When Platform Coops are Seen, What Goes Unseen?

If you’re involved with the “cooperative community” on social media, you’ve probably heard a lot about platform cooperatives in recent years. The vision is simple: what if Uber or AirBnb were owned by its users, who could share decision-making responsibility and profits among themselves? Instead of being exploited by platforms, users could and should be running them. Just like cooperative supermarkets, these “platform co-ops” could market themselves as democratic alternatives to the venture-backed “Death Star” platforms coming out of Silicon Valley.

While I certainly agree we need to see new organizational forms take on the dominant venture-backed startup model, platform cooperatives have yet to prove that they’re up to the task. In fact, there are so few financially sustainable platform cooperatives in existence that, when Shareable magazine tried to list them in their article “11 Platform Cooperatives Creating a Real Sharing Economy,”, it had to include businesses that don’t sell any products or services yet, businesses that aren’t cooperatives, and businesses that aren’t platforms. Some people complained about the exaggerated tone of the article in the comment section, so Sharable added a disclaimer at the bottom of the story.

The fact remains that, despite two years and two high profile conferences in support of the concept, you can count the amount of genuinely successful platform cooperatives on one hand. And it’s not like this is a radically new concept that people have to wrap their heads around. Cooperatives are a very popular and proven business structure.

Despite platform cooperativism’s modest gains, I do see the concept’s value. Its existence pressures successful online platforms to share some of their profits with their users, and invites entrepreneurs who want to create new platforms to try out a new organizational structure. I worry, however, that the cooperative community only has a limited amount of cognitive capacity it can use to process information technology innovation, and the fantasy of platform cooperativism is taking up space that could be better used by promoting and applying open source, open data, and peer-production principles to overcome some of the cooperative movement’s most pressing challenges. Instead of spilling lots of ink dreaming about how technology companies could be cooperatives, the “cooperative community” should be asking how cooperatives can benefit from technology development models that have a proven track record of success.

The two models I wish were being more widely discussed in the cooperative community are open source technology and open data practices.

Open source software and the peer-production process it has spawned have been wildly successful at challenging conventional software technology business models. In 2001, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft called Linux, which is the world’s most used open source software project, “a cancer.” A decade later, Microsoft was in the top top five corporations contributing to Linux. Google’s core operating systems, ChromeOS and Android, both run on Linux, and so do emerging competitors, many out of Asia, that are leveraging Android’s open source core to compete directly with the Google in the smartphone market. That is just one of a myriad of open source success stories that include WordPress, Firefox, Wikipedia, and so much more.

Corporations are adopting open source and other peer-production processes such as open data, open knowledge and open hardware like wildfire—not because they want to share, but because they want to make money. Meanwhile, cooperatives are expected to follow a set of principles, one of which is “cooperation among cooperatives,” and yet their adoption of open source and open data within the cooperative community is minimal. Evidence of the cooperative community not adopting open approaches and following principle six include:

  • Research reports from cooperative support organization often have restrictive copyrights them instead of open, permissible, Creative Commons ones.
  • Research data is locked away in PDFs instead of being made available in open data portals.
  • Information about cooperative networks and membership organizations is often organized in proprietary data models instead of open ones, and not made openly available in bulk using open data formats.
  • Cooperatives are often structured hierarchically like banks instead of horizontally like open source projects.
  • There still isn’t a searchable online directory of cooperatives in the United States, much less an open data compliant one.

All of the above problems could be resolved if the cooperative movement followed best practices emerging from the unfashionable but very useful open source, open data, free culture and open access, and peer-to-peer movements. These practices have proven track records for enabling highly productive, widespread collaborations among many different types of stakeholder groups. One thing they very rarely do is organize themselves as cooperatives. Instead, open source projects tend to use for-profit, nonprofit and unincorporated entities.

We tend to view platform cooperativism as a vision that has yet to be realized, but it could just as easily be viewed as a potential future that never came. Cooperative organizational structures are not new. They have impacted a myriad of giant industries including food and agriculture, electricity and real estate. So why haven’t cooperatives been successful at software development? The answer to this question could be a key to moving platform cooperativism forward.

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