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Thursday, April 18, 2024

You—Yes, You!—Would Be a Better Owner for Twitter Than Elon Musk

As he toyed with joining Twitter’s board or outright buying the company this week, Elon Musk tweeted a series of ideas for the platform, from a renewed commitment to “free speech” to an edit button for tweets. Waves of users weighed in, knowing full well that any changes would be made in-house. But what if ordinary Twitter users had actual power in these decisions? Rather than merely favoriting and retweeting, what if they could suggest and vote on the policies that affected their experience online?

Twitter’s ownership problem began long before Musk’s machinations. The conversations and communities that Twitter hosts have always been, legally at least, commodities to be bought and sold. The prospect of handing this essential piece of democratic infrastructure to the world’s richest man is a symptom of that underlying design.

Musk’s stated intent to steward Twitter on behalf of democracy and free speech is familiar. In 2018 he promised audiences at South by Southwest that there would be direct democracy in his colonies on Mars—even as he was obstructing union organizing among Tesla workers. And in 2020, as the pandemic began, he forced Tesla production to resume in Fremont, California, against the recommendations of local health officials, resulting in infections. Handing absolute power to one person is never a good way to get more democracy.

In 2016, our concern about Twitter’s vulnerability motivated us to organize Buy Twitter, a campaign launched as the company faced another threat of acquisition—maybe by Salesforce, maybe by Disney. With many collaborators and shareholders, we formally proposed that the company study its options for converting to user ownership so that it could be itself a democracy. Juries of users might study and formulate policies for larger groups to vote on. Perhaps users would be able to debate and decide on moderation policies, for instance, and center those who have experienced harm on the platform in decisions about how to prevent it in the future. Perhaps cultivating a healthy public space would become more of a priority for executives than propping up the share price.

“It makes perfect sense,” said WIRED at the time! We pointed to examples of broad-based ownership and accountability like the Associated Press, a global nonprofit owned by the thousands of news organizations it serves, and the Green Bay Packers, a beloved football team owned by its fans. After a media frenzy, our campaign culminated with a vote at Twitter’s 2017 shareholder meeting. Nearly 5 percent of all Twitter shares voted in our favor—not a win, but early validation for an idea that has kept on spreading since.

No tech company as big and established as Twitter has turned around and become user-owned. But as the years go by, more and more signs of hope for democratically owned tech have emerged. Twitter itself might even have followed our suggestion, at least a little. In 2019, then CEO Jack Dorsey announced Bluesky, a project “to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.” This could enable a network with many forms of ownership and control, instead of a single company.

Startups face immense financial and cultural pressure to “exit” by getting acquired by a bigger firm or going public on a stock exchange. These pressures drive many of the most dangerous threats that tech poses to society today, as they pursue investor profits at all costs. Better startups need better options. Since our #BuyTwitter campaign, we have developed a playbook for “exit to community” with diverse startup founders eager to ensure long-term benefits for users and workers. With the social entrepreneurship network Zebras Unite, in 2020 we co-organized two dozen founders to expand the playbook, and since then we have talked with nearly 100 companies, from artist-centered streaming platforms to mental health services, all exploring techniques for transitioning to community control.

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We already see a range of experiments, mechanisms, and networks to support diverse ownership transitions. For instance, when the unicorn biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks went public in 2021, it ensured that employees control how the technology is used, even as retail investors share in the profits. They did so by implementing a dual-class structure in which employees’ shares have 10 times the voting power of investors.

Perhaps the most visible effort to shift power to a community is underway at Open Collective, a crowdfunding platform for open source software and mutual aid projects. Because it got started with values-aligned investors and didn’t take on too much capital, community ownership is still viable. CEO Pia Mancini has indicated that the best strategy might be to use a “perpetual purpose trust,” a flexible legal structure that confers shares in a company not to individual owners but to a mission. Open Collective has even invited its users to join the process of shaping its exit to community, out in the open. What if Twitter did the same?

Some of the most energetic, nerve-wracking experiments in community ownership are happening on blockchains. This technology has its share of problems, but it offers useful enabling mechanisms and models, from innovative voting systems to DAOs. Kickstarter, a platform of a similar vintage as Twitter, recently announced plans to reimagine its crowdfunding product into a community-governed blockchain protocol. One promising practice is what blockchain enthusiasts call “progressive decentralization”—the gradual distribution of power and wealth as a project matures. The blockchain platform Gitcoin, for example, distributed governance tokens to users, giving them the ability to vote on how the platform works and where to allocate development resources. Other blockchain projects are rediscovering older forms of shared ownership by incorporating as cooperative businesses.

One further form of community power that is spreading across the tech industry is worker organizing. Worker organizing in and around software has been underway since at least the 1970s, with efforts like the IBM Black Workers Alliance and a campaign to end Polaroid’s support for South Africa’s apartheid regime. While Twitter reports having one of the highest ratings for employee satisfaction, with Musk’s announcement, the fate of their jobs hangs in the balance. As unionization campaigns gain ground at companies from Kickstarter to Amazon, workers are gaining leverage against the whims of investors and founders alike. One tech worker has even suggested that unionizing Twitter might be an excellent way to ensure that union-busting Elon never wants to buy it—and, we might add, to prepare the way for community ownership.

Despite all the experiments we have been following since we first challenged Twitter’s structure in 2016, we can’t pretend that the path to platform democracy is easy or clear. Even the likes of Uber and Airbnb asked to share stock with their most loyal users, and existing US law offered no easy way to do it. If two of the country’s biggest lobbying operations can’t implement even a modest version of community ownership, imagine what tiny startups are up against. Ultimately, we need better policy that ensures that, for both conventional stock and crypto assets, community ownership has a real chance to compete with investor ownership.

Community ownership remains a struggle in the face of tech billionaires and their egos. But it can win. On Thursday, Musk’s plurality stake in Twitter was exceeded by another shareholder: Vanguard, a gigantic financial firm owned by its mutual funds, which in turn are owned by the people who invest in them. Vanguard’s profit-maximizing agenda is little better as a steward for Twitter than Musk’s trolling. But perhaps the bidding frenzy will mobilize Twitter’s workers and users to insist that it is time for an exit to real accountability.

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