13 February 2017
Twitter is a broad church. Its congregation includes autocratically inclined presidents sounding off to millions, and friends indulging in online banter. It should not come as a shock, then, that one pew is occupied by evangelists for a radically different ownership model.
Two shareholders want the social media platform to quit the stock market and turn itself over to “democratic user ownership”. As a co-operative, they argue, Twitter could tap new revenue, spur innovation and better handle the tide of hate speech and abuse that threatens to swamp it. Twitter counters that the plan is “impermissibly vague” and should be kept off the ballot at its next shareholder meeting.
Fans of co-operatives have often been accused of dreamy utopianism. In 1900, retailer
Twitter addicts know plenty about “wasted energy”. But they also know about the world-changing potential of the service, a powerful weapon in popular uprisings and still an indispensable tool for movements and marketers.
Whether that makes user ownership an ideal, or even feasible, structure is a different matter. Twitter’s fortunes are already in the hands of its users. Their 140-character contributions are Twitter - and that is both an asset and a liability. Prolific tweeters are highly devoted but the noise and chaos on which they thrive deters newcomers, unsettles advertisers and drives away occasional users.
The co-op plan echoes the misguided assumption that changing the form of a business will automatically change its fortunes. Since the financial crisis,
Co-ops, mutuals and employee-owned organisations, for all their ideals, are still prone to volatile business cycles, venality and common-or-garden mismanagement. The UK’s
Mondragon, the much-lauded and studied Spanish co-op group, ran into harsh commercial reality in late 2013, when it had to let its Fagor manufacturing arm go bust, a victim of the general economic downturn. In the US, United Airlines’ well-publicised stint as an employee-controlled business in the 1990s deteriorated into us-and-them acrimony between staff and management and ended in the bankruptcy courts after seven years.
Yet the monstrous, costly and systemically important scandals regularly spawned by the listed company sector are on a different scale. And this is why the Twitter proposal, however “vague”, deserves a hearing.
Many co-ops thrive.
“There are [economic] peaks that co-ops, employee-owned and mutual businesses won’t see,” adds
A Twitter co-op would have to reflect and manage its many user-owners. Firm governance would be essential. Happily, technology and internet companies already offer a variety of such structures. Wikipedia and Firefox-creator Mozilla are open-source, collaborative organisations overseen successfully by non-profit foundations, despite periodic crises of control and conscience. At the other extreme is the winner-takes-all approach of the founders of Snap, owner of Twitter rival
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017
(c) 2017 The Financial Times Limited