If you ask Wall Street, Twitter is in trouble. The user-base is growing, but not quickly enough. Ad revenue is growing too, but not as quickly as it once did. The only answer to this leveling-out, it seems, is the platform’s acquisition by a bigger corporate bird, which can regurgitate an influx of capital and absorb our tweets into its own data-craving metabolism. Disney, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Google’s parent Alphabet are all circling above Twitter’s wobbly stock price, salivating.
For lots of us users, it’s a different story. Twitter is pretty great. We reporters rely on its instant access to the chatter of the world more than we like to admit. The running commentary of friends and celebrities has turned horrible presidential debates and State of the Unions into Mystery Science Theater 3000. And the platform nurtures communities fighting for justice; historian Anthea Butler has argued, for instance, that Black Twitter has come to inherit the mantle of the Black Church. It also delivers us frequent access to Donald Trump’s id, if we want.
The trouble is, Wall Street’s economy has become Twitter’s economy, even if Wall Street’s view of the platform’s usefulness isn’t necessarily our view. But what if we changed Twitter’s economy? What if users were to band together and buy Twitter for themselves?
This is the kind of thinking at work in the growing movement for platform cooperativism – a series of experiments in shared ownership and governance for online platforms. But it’s an old idea, too. When I mentioned a Twitter buyout to co-op and crowdfunding veteran Danny Spitzberg, he reminded me of the Green Bay Packers. Have you ever wondered why the small-ish city of Green Bay has held on to its really good football team? It’s because, rather than being traded around by billionaires, the team started selling shares to its fans, starting in 1923. That has resulted in sold-out games, affordable ticket prices, tasteful stadium advertising, and an all-around successful, sustainable business model for generations.
I’m sure many of us have ideas about how we could make Twitter meet our needs better. One suggestion that came my way: “actually moderating threats and hatespeech.” But what would it take to put Twitter in the hands of those who rely on it most?
Armin Steuernagel, founder and managing partner at the innovative new investment firm Purpose Fund, suggested to me that it could go down this way: assemble a company and invite investment for shares that grant dividend rights, but not voting; gather about 20% of the funds needed for the buyout, then borrow the rest, and buy. As for the voting rights, they’d be distributed according to a “ladder of engagement,” including investors and general users, but allocating more control to those who contribute the most value to the platform, such as employees and the most active users. Finally, there could be a few “golden shares” with veto rights, perhaps controlled by a foundation representing all users.
It’s a long-shot, Steuernagel admits, but he points out that this kind of thing recently worked with Prokon, a sizable wind-power company that escaped bankruptcy and buyout by converting to a cooperative.
Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc, wonders whether Twitter’s current leaders could play a role. “Could existing employees (or founders) who believe in such a purchase,” she wrote in an email, “be willing to roll-over some of their stock into the new ownership structure?” We might also need to ask this Saudi prince.
Another suggestion comes from Tom McDonough, a blogger with a history in capital markets, who proposes that less than 1% of users – no small number, at three million – could each buy $2,300 worth of shares and vote as a bloc for a transition to cooperative ownership. They’d then be paid back through the transition process, partly through a membership fee that could average to $10 each year. Rather than giving the company a blank check to sell your data, would you pay a co-ownership fee?
There are other possibilities as well. Using the Jobs Act, which now allows equity crowdfunding, a buyout could be funded with small investments from millions of people. Even the US government could step in, recognizing Twitter as a public utility and helping to orchestrate the conversion – just as it has in financing rural electric co-ops since the 1930s, which have become vehicles for broadband expansion today.
Twitter’s impending transition need not be, for most of us, merely a time to wait and see. It can be a chance for us to discuss, scheme, and organize. What would be an appropriate ownership design for the Twitter we know and love, and how do we get it there? How can we make sure that the future of the company serves those who depend on it most, who most want see it succeed culturally, technologically, and financially? This could be a chance to make the company better reflect the commons and the community that we have built with its product.
Republished from The Guardian