Why Cooperatives Offer A Real Alternative in Tech

By Emi Do and Matt Noyes

When Elon Musk bought Twitter late last year, millions of users jumped ship. Many moved to Mastodon, the federated open source platform; by the end of January 2023 the number of  users had leapt from the hundreds of thousands to 6.2 million.

Why Cooperatives Offer Real Alternative in Tech

The decline of Twitter and the rise of Mastodon raise key questions for people in the tech world: how should social media and other tech be owned and governed? Who should control the data and moderate the content? Who maintains the software and minds the servers? Who pays? Who benefits?

Mastodon is superficially similar to Twitter: micro-blogging with followers and boosts. But, instead of a single centralized network owned and ruled by a for-profit corporation, Mastodon is a federated network of over 13,000 “instances” which communicate using the ActivityPub protocol (which is shared by several different types of software, including WordPress, Pixelfed, Drupal, and Friendica).

Social.coop is an instance of Mastodon that operates as a cooperative–meaning that it is owned and maintained by its users who pay a modest fee for its upkeep. Moderation, administration, and tech work are done by elected working groups, with decisions made by members on Loomio (also a cooperative). Meetings are held on Meet.Coop, a video-conferencing platform using the BigBlueButton software. Budgets, contributions, and expenses are handled transparently on OpenCollective.

Source code and some documentation is on Git.Coop; bylaws, code of conduct, and other documents are on MediaWiki, hosted by the WebArchitects cooperative. There are no algorithms, no adverts, no investors to pay. It is a small but robust example of how a network of cooperatively run open source services can provide a democratic alternative to the corporate leviathans.

As we document in Cooperatives at Work, Social.Coop is just one of many cooperatives active in the tech sphere. There are cooperatives of web developers, like the US/Nicaragua-based Agaric.Coop, and web-hosting and service cooperatives, like WebArchitects, in the UK, CommonsCloud, in Spain, and Rabble Cooperative, in Ireland. Incubators like Start.Coop, and academic projects like the Platform Cooperative Consortium support co-op development.

Another topic explored is the possibility of cooperative applications of “trustless” distributed ledger technology, e.g. blockchain. Most of the cooperative experts we interviewed are skeptical. Stacco Troncoso, a developer of DisCO.Coop (Distributed Cooperative Organizations), observed, “You can have the best team, with the best values baked into the technology, but that’s meaningless without regular practices and freedoms which exist outside of the technology.” Alanna Irving, of the Open Collective Foundation, concurs, “the hard parts of cooperating are all about building trust, not zero trust, about people, about connecting your vision with the outside world.”

This is the primary challenge for cooperativism in the tech / digital space: how to create tech businesses within which to cultivate strong social bonds and democratic norms, the kind of solidarity that is cooperativism’s beating heart?

Emi Do and Matt Noyes are members of Social.Coop. Along with four others, they authored new book Cooperatives at Work as part of Emerald Publishing’s Future of Work Series.

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