Twitter users are trying to buy Twitter

The #WeAreTwitter campaign may never achieve its goal. But it is pushing an important debate: Who should social platforms serve?

“Corporate sharks are circling around the platform we love,” the American journalist Nathan Schneider wrote in a 2016 Guardian op-ed. “But there is another way: shared ownership, where the community takes control.”

Referring to the precarity of Twitter, the author went on to pose a simple question. What if, instead of waiting for the vague axe of corporate acquisition to drop, Twitter users rallied to take the fate of their beloved social network into their own hands?

That was September. Fast-forward eight months later, and Twitter shareholders are preparing to vote on a groundbreaking proposal — a formal request that Twitter Corp. explore the “feasibility of selling the platform to its users via a cooperative or similar structure”.

It may be difficult, at first, to fathom a transfer to democratic power over a platform of Twitter’s magnitude. To call the prospect unprecedented in this internet era is putting it lightly. The fact that shareholders and the company must acknowledge the idea publicly is an unforeseen coup for the upstart advocacy movement Schneider espouses.

Platform cooperativism promotes a more equitable alternative to the sharing economy

The campaign to buy Twitter, 5,200 signatures strong and growing, snowballed from an movement advocating platform cooperativism more broadly. It’s about a more equitable alternative to the “sharing” economy epitomized by Uber and on track to swallow just about any service you could think of through “the Uberization of X”. With the #WeAreTwitter campaign, this nascent movement has staked a claim and demanded wider acknowledgment of the issues it seeks to advance.

Unrealistic as their immediate aim may seem, they’ve succeeded in seizing the moment to frame the conversation around emerging technology platforms, and the question who these platforms serve.

The social network that couldn’t quite

Twitter, the pulse of the 24-hour internet news cycle, has become vital to the near-instantaneous spread of information around the world. Beyond its pervasiveness within the media-entertainment sector, Twitter has proved a profoundly powerful tool for social change — in coordinating mass movements, amplifying under-represented voices, even providing world leaders, for better or worse, an impromptu loud-speaker addressable to the entire globe.

User acquisition has continued to climb since Twitter went public in 2013. The company now claims 321 million monthly active users. But despite Twitter’s global prevalence, the company itself has largely failed to live up to Wall Street’s expectations for rapid financial growth. That’s probably in part due to the fact that the only template Wall Street has had for a successful stock market launch (Initial Public Offering — IPO) of a social network is Facebook.

Questionable as such unrealistic expectations appear in hindsight, Farhad Manjoo laid out very real problems with the rapid-growth mentality in The New York Times last February.

By filing for an IPO, he wrote, “Twitter was telling the world that it was part of the same club — that there was no upper bound to its business aims, and that it would try to build a money machine that matched the size and importance of its service.”

Manjoo concluded that saving the actual value of Twitter required scaling back on the “world-swallowing ambition” inherent in its perceived value on Wall Street. His input marked a watershed for references to Twitter as a “public utility”, or alongside Wikipedia for its non-profit operating structure, to go mainstream.

A rising movement for platform cooperativism

The cooperative business model is not a novel concept. On the small scale, you may be familiar with co-ops through your housing board or local green grocer. Larger scale oft-cited successes include REI in the states, Mondragon in Europe, even The Green Bay Packers.

What’s new is the idea that cooperativism can be a viable alternative to the prevailing model of growth-obsessed venture capital that defines Silicon Valley’s startup culture. That high-stakes VC mentality relies on a language of “peers” and “sharing” to encourage participation in platforms designed to extract value for investors rather than create value for participants.

Think Facebook, Uber, AirBnB. Once network effect sets in, who grinds out the work that makes those platforms valuable? Who reaps the benefits? The VC-mentality is winner take all, and it has become glaringly apparent in each case who the losers are.

The weight of that reality is showing just how thin the veneer of the “sharing economy” actually is. Professor Trebor Scholz called that out when he coined the term for this new approach in 2014. If HBO can make Silicon Valley’s “changing the world” mantra the butt of the joke all across America, Scholz pointed out, then the veneer has worn off.

In its place, he proposes a refreshing alternative:

“Just for one moment, imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model…
Platform cooperativism can serve as a remedy for the corrosive effects of capitalism; it can be a reminder that work can be dignified rather than diminishing for the human experience.”

A handful of tech startups have so far rallied to the co-op banner. From stock-photography to car-sharing to in-home cleaning, platform cooperatives and other hybrids now strive to create more equitable business models, which serve more than just financial shareholders’ bottom line.

As the movement gains steam, it should naturally seek to convert more mainstream tech services into the fold. A behemoth of Twitter’s stature, though, might seem like biting off more than a few hard-core rabble rousers can chew. But advocates of platform cooperativism assert that’s precisely the point.

“The primary goal is to remind people and insert into the discourse that large media companies can and should be owned democratically,” Schneider, who’s op-ed first sounded off on #WeAreTwitter, has said. Beyond the campaign’s stated aim, the journalist and media studies professor hopes to raise broader awareness, challenging assumptions about who can and should hold power over the internet.

Symptoms of a deeper crisis

The discrepancy between Twitter’s public utility and its market value is not unrelated to the discrepancy between Uber or AirBnB’s valuation and the respective crises each presents to the communities affected. Their financial valuations are predicated on rapid-growth and eventual return on investment for shareholders, regardless of whatever else may be at stake for the society within which the platforms derive their value.

All of which is simply a textbook definition of free market capitalism. What’s happening is symptomatic of a larger crisis, one which led Rana Foroohar, Assistant Managing Editor at Time magazine, to declare the “U.S. system of market capitalism itself…broken” in her 2016 book Makers and Takers.

“To understand how we got here, you have to understand the relationship between capital markets — meaning the financial system — and businesses. From…the late 1790s to the early 1970s, finance took individual and corporate savings and funneled them into productive enterprises, creating new jobs, new wealth and, ultimately, economic growth.”

The deregulation of Wall Street and its methods, Faroohar showed, have disincentivized businesses away from longer-term investments which lead to wider benefits to the rest of the economy. This malady in the American economy, diagnosed as financialization, has shifted the playing field. Deeply-ingrained economic ideas we largely take for granted, like the idea that large corporations’ profits translate to contributions that benefit society as a whole, have slid out from underneath us as a result.

“In lobbying for short-term share-boosting management, finance is also largely responsible for the drastic cutback in research-and-development outlays in corporate America, investments that are seed corn for future prosperity…[I]f you were to chart the rise in money spent on share buybacks and the fall in corporate spending on productive investments like R&D, the two lines make a perfect X.
The former has been going up since the 1980s, with S&P 500 firms now spending $1 trillion a year on buybacks and dividends — equal to about 95% of their net earnings — rather than investing that money back into research, product development or anything that could contribute to long-term company growth….Many tech firms…spend far more on share-price boosting than on R&D as a whole. The markets penalize them when they don’t.”

The shifts in the rules by which corporations play as detailed by Ms. Foroohar (and others) make corporations’ singular focus on maximizing shareholder value through extraction untenable.

“It’s no accident that corporate stock buybacks, corporate pay and the wealth gap have risen concurrently over the past four decades. There are any number of studies that illustrate this type of intersection between financialization and inequality.”

Methods of extraction

Since the 90s, the internet has been hailed in public discourse for its transformative potential — a means for radically changing the way knowledge is accumulated and distributed in society, and how people are able to connect around the world.

Despite the innovations Silicon Valley has ushered in so far, that vision still seems precariously out of reach. Ben Knight, who in 2011 founded cooperative decision-making platform Loomio in the wake of the Occupy movement, put it this way:

“We’ve got this infrastructure with more potential for liberation, for interconnection, for genuine distributed meaningful democracy. And the same infrastructure is increasingly under threat. We’ve got this digital commons that’s increasingly being enclosed. Spaces that feel public and really are not. Space that feels like you can freely participate when every single behavior that you perform is being monetized — sold to the highest bidder.”

A pattern emerges. A successive tech breakthrough alters some aspect of how society functions (whether that is a search algorithm, a social network, or an on-demand platform), which appears as a promising breath of fresh air. Next invariably comes monetization, the compromising of intentions (as humble as “don’t be evil”), and that unquenchable duty to increase shareholder value.

The breath of fresh air is slowly replaced by a troubling disquiet. Vaguely, we perceive that actions which once felt liberating are being monitored and monetized somewhere in the background. The machine keeps churning.

Platform cooperativism, then, can be seen as an alternative — a means to circumvent that relentless need for financial growth, to achieve society’s yet-unfulfilled expectation that breakthrough innovations can truly transform society in a net-positive way. Through this lens, Twitter, and all the promise it represents for the free-flow of instantaneous information, actually makes a lot of sense as a rallying point.

At the heart of Twitter’s paradox as a company is its failure to fine-tune its own method of extraction, advertising — specifically compared to the two prevailing internet contenders Facebook and Google. Just over half of all internet traffic in North America originates from a consolidation of just 35 sites, compared to literally thousands of different sites just ten years ago, according to an NCTA analysis. Google and Facebook top that list, in 2016 claiming $24B and $12B in operating income, respectively, off of advertising revenues reaped from our collective attention.

Compared to Twitter, these platform behemoths not only offer attention-peddlers a wider audience pool, they’ve also fine-tuned their platforms’ methods of value extraction. They offer advertisers richer user data than Twitter while getting away with more invasive ad formats. (All while convincing marketers they need to ‘pay to play’ for engagement that was once earned organically).

Streams of byte-sized Tweet text, it turns out, don’t have quite as many nooks and crannies to continually colonize for more and more intrusive ad-space. That may turn out to be bad news for a handful of investors, but does it have bad news for the rest of us? Couldn’t Twitter thrive as an information-based community without these encumbrances?

Buy Twitter and beyond

There’s no blueprint for transitioning a publicly traded corporation into a democratically-run cooperative. Even if a transition were successfully achieved, big questions would loom. How would Twitter shares be distributed among employees, major contributors, and the average user? What scheme of democratic governance would be adopted? And how would a collectively-run Twitter handle issues like harassment, product development and revenue models? These are the questions now being debated among activists as the 22 May vote approaches.

The fact that these questions are being discussed at all is testament to the success of the movement so far. By seizing on frenzy over Twitter’s uncertain future, Nathan Schneider’s bet has already paid off. #WeAreTwitter has given the platform cooperative movement a rallying-point for raising awareness of the critiques and solutions the movement advances. With coverage from mainstream publications like WIRED, the issue of more equitable ownership for platforms and startups has come out of the forums and into the spotlight.

That Twitter shareholders will in all likelihood shoot down the proposal now seems altogether beside the point. The veneer of the “sharing” economy is gone. To quote Zipcar Co-founder Robin Chase (a sharing economy pioneer), the reality that “he who finances the platform and makes the platform sets the rules of engagement for everyone underneath” is increasingly apparent, both value creators and consumers.

The question will be what comes next. How do we create greater intentionality in the systems emerging to shape our future? How can technology developers collaborate with both value creators and consumers to build more distributed, resilient, and equitable systems for a more sustainable future?

Thanks to the success of the Buy Twitter campaign, these questions are going to remain at the fore long after 22 May.

And if corporate ownership stands at the end of the day, #WeAreTwitter’s roused and organized base — 5,200+ strong and growing— won’t be going anywhere, either.