Sci-Fi Imagines the Cooperative Platform Economy as a Victor

In mid-November on a Floridian island,
Six Silberman, a researcher for a German union, offered a retrospective of the platform co-op movement to a full room at the ACM GROUP 2016 conference.

Though Silberman’s speech was based on a work of design-fiction, “Reading Elinor Ostrom in Silicon Valley,” and told from the standpoint of a speaker at the conference’s 2025 installment, the future that Silberman elaborated made tangible the changes that our movement demands. He spoke not through the abstract lens of a theory but the concreteness of the assertion of their already-being.

Directing his attention first to social platforms, Six Silberman walked his audience through the successful 2017 purchase of Twitter by its user base, a reference to the
#WeAreTwitter campaign, before discussing the rise of the stakeholder-owned competitor to Facebook, Boopnode.

Following Six’s timeline, in 2016, with Twitter facing financial uncertainty, a campaign proposed to collectively buy Twitter and turn it into a platform co-op; in late 2017, the campaign succeeded. Twitter almost failed a few times in its first five years as a cooperative, but that’s when researchers from the
Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) stepped in! They played a major role in developing the governance mechanisms that dramatically reduced harassment on Twitter, which stabilized the cooperative’s finances and user base by the year 2023.

In parallel, Facebook-alternative Boopnode was founded in 2018 and had taken a quarter of Facebook’s market share within five years. Academic research into Boopnode would play a role in its success, shaping both the product and the multi-stakeholder organization. Silberman: “In terms of the depth, breadth, robustness, and responsiveness of its democratic governance, Boopnode is by far the most successful cooperatively governed digital platform.”

Boopnode also impacted those platforms which refused to adopt cooperative ownership models:

2021 was a good year for democracy at Facebook: we saw the formation of the User Advisory Board there and the reservation of two spots on the board of directors for elected representatives of users. And in 2023 shareholders pressured the board of directors to give the User Advisory Board the power to issue binding recommendations to the product and operations teams.

Continuing, Six Silberman discussed “contemporary” research into the structures and behaviors of digital labor platforms, (“now”) understood to function simultaneously as markets and governments. The researchers of Silberman’s timeline were said to have made great strides in both mapping the governmental structures and practices of these platforms, improving their efficiency and equity via policy recommendations made to platform owners. When these recommendations were ignored, successes were achieved when motivated researchers engaged in political interventions through the development of tools for users and the creation of cooperatively-owned alternatives to obstinate platforms. (One might think of Silberman’s own project,
Turkopticon, which has helped innumerable workers on the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform avoid wage theft and other workplace abuses.)

The crowning achievement of these researchers, however, was nothing less than a radical reversal of traditional conceptions of the market:

Perhaps the most striking intellectual development in this work has been the emergence of the notion that a market is best thought of as a commons — a shared resource with many stakeholders whose diverse interests ought, for sustainable, equitable operation, all be taken into account. Indeed this idea has begun to be applied not just to markets but to digital infrastructures broadly, not just in design and operation but also in policy.

Though Silberman cautioned his audience that there is still much work to be done, in his concluding remarks he noted that the aforementioned successes were only realized by the efforts of “designers and technologists who see the connections between design and justice, design and democracy, design and compassion, design and the meaning of our inescapable being human together.” Though design-fiction, this holds up to scrutiny: now, more than ever, the world will benefit from the impassioned labors of those who recognize the political nature of design. We look forward to the year 2025 and hope to make good on the future which Silberman has promised already exists.

You can read the full transcript of Silberman’s talk
here. Or, you can listen to an audio recording.