Revitalizing Online Sociality: Exploring New Forms of Community Ownership

Last week, a veritable who’s who of researchers and community technologists from Boulder, Vancouver/Tokyo, Oakland, and Leeds convened at the kick off for Platform Co-op School to think about how to revitalize authentic online sociality. They presented their views on existing alternative social platforms and engaged in a robust discussion on strategies to address the downward spiral of mainstream platforms such as Twitter. Testimonials about existing alternatives like Hylo and Mastodon were emotionally charged and inspired attendees. The participants also acquired a deeper appreciation of other forms of community ownership and the nuances of transitioning to platform co-ops. Ultimately, the event was an intellectually invigorating and inspiring experience.

In the aftermath of Elon Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter, it’s become apparent that a significant number of users, a staggering three million out of the 330 million active users, have sought to abandon the platform or cease all activity there. This serves as a clear indication that people are on the hunt for something better. Enter Mastodon, a beacon of hope for those seeking a more user-centric, decentralized, and safer solution than the profit-driven mainstream social media data mills. Since the takeover, Mastodon’s membership has seen a remarkable surge, rocketing from 30,000 to a staggering 2.5 million.

Trebor Scholz kicked off the event by emphasizing the importance of seeking alternatives to mainstream social media giants like Twitter and Baidu, given the increasing demand for more accountable, user-controlled platforms. There have been calls for boycotts, unionization of Twitter staff, and policy initiatives to encourage the development of more social media alternatives. Antitrust laws, interoperability legislation, and employee stock ownership plans are among the policy options being examined to promote competition and create cooperatively run social media platforms.

But Trebor cautioned us against a moralistic stance that fails to acknowledge the hard truths faced by individuals residing in poverty-stricken countries such as India. For many in low-income nations, access to mainstream social media platforms is part of their limited, “free” internet package, yet they must still pay for access to alternative options. This cannot be ignored.

Slow, No, Low Tech
Joanne Armitage, who opened the event, hailed from the UK and started her talk by highlighting the widespread union activism occurring in the country, including strikes at over 150 universities. As a visiting scholar at the Berkman Klein Center’s Institute for Rebooting Social Media, Joanne joins a diverse group of scholars, fellows, and creatives in their 3-year effort to reevaluate and enhance the current state of social media.

Joanne agrees with Trebor’s warning against having a solely moralistic perspective on social media, and highlights the importance of weighing the trade-off between privacy and convenience for a more collective, fair, and equal approach. Joanne referenced Nancy Baym, a scholar and Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, who in her 2015 critique of social media, stated that:

“At their best, social media would help us build better worlds. They would help become better humans. But social media cannot foster more just societies when their primary goals are growth and profit. Better societies cannot be built on models of humans as data profiles to be matched by advertisers.”

Joanne shared her project “Slow, No, Low Tech,” which focuses on taking a deliberate approach to media consumption and sharing, promoting mindfulness and resistance to the false notion that faster and more convenient is always better. Her work also sheds light on the political aspect of social media and the trade-off between labor and data privacy. Joanne’s interest in alternative social media platforms stems from their advocacy of different values. 

She highlighted “Voz Pública,” a project by Mexican artist Dora Bartlotti, which amplifies stories of gender-based violence in public spaces through human voices recorded in garments.

Joanne has created a list of alternative social media platforms and is seeking feedback and contributions.

Nathan Schneider: Champion of Community-Owned Social Media
As an author and assistant professor at the University of Boulder, Nathan Schneider is a prominent voice in the movement for community-owned social media. For over a decade, he has been exploring the intersection of technology, ownership, and social media. He is a champion of community-owned social media and an advocate for alternatives to conventional online platforms. In Nathan’s view, this is a pivotal moment for people to come together and re-imagine social media. 

Nathan has a personal connection to social media, having fallen in love with Twitter while covering social uprisings as a reporter around the world in 2010-2012. Despite being unable to physically be at all the events, he was able to connect with voices from around the world through the platform, which was a profound experience for him. Nathan reminds us that social media has roots in activism and social change, citing networks like Indymedia as examples of early social media created by activists. He argues that social media was not invented by venture capitalists and does not have to remain under their control. Despite the fact that most students today experience social media as investor-owned platforms, Nathan believes there is a case for community ownership.

Nathan shares his involvement in the “Buy Twitter” campaign of 2016, which sought to build a shareholder resolution asking the company to explore options for user ownership. Although the campaign received a vote of just 4%, it raised awareness about alternative ownership models for social media. Nathan argues that community ownership of social media is essential for ensuring that the opportunity for shared ownership isn’t lost to the power of concentrated capital.

He believes that it is important to invest in ecosystems that enable community ownership, rather than assuming it will emerge spontaneously from protocols. Despite the availability of tools like Mastodon and Open Collective, Nathan acknowledges that it can still be challenging to self-govern in the world of alternative  social media.

He suggests that recognizing the limitations of current social media opens up new possibilities for creativity, and that alternative approaches that prioritize self-governance and small communities over top-down control and scalability could lead to more meaningful and sustainable online communities.

You can learn more about Nathan’s work on his websites and published articles, including “Exit to Community” and “Mastodon Isn’t Just A Replacement For Twitter

From Critique and Tinkering to Action: Tibet Sprague’s Vision for a Better Social Platform with Hylo
Tibet Sprague, founder of the Terran Collective, believes that the root problems with current platforms are their extractive business models and addiction-oriented focus. But he’s not content to simply critique the status quo and engage in creative tinkering with existing platforms- he’s taking action. Sprague was gifted the social coordination platform Hylo, which he’s now running as a non-profit/for-profit hybrid with the goal of becoming a platform co-op with decentralized ownership and collective governance. The goal of Hylo, currently in its early adopter phase, is to foster deeper relationships and increase trust through community-building, collaboration, and impactful action, while being supported as a public good without ads. supported by the community and partners.

What sets Hylo apart is its pro-social commons approach, built on research into cooperation and  resource management of the commons following Eleanore Ostrom. Instead of focusing on engagement-driven content creation, Sprague’s project aims to facilitate community-building, collaboration, and impactful action in the world.  

Hylo offers a refreshing alternative to the engagement-driven content creation and consumption of current social platforms. Instead, it aims to facilitate community building, collaboration, and impactful action. Hylo breaks free from the control of data and services and evolves towards sustainable revenue models that align with its values and purpose. It’s an exciting time in the world of alternative social media, and Hylo is one to watch.

Building Community through Cooperative Ownership: Emi Do’s Journey with
As an Assistant Professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture, Emi Do has a deep understanding of the inner workings of urban agricultural cooperatives, having helped found one 15 years ago. Yet, as she delved deeper into the topic of cooperative ownership, she faced the same challenge faced by many groups: the lack of human connection and mutuality that is so essential for overcoming conflicts and issues. Emi’s journey brought her to, an all-things-cooperative-instance of Mastodon, that was designed to provide its members with a space to connect and engage as their whole selves. This platform, which has already established infrastructure with Open Collective for financial contributions and for member interaction, provides a sense of community and mutuality that is so critical for decision-making and ownership. Emi’s experience with has been a dynamic one. She joined the platform when it was still small, with around 40 to 50 active users and over 300 registered users. The platform was functioning as a democracy with various working groups, including community, tech, finance, and legal, although membership to these groups was optional. However, with the influx of new users due to Jack Dorsey’s controversial move on Twitter, the platform faced moderation challenges. Members worked together to de-escalate the situation and came up with a rebooted code of conduct to provide clearer expectations. This led to a more formalized working group structure, with the Tech working group meeting regularly and setting boundaries for new projects, and the community working group forming an Ops team to handle moderation issues efficiently. Emi describes as a curated magazine where members can learn about new initiatives, efforts, and art being made by like-minded individuals. The organization has introduced its members to open source and cooperatively run technologies, such as a web conferencing software and a Next Cloud account. Moreover, it has also given rise to some fun initiatives, like the speculative fiction group, where members come together to create a parallel universe and tackle real-life challenges in a safe space., therefore, is much more than a platform; it is a community where people can be their whole selves, connect with each other, and work together to achieve a common goal. A recording of the event is linked here.

The Path to Creating Responsible and Ethical Social Media Platforms
The open discussion focused on the challenges in establishing responsible and ethical businesses, particularly for platforms like Twitter. Participants considered various mechanisms to empower workers and users, including trusts and dual stock tiers. One speaker discussed the importance of viewing platform cooperatives as businesses, not just democratic entities, and stressed the importance of learning from successful cooperative models. Another speaker pointed out the need for increased collaboration among co-operatives, while yet another spoke of the difficulties in funding and scaling alternative projects, but expressed hope for a cultural shift towards models that prioritize power and ownership distribution. A speaker who is part of the Collaborative Technology Alliance emphasized the need for collaboration and interoperability among different platforms. Another speaker expressed concern about the practices and theories behind alternative systems, calling for a break from dominant systems dominated by white men and colonial ideas. The challenge of attracting capital to alternative platforms and the need for a shift in investment mindset was also touched upon. A final speaker commented on the lack of patient capital in green finance and the potential for co-ops to collaborate for greater efficiencies.

Despite the challenges, the 200+ people who registered for this event understood the importance of the discussions and demonstrated a growing recognition of the need for alternatives to revitalize authentic online sociality. Register for the next events with #Platformcoop #School: our community assembly on February 8 and our one-day business course with Drivers Coop and on February 18th.