For Nathan Schneider, the future of Twitter is the Green Bay Packers.
Twitter is struggling to make it as an independent business, unable to increase revenues or expand its audience as quickly as Wall Street would like. So, in recent weeks, it tried selling itself. But no one wanted to buy—not Google or Salesforce or Disney or Microsoft. These big corporate names, it seems, aren’t interested in the way Twitter promotes hate speech and harassment, or they don’t see a good way of realizing big profits from the company—or both.
At this point, the future looks pretty bleak for Twitter. But like millions of other hardcore Twitterers, Schneider—a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder who focuses on media—doesn’t want the service to die. And he doesn’t want it to change too much, either. So, he thinks that Twitter should sell itself to people like him. He thinks Twitter should be run by its fans—much like the Green Bay Packers.
Famously, the NFL franchise is owned and operated by the people of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Rather than trying to maximize profits, this fan-owned organization—The Green Bay Packers Inc.—is merely interested in making enough money to sustain itself. For Schneider, that’s the model that suits Twitter. And after penning an article in the Guardian, he sparked a campaign to make this happen.
“I expected some response from the community, but I was really gratified to see people really grab on to the idea as much as they have,” he says. “It’s not the usual experience that when you throw out a quick idea online that a community forms around it and people start building things autonomously.”
It makes perfect sense. But could this movement actually succeed? Even Schneider admits it’s a long shot. Turning Twitter into a user-owned co-op would require buy-in from the Twitter board—not to mention the current shareholders. But the campaign is determined to make its case to Twitter’s founders, and it has already attracted some notable supporters, including Albert Wenger, a partner at early Twitter investor Union Square Ventures.
At the very least, the campaign provides a blueprint for a new way of operating internet services–a blueprint that new inventors should consider. Twitter should have been built like this in the first place.
A Public Good
The Green Bay Packers isn’t the only precedent. Outdoor equipment retailer REI is a similar co-op. Countless credit unions run this way. And so do a large number of electrical utilities.
By the 1930s, nearly 90 percent of urban homes had electricity, but about 90 percent of people in rural communities didn’t, according a history of electric utility cooperatives published by University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. For-profit electric companies worried that the cost of bringing electricity to these low density areas wouldn’t be worth the revenue they would generate. So, with the help of federal loans, rural communities banded together to create their own utility companies, owned by consumers. Although investor- or government-owned utility companies provide electricity to the vast majority of the population, these co-ops still provide electricity to about 75 percent of the US geography as of 2006.
This may be the best analogy. For Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality” and the new book The Attention Merchants exploring the ways advertising can undermine a company’s mission, Twitter is like a public utility. It’s part of the public dialog. It played an important part in many political and social movements, both online and off, from the Black Lives Matter movement to, ahem, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Outside of the US, Twitter has become a crucial platform for free speech, from the presidential election protests in Iran in 2009 to the recent anti-corruption protests in Mexico.
It makes sense for this utility to remain in the hands of the people. “We don’t expect quarterly doublings of revenue from email, the English language, or the web itself,” Wu says of himself and millions of other Twitterers.
Innovation Without Borders
The problem with this line of thinking is that Twitter is currently losing money. Becoming a co-op won’t remove the need for Twitter to find a business model that actually sustains it. Nor would it necessarily solve one of Twitter’s biggest problems: rampant harassment and trolling.
But digital business consultant Thomas Euler believes if Twitter were somehow transformed into a co-op, this could help breed solutions to these problems. With Wall Street looming, he says, it’s difficult for Twitter to experiment with new business models. “They’re in a really tough situation to reform in a traditional setting,” Euler says. But a co-op would be more tolerant.
A co-op wouldn’t tolerate models that involves more highly distracting ads. But it would encourage people to build entirely new services atop Twitter that could drive more revenue. For example, Euler suggests that, were Twitter more open to third-party developers, activist organizations could build fundraising tools that allowed users to donate to causes directly via Twitter. The company could take a cut of the proceeds. In other words, Euler says, Twitter could take an approach more like Amazon: offer a platform for other companies or organizations to make money.
Twitter-as-platform would also make it possible for people who don’t work at Twitter to come up with better ways of combatting the harassment problem. Ultimately, users could end up with a range of different options to chose from, instead of depending solely on the features developed by Twitter.
Oh, and Uber Too
No one is really sure what a cooperative Twitter would really look like yet, or exactly how to make it happen. People like Schneider could create a new co-op that buys up shares from Twitter stockholders, but that would be extremely expensive. New York University management professor Anindya Ghose suggests that the best way forward might be for a large company to acquire Twitter and then sell shares to a new co-op, creating a sort of hybrid model. Or, Union Ventures partner Wenger suggests, Twitterers could create a co-op that has little to no official ownership of the company, but could influence current shareholders.
Frankly, it would be easier to start a new user-owned social media service rather than trying to turn Twitter into a co-op. But people have been trying to lure Twitter users onto alternative platforms for as long as Twitter has existed, and it never quite works. The more decentralized alternative Identica, for example, launched in 2008. The service App.net, which sought to fund itself on subscriptions instead of ads, has been around since 2012. Neither has supplanted Twitter.
But it’s good to talk about alternative ownership models. It might help new projects in the future. And in a way, this is already happening. Schneider’s campaign grew out of a movement called “platform cooperativism,” which seeks to provide co-op alternatives to sharing-economy companies like Uber and Airbnb. Something like Uber, the movement believes, should be controlled by the drivers. A few tech startups, such as the decision-making software service Loomio—which is being used as an organization tool by the Twitter co-op campaign—have already embraced the idea.
The next big thing doesn’t have to work like Google or Facebook. It could work like the Green Bay Packers.
This article was syndicated from wired.com