Proposal: turn Twitter into a user-owned co-op

Though Twitter brings in a hell of a lot of money, it's not enough to satisfy the company's investors, who are said to be contemplating a sale to Google or Salesforce; in The Guardian, Nathan Schneider moots the possibility of turning Twitter into a co-operative platform.

Schneider imagines crowdfunding the money to take the platform off its investors' hands, then running it on a break-even basis, hiring staff to optimize it against harassment and the other problems that have plagued the service. A campaign is underway to make that a reality.

Though there are definitely upsides to reimagining Twitter as a mission-driven not-for-profit, there are some structural problems with Schneider's proposal that merit mention. First among these is that Twitter is in a fiercely competitive market for engineering talent, and that nonprofits — who can't offer the kinds of stock-option-based incentives as their for-profit competitors — have a hard time attracting tech people to work for them. Twitter-scale technology isn't for the faint of heart — and that's before designing and rolling out a hypothetical anti-harassment technology suite.

This is the kind of thinking at work in the growing movement for platform cooperativism – a series of experiments in shared ownership and governance for online platforms. But it's an old idea, too. When I mentioned a Twitter buyout to co-op and crowdfunding veteran Danny Spitzberg, he reminded me of the Green Bay Packers. Have you ever wondered why the small-ish city of Green Bay has held on to its really good football team? It's because, rather than being traded around by billionaires, the team started selling shares to its fans, starting in 1923. That has resulted in sold-out games, affordable ticket prices, tasteful stadium advertising, and an all-around successful, sustainable business model for generations.

I'm sure many of us have ideas about how we could make Twitter meet our needs better. One suggestion that came my way: "actually moderating threats and hatespeech." But what would it take to put Twitter in the hands of those who rely on it most?

Armin Steuernagel, founder and managing partner at the innovative new investment firm Purpose Fund, suggested to me that it could go down this way: assemble a company and invite investment for shares that grant dividend rights, but not voting; gather about 20% of the funds needed for the buyout, then borrow the rest, and buy. As for the voting rights, they'd be distributed according to a "ladder of engagement," including investors and general users, but allocating more control to those who contribute the most value to the platform, such as employees and the most active users. Finally, there could be a few "golden shares" with veto rights, perhaps controlled by a foundation representing all users.

Buy Twitter [Loomio]

Here's my plan to save Twitter: let's buy it
[Nathan Schneider/The Guardian]