finally, we had something tangible to hand Twitter.

Although many steps from incorporation, our group is taking other action as a sort of co-operative. Our immediate work involves making shareholders aware of the resolution. We’re developing an asset acquisition co-op to make this and other campaigns easier. And in a break from both the corporate power struggles familiar to activists and direct democracy quagmire endemic to co-ops, we are discussing sortition, a delegation of governance duties to groups of shareholders.

#BuyTwitter began as a call for the company to become a user-owned co-op. Now it is a call to Twitter shareholders to evaluate co-operative ownership.

If our resolution wins enough votes, Twitter will engage with consultants to research and report on what it stands to gain by becoming more like fan-owned American Football team The Green Bay Packers, outdoor goods retail co-op REI, or news co-op Associated Press. We titled the shareholder resolution “An Exit to Democratic User Ownership”, and I dropped it off at Twitter HQ right before the deadline.

Organizing around ‘democratic ownership’ could invite a bizarre mix of interests, from public utility to indulging nationalist impulses — for example:

Now, Twitter, Inc. could realistically become a user-owned co-op. Our resolution will appear at their 2017 shareholder meeting in May, barring internal complications or a tweet-provoked World War III.

What’s next?

  • We believe the best path forward is organizing with shareholders to advance a co-op transformation. A parallel path to make that easier is forming a purchasing co-op.
  • Our shareholder resolution is going up for a vote! See more at buytwitter.org and to get involved, join our Loomio group!

What else?

Danny Spitzberg

Written by

Sociologist with ethics, comma, for hire · Freedom through co-ops and toolkits · Tech Strategist @CoLabCoOp