An Internet of Ownership: Part 1 – The New Revolution

Paul Thompson

In November, the Centre hosted its annual MacPherson Talk. The 2018 lecture featured Nathan Schneider from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Professor Schneider’s work as a journalist, academic, and author has focused on platform co-operatives and their role in ownership and governance in the digital economy. This series of blog posts is inspired by his talk, entitled “An Internet of Ownership: Democratic Design for the Online Economy.”


Video: Nathan Schneider delivers the 2018 MacPherson Talk

Since I first began learning about the historical roots of the co-operative movement, I have always associated co-ops with the industrial revolution. Anyone who has been around the co-op movement knows the story of the Rochdale Pioneers. A group comprised (mostly) of displaced weavers in the mid-19th created a set of principles by which to run a business for their mutual economic, social, and cultural benefit. In the context of rapid industrialization and disempowered consumers, it made perfect sense: the beginnings of the co-op movement were more cause and effect than coincidence.

And now, as someone who has grown up during the digital revolution, I see a similar shift in how technology has influenced work and consumption. The power of smartphones and the internet is as disruptive to established modes of production as the flying shuttle and the steam engine were 200 years prior. So where is the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers for the 21st century?

Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, provided an answer in his 2018 MacPherson lecture, entitled “an internet of ownership: Democratic design for the online economy.” In his talk, Professor Schneider discussed how the disruptive effects of technology have created a problem; how new kinds of co-ops are emerging to deal with this problem; and how these innovative, co-operative solutions offer hope to both the co-op movement and the workers and consumers who have been displaced by technology.

“Data [are] the new oil”

Let’s start with a simple question: Facebook is perhaps the archetypal giant of the online corporate world, but what does it sell? What about other new tech companies like Airbnb, Spotify, eBay, or Twitter? The answer, in some ways, is “nothing.” With very few exceptions, these companies do not create content. The product they offer is you. The Facebooks of the world offer technology that can connect information to people in new ways, but Facebook only does the connecting; the content is all up to you.

So as one of the one billion content creators for Facebook, what do you get for your efforts? Well, not much. Sure, you get free access to their platform but it’s Facebook that monetizes your content by selling your data and placing adds targeted at users like you. Just this week, another story broke alleging inappropriate use of user data by Facebook. Facebook is a incredibly powerful machine, but it needs fuel to run, and you are providing the fuel for free. As Schneider put it, “data [are] the new oil.” How we can control and use our data is a fundamental question surrounding the rise of the “digital economy.”

The Uber app in action (photo credit)

Surreptitious use of data and monetizing user content are not the only concerns surrounding the digital economy. The labour disruptions caused by platforms like Uber and the rise of the “gig economy” have been well-publicized for their negative effects on workers. The roots of these problems are the same: when we separate value creators from value owners, platforms end up, in Schneider’s words, “disrupting communities rather than empowering them.”

“The problem is not as hard as they make it out to be.”

The solution to these problems is to re-establish value creators as value owners. And as Schneider shows, platform co-operatives are the perfect tool to do precisely that. He provides several examples of user-owned businesses that are thriving in the digital landscape.

Stocksy United is an excellent example of a platform that gives ownership back to content creators. The company, which operates as a co-operative platform for photographers and videographers to sell their work, arose from CEO Brianna Lettwauffer’s experience as an executive in a large, privately owned stock photo platform. After seeing a disconnect between the value created by photographers and the benefit they received in return, Lettwauffer left to found a stock photo site owned, governed, and monetized by the people who create the value: the photographers. Thus Stocksy was born.

Stocksy is not the only innovator among platform co-operatives. Mastodon, a “federated social network,” was developed as a user-controlled alternative to Twitter. Loomio, the product of New Zealand worker co-operative, is a tool that helps facilitate the governance of online collaborations like platform co-ops. The Debian Project is a living example of a massive digital project (in this case, a version of the Linux operating system) that can be governed democratically through a decentralized network of developers.

A screenshot of the Loomio platform. (photo credit)

These are only a few examples of a wave of platforms that are emerging to combat some of the exploitative engines of the digital economy. The question of whether small co-operatives can compete with huge technology companies is being answered in real time. Yes, a co-operative taxi company can create its own app to compete with Uber. “The problem,” according to Schneider, “is not as hard as they make it out to be.” But those who want to use the opportunities of a new kind of digital capital to promote co-operative values would do well to draw on the history of a movement that has been thriving for nearly two centuries.

“I’ve had to turn to history. That has been my only source of confidence.”

Despite the many success stories from the world of platform co-operatives, Schneider emphasizes that the process is not easy. While the problems may be simpler than we make them out to be, there are still many challenges facing nascent platform co-operatives. Securing capital is always a challenge for co-operative enterprises. Governing a co-op has unique difficulties that can be amplified by the geographical distance and member heterogeneity that is typical of online ventures.

However, while these obstacles seem like they are unique to the new digital world, they may be more similar to those faced by the Rochdale Pioneers than they appear. Like us, the Pioneers faced a world that was being disrupted by capital becoming more powerful than it had ever been before. As labourers and consumers were displaced by the influence of capital, the Pioneers developed a new kind of enterprise to meet their needs.

Schneider has found the history of the co-operative movement has given him optimism. The challenge now is taking the lessons co-ops have learned since 1844 and introducing them to a new audience and a new generation.

Learn more about Nathan Schneider and his work on platform co-operatives here

Learn more about the annual MacPherson Talks here here


Paul Thompson, Knowledge Mobilization Officer, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan