by Matt Cropp, via Co-op Water Cooler
In many ways, the recent #BuyTwitter campaign has been a watershed, breakout moment for the #PlatformCoop movement. While, up to that point, there’d been much theoretical chatter and some successful niche platform co-op applications, the #BuyTwitter ballot item galvanized and focused the community in a new and powerful way. In addition to widely spreading awareness of the co-op model, this energy translated into public endorsements by key major co-op federations and institutions, including the International Co-operative Alliance. As a result, “platform co-operativism” has moved from being a wonky subculture at the intersection of tech and co-ops to a widely recognized essential element of the future co-op movement, which is a huge victory in and of itself.
When the post-annual meeting votes were finally tallied, the #BuyTwitter resolution received 4.9%, which was well in excess of the 3% goal that was the threshold required to re-submit the resolution next year. While discussions are ongoing on the idea of a limited study prior to a second go in 2018, many supporters, inspired by the vision of a user-controlled social media platform, have started signing up for Social.Coop.
The idea for Social.Coop emerged among #BuyTwitter supporters in early April, when the Mastodon platform burst into the public spotlight following some significant changes to Twitter’s design. Built on top of the GNUsocial architecture, Mastodon is an open-source “microblogging” platform that operates very much like Twitter – there’s a 500 character limit, Tweets are called “Toots”, and #hashtags are used for content organization and discovery.
What makes Mastodon fundamentally different than Twitter, and many of the other platforms that populate our online worlds, is that it’s based on the principle of federation. Thus, rather than a single company hosting your profile and data, you can choose a host (or “instance”) from among a multitude of options, and still connect and communicate with folks on other instances via the federation of instances. A good parallel for this dynamic is email vs. Twitter: an email can be sent from an @gmail.com address to an @yahoo.com address with no issues, while a Twitter account can only communicate with other accounts hosted by Twitter.
In the heady early days of Mastodon, the choice of which instance to join was somewhat arbitrary – curious hobbyists were setting them up on personal servers and accepting all comers. However, as the community has grown, questions of Instance governance and sustainability have emerged: how should instances set and enforce policies, and how can they support themselves as they scale without engaging in the same deeply problematic data monetization practices that have been driving users to Mastodon in the first place?
It was in response to these tensions that the Social.Coop project emerged as a way to realize the #BuyTwitter vision in the short term on a practical scale. A group of volunteers came together on the (worker co-op developed and run) Loomio platform, and, after a few meetings, a volunteer purchased a .coop domain and spun up an instance. Simultaneously, Nathan Schneider set up an OpenCollective project though which members could make monthly contributions and expenses could be transparently reimbursed, and it was decided that membership would consist of a sliding-scale monthly contribution of between $1-10, with the possibility of free “honorary memberships.”
After a few weeks of getting infrastructure in place, Social.Coop received a wave of applications for membership from the co-op community in the wake of the #BuyTwitter vote. As a result, the local timeline has become an increasingly vibrant space for chatter among co-op practitioners, academics, developers, and enthusiasts from around the globe. While there’s still much work to be done before the project is truly ready to scale (bylaws to be finalized, incorporation to be decided upon, code of conduct to be developed, etc.), Social.Coop’s success thus-far has been encouraging, both in its implications for the future of co-op social media as a model, and for its concrete success in building a self-managed online social space for co-op geeks.
In his powerful address to student co-operators in the immediate aftermath of the recent U.S. election, Fund for Democratic Communities executive director Ed Whitfield argued that making real change requires three interlocking tactics: resistance, advocacy, and doing it for ourselves. While groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation resist the worst excesses of the extractive social media behemoths, and the #BuyTwitter campaign advocates for their transformative reform, Social.Coop is showing what is possible by building a co-op social media space that can be used now, and that will hopefully serve as a hub for co-op movement organizing going forward.
Matt Cropp is a member of the Co-op Water Cooler Editorial Collective, Associate Director of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, Chief Manager of the Vermont Solidarity Investing Club, and Board Chair of Full Barrel Co-op. He lives in Burlington, VT with his long-time partner and a pair of excellent rabbits. You can find him at https://social.coop/@MattCropp