Exploring the Potentials of Cooperative Models
In the age of the ever-expanding platform economy, questions over the
ownership and governance of social media platforms have become increasingly
relevant. While platforms like X have historically been owned and operated by big
corporations, there is a growing movement towards user-owned and governed
alternatives. Largely sparked by growing concerns about Big Tech’s “free model”
and its integrity in the use of personal data, as well as Elon Musk’s acquisition of
X, this movement is driven by a desire for a more transparent and democratic
social media ecosystem. The rise of the “Fediverse,” and the open-sourced,
decentralized protocols it employs, points to a vision of a fundamentally different
ecosystem, enabling communication across platforms and steering away from
the non-transparent nature of established social media companies.
This paper examines Social.coop, a cooperatively governed Mastodon instance
in the context of the evolving landscape of social media ownership and
governance models. Through an exemplification and analysis of the entity’s
democratic governance model and community-driven management practices
within the decentralized Fediverse, it focuses on the potentials and challenges
this model embodies in creating a more equitable and user-centric social media
BuyTwitter and the Platform Economy
The #BuyTwitter campaign was launched in September 2016 when thousands of
Twitter users latched on to the idea of buying Twitter and converting it into a
user-owned cooperative. The inspiration came from an op-ed published in The
Guardian, “Here’s my plan to save Twitter: let’s buy it,” by Nathan Schneider,
scholar and Professor of Media Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Twitter, which was traded publicly between 2013 and 2022, had been under
pressure from Wall Street after its stock price had steadily decreased since early
2015. In 2016, the company’s revenue also fell for the first time, with an 8%
drop in the first quarter to $548 million. Advertising revenue for the same period
fell 11% to $474 million. These challenges prompted a debate on whether a
user-owned model could better align with its vision than the expectations
imposed by Wall Street.
While the company’s user base was growing, it wasn’t growing fast enough, and
the falling ad revenue– its main source of income– caused additional concern for
its investors and board. The campaign posed the idea that, maybe, Twitter just
wasn’t the kind of company to be traded on Wall Street. As Schneider’s The
Guardian op-ed argued: “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.”
Pointing to the success of Green Bay Packers, REI, and Associated Press as
examples of enterprises using user ownership structures to build trust and more
robust financial models, the campaign argued that a community-owned Twitter
would result in “new and reliable revenue streams” by shifting focus to sustaining
itself rather than maximizing profit.
This vision stands in stark contrast to the current state of most social media
platforms. Companies like X (formerly Twitter) primarily fund themselves and their “free”
model through the sale of targeted advertising based on collected user data. This
became even more evident with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, surfacing in
the aftermath of the 2016 election, revealing that the company in question had
collected the personal data of 70.6 million Americans. Harvesting this data
through a Facebook application called “This Is Your Digital Life”– designed to
build physiological profiles of users and their friends on the platform– the
company worked with the Trump campaign to micro-target voters through
personalized ads based on their profile. In particular, the ads were constructed to
falsely accuse Hillary Clinton of corruption.
Despite a vote on the campaign’s proposal during Twitter’s annual meeting in
May 2017, where 4.9% of shareholders voted in favor, it did not succeed.
Twitter, now X, was acquired and taken private by Elon Musk in October 2022,
followed by a massive user departure, with the number of daily active users
having gone down roughly 13% a year after the takeover. Furthermore, the
American think tank Pew Research Center found that 25% of US users don’t
expect to be using the platform in a year as of May 2023.
ActivityPub, Mastodon, and the Fediverse
With the mass exodus from X, other platforms have seen rapid growth. Between
October and November 2022, right after Musk’s takeover, the decentralized
microblogging framework Mastodon jumped from approximately 300,000 to
2,500,000 registered users. As of December 2023, that number had grown to 10
million. BlueSky– a decentralized X clone initiated by the company in 2019,
before its acquisition– launched in February 2023 and now has 2.3 million
Both of these services are part of what has been coined the “Fediverse,” an
ensemble of interconnected– yet independent social media platforms– utilizing
federated protocols to seamlessly integrate with one another. ActivityPub, an
open-source social media protocol introduced in 2018 by the World Wide Web
Consortium (W3C)– the international standards organization for the internet–
serves as the most widespread protocol used by these platforms.
Mastodon is by far the most used framework utilizing ActivityPub today. Initially
released in 2016 and implemented ActivityPub in 2018, it enables anyone to set
up and operate an instance connected to the bigger network of “federations.”
Modeled as a microblogging platform similar to X, Mastodon allows its users to
post short messages, share links, and repost. In practical terms, this means that
users on one instance can seamlessly interact with and follow users on other
Mastodon instances (or other compatible frameworks), while still storing data on
standalone servers free to run their services in whatever way they want (hence
With more than 11,000 instances, each server employs different policies,
organizational structures, and communities. Mastodon.social is the biggest one
with 880,000 users, operated by the Mastodon gmbH non-profit’s core
developers. Other instances include hachyderm.io, a tech LGBTQ+ community;
the Octodon, describing itself as a ”queer anarchist communist cyber pirate ship”;
as well as PixelFed which uses a forked version of the software for its
image-sharing social network similar to Instagram.
The way these communities organize varies greatly. Some instances, like
Mastodon.social, use open membership models, while others require an
application or invite from someone already present in the community. The way
these instances are governed also differs, where most of them are either solely
managed by one or a handful of individuals, or such information is simply not
While Mastodon enables an ensemble of decentralized nodes, that does not
mean that the power structures within these nodes themselves are decentralized
or democratic. In theory, admins have the ability and power to read private
messages, delete/modify their content, and lock users out as all data is hosted
on one, centralized server. This makes it utterly important these instances are
governed in a responsible and transparent manner.
Co-founded in the wake of the #BuyTwitter campaign by journalist and Professor
Nathan Schneider, Executive Director at Vermont Employee Ownership Center
Matthew Cropp, and developer and social entrepreneur Mayel de Borniol in
2017, Social.coop is a decentralized social media platform running on Mastodon.
Taking a unique approach to the question of ownership and governance in the
Fediverse, it is run as a cooperative, describing itself as a space “for people
interested in cooperative and collective projects.”
Launched just a year after the initial release of Mastodon, and before
ActitvityPub, co-founder Borniol stated in an interview published on the Open
Collective Medium page that “[they] felt that a very important movement was at
risk of failing because we were simply moving from oligarchy to feudalism” as
part of the motivation behind starting the platform.
With a user base counting around 500 active users per month, the instance is
fairly small in the Mastodon ecosystem. Requiring membership fees on a sliding
scale basis ranging from £1 to £10 a month, the platform is primarily funded by
its members, who also happen to be its owners. Committed to the seven
cooperative principles– Voluntary and Open Membership; Democratic Member
Control; Members’ Economic Participation; Autonomy and Independence;
Education, Training, and Information; Cooperation Among Cooperatives;
Concern for Community– Social.coop operates as a platform cooperative through
the utilization of digital tools in its resource management and governance.19
Governance and Resource Management
While Social.coop uses Mastodon for its social media platform, it also employs
Open Collective, a money management and fundraising system, and the
open-sourced governance framework Loomio to streamline its operations.
Open Collective, launched in 2015, serves as a hub for managing resources and
fundraising for open-source projects and community efforts transparently and
collaboratively. It also offers and supports fiscal hosts– entity structures that
hold money on behalf of a collective– eliminating the need for a treasurer.
In the case of Social.coop, all management of resources– from collecting
membership fees to expense reimbursement– is managed on the platform. This
allows the cooperative to handle its finances in an open and democratic way,
building trust among its members as money can’t be released by a single
individual. Furthermore, it utilizes the fiscal host functionality through a
partnership with “Platform 6 Development Co-operative Limited,” holding its
finances and thus making it a legally incorporated entity.
Loomio, an open-source decision-making framework, is employed as the
platform’s governance tool. This is where polls and discussions take place. Using
a one user-one vote model (regardless of membership tier), the group comprises
four smaller “working groups” (“Community”, “Legal”, “Tech” and “Finance”) which
each discusses and works on proposals internally before bringing those
proposals to the full group for ratification. After polls are conducted in the
Loomio group, Platform 6 is responsible for releasing funds on Open Collective (if
Criteria for passing proposals are as follows:
● At least 6 days allowed for members to participate
● A shorter period is permitted for proposals labeled URGENT in the
Title, along with a justification in the Details
● More Agree votes than Disagree votes
Abstain votes allow members to register opinions or concerns without
A Block vote represents a fundamental disagreement—a belief that the
proposal violates Social.coop’s core principles. Proposals with Block
require at least 9 times more Agree votes than Disagree and Block votes in
order to pass.
While the governance model in use promotes democratic principles and
transparency, it’s worth questioning whether such a comprehensive set of rules is
required and beneficial for a group of this size. The Block voting system, which
requires nine times more agree votes than disagree and block votes, could be
perceived as somewhat excessive. Additionally, the cooperative’s dependence
on multiple platforms might pose a barrier to participation, requiring onboarding
and strong community engagement.
Community and Governance Participation
Social.coop is first and foremost a community geared towards people with a
particular interest in co-ops and internet politics; not just in terms of how the
entity is organized, but also what is posted on the instance. From scrolling
through the “live feed,” the section exclusively showing posts from this instance,
it quickly becomes clear that popular and recurring topics include open-source
software, privacy, alternative ownership models, and social justice. There’s a
sense of community, more intimate than your typical X feed would feel like, with
users replying to and reposting each other’s posts.
When it comes to governance and the Loomio group, the group of active
members is a lot smaller. The Loomio group has 422 members, while the Open
Collective counts 830 contributors.
Given that the Mastodon instance only has around 500 active users monthly, the
Loomio group is surprisingly active, but discussions and polls seem to be mostly
initiated by a core group of participants comprising the cooperative’s co-founders
and working group leaders. From observations in November 2023, participation
in polling is also not overwhelming– most polls do not exceed 50 votes. In addition,
with the exception of the Finance group, no other working group has been active
on their respective subpage since 2018.
A recent discussion on its Loomio page started by the user @dynamic, asks
whether it would be a good idea for the co-op to split into two separate instances
and identifies a handful of issues with its current structure. Questioning the
potentiality of scaling the platform, it’s being implied that governance was easier
when the group was smaller. The user also brings up the format of Loomio as a
platform with “comment threads being too long, complicated, and repetitive” and
states that “[they] really can’t keep track of these threads.”
Its co-founder, Nathan Schneider, posted a “toot” on the platform in February
2023 stating that “[they have] been thinking that, in addition to the glorious
smaller-scale model of #Socialcoop, we need a model #fediverse instance that
looks more like a medium-sized credit union,” comprising “thousands of members
rather than hundreds; professional staff for tech, business, legal, moderation;
less active user participation in governance, but still democratic (e.g., board
elections and occasional referendums).”
The Mastodon ecosystem, and Fediverse in general, are associated with notions
of decentralization and user autonomy. The claim of decentralization is
complicated, and only partly true. While the network of interconnected nodes is
decentralized, that does not mean that these nodes are themselves governed in
a decentralized, let alone democratic, manner.
As for Mastodon as a software, it clearly has its own set of issues. As data from
an instance is stored on a centralized server, the admin can delete and modify
content, and supposedly even read private messages between users.
The distributed nature of the Fediverse as a whole adds another layer of complexity–
if messaging someone on a different instance, for example, there’s no guarantee
its admin operates with the same guidelines as your own. While it does federate
the platform itself, it does not federate its users. Building trust between the
admin(s) and users becomes utterly important.
Social.coop, operated as a platform co-op, attempts to steer away from this
system that one might argue resembles feudalism. Utilizing tools such as Loomio
and Open Collective, the entity relies on open-sourced infrastructure to manage
itself and build trust among its members. One disadvantage is that its
infrastructure is not trustless, meaning that it– despite its efforts of power
distribution– still relies on humans to execute actions such as reimbursements,
instead of programmatically executing them (triggered when a consensus has
been reached in Loomio, for example). Considering the relatively low number of
members and low budget, these issues probably aren’t very pressing, but one
could argue that such a model employed on a larger scale would benefit from
another layer of decentralization, similar to tools used by DAOs, for example.
Since Social.coop operates globally and online, we can only assume that building
trust among its members is a vastly different exercise to that of a medium-sized
co-op operating in a specific city or country, for example.
When it comes to governance, it must be questioned whether its approach might
be too ambitious and rigid for an entity consisting of 500 active users. As polls
rarely seem to exceed 50 votes, and its working groups are not very active,
there’s a question to be asked about whether this is a democratically successful
project. As previously mentioned, users have brought up that decision-making
has become harder as the group has become bigger. Some of the threads on Loomio
also feel indefinitely long, and it can be difficult to get an overview without
spending excessive amounts of time on the platform.
While Social.coop’s direct democracy model does ensure total transparency of
decision-making processes, it does feel a little over the top when decisions tend
to be made by the same core group of participants– a 10% voting turnover is not
great. The introduction of representative mechanisms, such as delegates, might
be a more effective, as well as democratically viable, solution. There’s many
ways one could do this, but employing a liquid democracy model– in which users
can delegate and revoke their votes to other users in real-time– would probably
make the most sense for a virtually governed entity like Social.coop. One can
also imagine that a form of reward mechanism, where delegates are rewarded
for the work that they do (voting on behalf of others), could be beneficial.
In conclusion, the exploration of the #BuyTwitter campaign, the emergence of the
Fediverse, and Social.coop’s unique governance model offer valuable insights
into the evolving landscape of decentralized social media platforms.
The #BuyTwitter campaign, while not ultimately successful, sparked a
conversation about the drawbacks of Twitter’s corporate ownership model,
suggesting alternative user-owned structures. The rise of the Fediverse,
pioneered by platforms like Mastodon, signifies a shift towards a more
decentralized platform ecosystem. The significant user growth in Mastodon after
the X (formerly Twitter) takeover and the establishment of BlueSky demonstrate
a growing interest in alternative platforms that prioritize user autonomy, privacy,
and democratic principles.
Social.coop stands out as a unique example of a cooperatively organized
Mastodon instance. Integrating Open Collective and Loomio, the entity attempts
to govern itself through transparent and democratic processes. However, the
critique raises questions about its scalability and potential barriers to effective
participation. Its direct democracy model, which at times feels excessive and
inefficient, has some significant problems, particularly concerning governance
participation. Counting around 500 active users monthly, it is clear that the
platform, in its current state, can’t scale. That’s not necessarily the goal either,
but as it is growing, the question of governance is pressing. The introduction of
delegation mechanisms in combination with a reward system, utilizing a liquid
democracy model, could be beneficial.
Overall, Social.coop must be seen in the context of the larger infrastructure it
finds itself within. The Fediverse model and its underlying protocols do have
some concerning aspects to it, specifically looking at the power dynamics within
instances themselves. Ultimately leaving all power to the server admin, trust
becomes very important in facilitating these communities. Social.coop’s attempt
to address these issues through its cooperative model, suggests a noteworthy
experiment in digital democracy models. Can it replace X? Probably not. But it
does serve as an interesting example of how one might organize within these
decentralized ecosystems, though with its own set of issues.
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