Platform Cooperatives

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Description

George Zarkadakis:

"Not all platforms are created equal. In the 1990s and early 2000s, you’d ‘browse the web’ and encounter an anarchic, open space of chat rooms and internet forums, where everyone had reasonably equal standing in competing for interest and attention. In the second phase of the internet, though, these spaces were replaced by closed, proprietary services administered by the big four tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Users migrated towards those platforms for reasons of efficiency and convenience, which created the tech oligopolies we see today. But those businesses are centralised and owned by a precious few, and the implications are profound. Consumers’ data can be unscrupulously exploited for profit and influence. Developers must abide by rules set by the corporate bosses – and those rules can change at any time, unpredictably, to suit the special interests of a few. In other words, the competitive field of the internet is no longer level but profoundly skewed towards the tycoons that own the digital platforms where we conduct much of our daily lives.

Platforms don’t only reinvent how companies engage with their users, but also how work is done. As digital technologies deconstruct jobs into tasks executed by a mix of humans and algorithms, anxiety is growing about the ‘gig economy’ – where work is temporary, skills-based, and on-demand. Whether you are a driver for Uber, a financial analyst contracted via Upwork, or a software developer micro-tasking in Google’s or Amazon’s development framework, your livelihood depends on cyclical fluctuations of demand for your skills, your rating, and your ability to market yourself effectively against the competition. Moreover, residual profits go back to the owners of the platform, who are no longer obliged to provide participants with the protections associated with employment. Add in the threat of automation and artificial intelligence, and the outcome is a survival-of-the-fittest scenario, where only the most ruthless and capable stand a chance.

Even the ‘platforming’ of companies with ‘proper’ employees can clash with human nature. Zappos, the digital shoe and clothing shop currently owned by Amazon, employs around 1,500 people and sells an estimated $3 billion worth of products every year. In 2013 it began implementing a system known as ‘holacracy’, a self-organisation method invented by a software engineer. Instead of pyramidal hierarchies, holacracies are organised around ‘circles’; each circle can encompass a traditional function (such as marketing) as well as other ‘subcircles’ that focus on specific projects or tasks. No one prevents workers from freely moving across subcircles in order to achieve their goals, because there are no managers to stand in the way. Instead, software enables collaboration and the performance of individuals and teams, while ‘tactical meetings’ allow for employees to provide feedback about how things are working, in a tightly circumscribed format.

Yet despite the flexibility and efficiency that holacracy promises, participants and observers have criticised the system for failing to accommodate the emotional needs of workers, and reducing humans to ‘programs’ that run on the operating system of digital capitalism. Similarly, Uber drivers report feeling less like humans and more like robots, manipulated by the app, telling them exactly what to do. By deconstructing jobs into tasks, and automating their allocation, the human workers of today risk being transplanted by actual software programs tomorrow. Is there a way to escape such a dystopian future?

A world where the working people can only hope, at best, to make ends meet as second-rate serfs to our digital overlords is not a certainty – especially if workers take control of the platforms for themselves.

This kind of bottom-up, self-organised business network is what Trebor Scholz, a professor at the New School in New York, calls ‘platform cooperativism’. Take Uber, currently valued in the tens of billions of dollars. There’s no reason why a group of drivers couldn’t build a similar platform for themselves; the software tools to develop it are open-source and readily available, and development and design talent can be given incentives to participate." (https://aeon.co/essays/workers-of-the-world-unite-on-distributed-digital-platforms?)



Typology

  1. Cooperative Online Labor Brokerages and Marketplaces
  2. Produser-Owned Platform Cooperatives
  3. City-Owned Sharing and Exchange Platforms
  4. Union-Backed Cooperative Platforms



Directory

  • see the Internet of Ownership, "A directory for the online democratic ecosystem", which aims to be a directory of cooperative online platforms and their back-end infrastructure.

First items via J.Nathan Mathias' review of Trebor Scholz inaugural lecture at the Platform Cooperativism conference:

By Type

Cooperative Online Labor Brokerages and Marketplaces

  • In Germany, Fairmondo started as a global marketplace owned by its users -- like a co-operative ebay.
  • In SF, Loconomics is a freelance co-operative where freelancers have shares and have a voice in running the company.


Produser-Owned Platform Cooperatives

These sites,

  • like Resonate (music),
  • Members Media (film), and
  • Stocksy (stock photography),

allow producers to co-own the platforms to which they are selling their work. The objective of these co-operatives are to create careers for their producers, who co-own systems.

Update:

City-Owned Sharing and Exchange Platforms

Trebor notes that even in the US, cities own hotels, hospitals, and many public services. He describes work by Janelle Orsi to imagine publicly-owned platforms: muni-bnb would be a city-owned airbnb system that invests profits into city projects. all-bnb would be modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund and would pay residents for the profits made by sharing hosting. Another idea is the "sharing city" Seoul, who offer a city-operated taxi hailing system.


Union-Backed Cooperative Platforms

  • The California App-Based Drivers Association unionizes drivers who participate in sharing economy platforms.
  • In New Jersey, the Union Taxi Cooperative also operates its own platform.

By Sector

Art

  • Ampliative Art, a reciprocity-based web platform with which those actors may to contribute to the art community and be rewarded through alternative means.
  • ArtsPool, insourcing and entrepreneurial commons for the art institutions in NYC


Music

  • Resonate, "the world’s first cooperatively owned streaming music service"

Cooperatives

  • Data Commons Cooperative, " greases the flow of data between communities in the cooperative, solidarity, new, call-it-what-you-will economy."

Data

See also our entry on Data Cooperatives

  • Data Commons Cooperative, " greases the flow of data between communities in the cooperative, solidarity, new, call-it-what-you-will economy."
  • Our Data Coop: "We want to explore whether there may be scope for third sector organisations to develop data coops for community benefit".

[1]

Directories

  • Find Coop, Find.Coop is a directory of alternative economic initiatives


Finance

  • Seed Coop: The Seed.Coop platform connects members to build sustainable and just cooperatives.
  • Newb bank: Newb is a Belgian cooperative which aims to become an ethical and sustainable bank.

Labor

  • Loconomics, A marketplace owned by the people doing the work
  • Up and Go: "Up & Go offers professional home services like house cleaning, (and soon childcare and dog walking) by those who are looking for assistance with laborers from local worker-owned cooperatives"

Media

  • Banyan Project, "to help seed independent community news cooperatives, then support them with mentorship and educational and administrative tools."
  • Important Cool, "a worker-owned journalism collective; Patrons will vote on which projects get funded and which get dropped"
  • Member’s Media: " a revolutionary new business model called a “Platform Cooperative” where the USERS who generate the real value of the platform through its utilization own the majority of the platform ... Think of an Etsy majority owned by its designers".
  • Resonate, " the world’s first cooperatively owned streaming music service"
  • Snowdrift: "a sustainable funding platform for freely-licensed works."
  • A Theory of Everybody: a platform for social poetics & planetary thought. We are an open-source cooperative of writers, readers, artists, thinkers, activists, and other misfits dedicated to exploring the question: How can art reimagine the world?

Telecom

  • Neibo, ethical telecommunications cooperative

Trade


Transportation

  • Partago: shared electric cars in Ghent, Belgium neighborhoods

Cooperative Taxi Platforms and Apps:



Discussion

The Las Indias / Nathan Schneider controversy

Michel Bauwens:

Las Indias, a collective of cooperators in Spain, has written a critique of platform coops as a weak response to current challenges. We republished the text in our blog and you can find the original post in Las Indias’ website here.

At the P2P Foundation, we rejoice and support the platform cooperativist movement, as a movement that commonifies the proprietary platforms that are exploiting commoners in their exchanges, though we call more explicitly for open cooperatives, that more actively and consciously produce shareable resources. But Nathan Schneider makes the argument that many platform coops have dynamics that already incorporate a commons and community direction.

The summary of Nathan’s counter-arguments are the following:

"The line between consumer and productive cooperation need not be so stark, either in the modern offline co-op movement or (especially) on online platforms that blur the lines between producer and consumer. While it’s true that consumer co-ops often involve low member engagement, this is certainly not always the case (e.g. Park Slope Food Co-op) and it is not always bad.

Most platform co-ops are using multistakeholder models, not pure consumer models. I explained this with the example of Stocksy, again, and described the community that takes place on the platform. I agree with the point about seeking more decentralized models. But I hardly think that GNU Social demonstrates that the world can immediately embrace them. (I also pointed out, perhaps unkindly, the slowness of the Las Indias website.) But in order to develop more decentralized models, we need to develop stepwise economies, and I believe platform co-ops are a step in the right direction."

Here is what Nathan Schneider, who co-organized the Platform Cooperative conferences, wrote in response on the blog itself, before it was deleted:

“First of all, I think your effort to drive a stark line between consumer and worker cooperation is a fool’s errand. It’s true that in the late 19th century and early 20th, much of the British and American cooperative movements became dogmatic about consumer cooperation or nothing—figures like George Holyoake (in the UK) and JP Warbasse (in the US). But at the same time in the US, for instance, producer cooperatives became an enormous part of the sector as well, and the current cooperative movement involves considerable cooperation among both consumer and producer cooperatives, such as through the NCBA in the US and the financial institutions that support them. When I was at the ICA global summit last year, I met people from a huge variety of cooperative organizations—worker, credit, consumer, producer, the works. So I think you’re quite out of date in claiming that the lines are so stark. And while it’s true that many consumer co-ops have low rates of participation, that’s no reason to dismiss them; I for one am glad I don’t have to spend a lot of time going to my credit union’s meetings. On the other hand, examples like the Park Slope Food Co-op in New York demonstrate that high-participation consumer cooperative is very possible in certain cases.

All the more so in the platform co-op community. As Trebor and I have repeatedly argued, and as empirical evidence supports, platform co-ops tend to recognize the ways in which online networks tend to blur the lines between worker, producer, and consumer. Many of the new generation of platform co-ops are multi-stakeholder; Stocksy United, which I mentioned earlier, has member classes for producers (photographers), workers (employees), and founders. So, no—you are incorrect in claiming that we are merely talking about consumer cooperation. I would argue that in large part platform cooperativism is about shifting the consumer-as-product model of the corporate online economy to one of peer-producer-as-owner.

How does this produce community? All sorts of ways. Stocksy United has a member back-end for members to discuss issues with each other and get to know each other. They produce beautiful annual reports for each other. I’m a member of MayFirst, a server collective, and love the fact that I can get to know other members and our administrators at virtual and physical meetings. Through platform cooperativism, I’ve gotten to know countless people all over the world; just got off a call with a cooperator in Greece. We’re all building an ecosystem together and learning to be accountable to each other. That’s how.

While I do think cooperative bureaucracies can indeed be pernicious, I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss these models, because they can certainly be mitigated. And they are far less demanding and self-serving than corporate executive compensation regimes. While I would love to see distributed architectures take flight, it seems to me that we’re not fully there yet; this has been quite apparent to me, for instance, in trying to have this conversation across Las Indias’ incredibly slow, centrally hosted WordPress instance. GNU Social is indeed a model with potential—I’m currently working on a model for decentralized cloud services myself—but we would be kidding ourselves to think that these tools have the capacity or economy right now to replace other models, unfortunately. There is more work to be done, more creative compromises and experiments necessary—the very kinds of experiments that your rhetoric seeks to squash.” (no longer available via https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/nathan-schneider-defense-platform-cooperativism-responding-las-indias-critique/2017/02/01)



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