A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind (republished 16.11.2017)

[ An unknown tamperer was responsible for the broken Google link to this, one of our most popular posts, first published on Valentine’s Day 2012 — for which we got a ‘Page not found’ message a few minutes ago. It is still topical and worth republishing. ]

‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat … [E]motionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs.’

Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,’

Michaeleen Doucleff,  The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2012

Digesting a grisly dissection of the bio-chemical effects of romance set to music in a financial newspaper told me that February the 14th can only become a more diabolical conspiracy between commercial and scientific calculation.

No sooner had I slogged through the neuroscientific perspective on l’amour than I found an email message from Hewlett-Packard offering me a 50 per cent discount on printer ink with the coupon code ‘HPLOVE20’. The promotion was not stingy with fake sentiment: ‘Our adoration for you is lasting – this offer is not.’

And there you have the reasons why post-gutenberg.com would rather dedicate today not to courtship or its consequences but to the perfect potential marriage of means and ends that we have in the World Wide Web — for redesigning the way companies make money from social networking.

The plan for this Alternative Valentine’s Day was inspired by reading Deborah Orr’s thoughtful anti-Facebook protest in The Guardian last week:

“While the US was extolling the virtues of neoliberal corporatism […] Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the world wide web, and gifting it to the planet, for people like Mark Zuckerberg to exploit.”

And to make sure no one had missed the significance of what she said, commenters on her piece underlined its essence:

Not sure how many will realise that what Deborah is saying amounts to this:

(i) Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a research scientist in Geneva, gave us all the World Wide Web for nothing

(ii) Facebook users are giving the world information about themselves for nothing

(iii) Mark Zuckerberg came along and used Tim’s and everyone else’s generosity to everyone else to make a pile for himself.

1 extremely remarkable member of the 1% indeed.

When will the average Facebook user catch on?

That users are beginning to grasp the dimensions of the Facebook heist – in plain sight and with the full cooperation of its victims – is clear from  newspaper articles elsewhere:

Facebook Users Ask, ‘Where’s Our Cut?

Nick Bilton

The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 11:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — By my calculation, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owes me about $50.

Without me, and the other 844,999,999 people poking, liking and sharing on the site, Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow”: bleak, desolate and really quite sad. (Or MySpace, if that is easier to imagine.) Facebook surely would never be valued at anything close to $100 billion, which it very well could be in its coming initial public offering.

So all this leaves me with a question: Where’s my cut? I helped build this thing, too. Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.

Some of Deborah Orr’s commenters – or at least one – thought the remedy for this injustice obvious:

[ lightly edited for repetition ]

[W]e need to start a movement to turn Facebook into a giant cooperative — in which the users make up the rules, and personal information is not sold to anyone.

[…]

Alternatively, …I have heard that a new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and that he is clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich — as Deborah Orr says — and that this is deeply wrong, …and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods that were hard to find anywhere else. Sometimes, those hairy hippies operated cafés where you could eat earnest, do-gooder sandwiches fringed with medicinal bean sprouts and tasting like specially aged damp sawdust.

Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise.  The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. And, as the same commenter said.

To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work on this very site.

Consider, please:

‘the scheme of social organisation which places the means of production of wealth and the distribution of that wealth into the hands of the community.’

That is a dictionary definition (Chambers) of what became a dirty word for many of us, because the idea was so corrupted in its execution. Yes, I mean, socialism.

But that was before this means of communicating and transparent  decision-making was invented.

A hybrid between socialism and capitalism is what we need as a transitional scheme, and you can download a no-holds-barred exchange on that subject here (a free download: see the comments and response to them at the end, if in a hurry): The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1532173

Well alright, I’ll admit that those comments closely echo sentiments expressed on this blog. They might even have been made by the same tiresome blogger.

Cooperatives sound embarrassingly utopian. But they are the finest examples of socialism in action that we have. An earlier entry in this spot quoted an authority on the subject saying that in the U.S., capitalism’s Mecca, 13 million American already work for these organisations.

Some people react to philosophical nudges in that direction with a silence in which you can almost hear them thinking, ‘But who are you to propose evolutionary possibilities for business?

Actually, nobody. But Albert Einstein anticipated this little difficulty. In a 1949 essay, ‘Why Socialism?’,  he reached far back into history to analyse people’s reluctance to break out of well-established patterns, noting:

The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But, as he said in his conclusion,

[W]e should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Where is it engraved in stone that Facebook has to be owned by a wealthy 1 per cent enriched by the 99 per cent sharing their private information as unquestioningly as feudal serfs?

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Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!

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statvoo ED $8.95 centre

Statvoo.com, a mysterious publisher of statistical estimates on the net, reckons the value of many blogs — like this one — at $8.95 (surely much too high)

Symphysis:

the process of growing together (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

syn– + phyein, to make grow, bring forth (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

Why are Facebook and Google sucking up most of the digital advertising revenue on the web – leaving newspapers far behind?

Shared control of ‘content’ makes visiting these sites compulsive and addictive. Their visitors are not a passive audience but ‘users’ with a big say in determining what they read and see — in effect, co-directors of content creation on their own behalf. On Google, they are looking at responses to search queries that they design themselves; searches as varied and frequent as they wish. The UK Press Gazette noted earlier this month that research by the Reuters Institute shows that ‘social media has overtaken print as a source of news in the UK and that Facebook is by far the most popular social network.’

How can newspapers steal some of Facebook’s thunder?

It is worth noting that The Guardian — in the first year or so after it launched its Comment-is-Free site about a decade ago — could have become far bigger and more powerful than Facebook is today if it had only stayed true to its original mission, in opening up its platform to readers.

What did the Guardian get right in its conception of Comment-is-Free?

It glimpsed the power and potential of symphysis. The newspaper’s leaders, notably Alan Rusbridger and the late Georgina Henry, invited readers commenting on its articles to create a community and virtual clubs with other commenters — by linking from Comment-is-Free to their own, personal blogs elsewhere on the web. This was symphysis put into practice. For example, someone passionate about cats could post links in a comment on a Guardian article about moggy ownership and mental health — to his Siamese cat blog, and perhaps his self-published coffee-table books of photographs on the subject. He could charm or challenge other Guardian site visitors, tempting them to click on his links with comments that amuse or annoy them — and, from their responses, gauge which segment of the paper’s readership, if any, contains his natural audience, and how large that audience might be. He would, in effect, be getting help from The Guardian with market research and publicity not easy to obtain in any other way. In return, cat-loving readers would boost the newspaper’s page views, magnetising new visitors and commenters who got wind of the discussion-in-progress.

Like the Siamese lover, serious professional writers, artists and scholars seeking to draw attention to their work and ideas could create and discover their own forms of symbiosis with the site.

What stopped Comment-is-Free from living up to its promise?

Making comment less and less free, through increasingly heavy-handed and intrusive comment ‘moderation’ by the Guardian — and even outright censorship — which drove away too many sharp, entertaining and irreverent commenters, who made many of us click on the site all day, hoping to read new contributions from them. Links to the blogs of commenters who disagreed with Guardian writers and appeared to be gaining the support of other readers were often broken by the moderators. There were two reasons for the rise of the moderators: a) The official one, ostensibly the only reason, was to reign in rude commenters — control combative rudeness, including incendiary personal remarks about authors of the articles being commented on, and ‘trolling’ by solitary or collaborating disruptors of conversations. b) The hidden and unacknowledged reason: Guardian journalists and writers resented not merely careful, well-reasoned challenging of their facts and opinions by readers, but their challengers’ ability to demonstrate their grasp of a topic comprehensively, on their blogs — to which they could lay trails of digital crumbs in the same way as the cat-lovers in the last paragraph. This point about resentment, rarely conceded by most traditional journalists, has been made over the years on post-Gutenberg, and other blogs. In a welcome surprise last weekend, Giles Wilkes, an editorial writer and contributor to the hugely influential Lex column of The Financial Times, actually underlined it:

[M]any of the faults blogs are accused of apply as much to old media, where they play out in elephantine slow motion and with a tenured complacency symptomatic of a medium blessed with too much protection from competition. […] [W]hen the blogosphere is really on form, its interactions throw up insights of a depth and quality that the mainstream media simply cannot accommodate. [ See ‘How I learnt to love the economic blogosphere.’ The Financial Times Magazine (get a free trial subscription, if necessary, to get past the paper’s paywall) ]

In the blogosphere, Wilkes added, questionable or downright shoddy analysis that print journalists are used to getting away with is demolished with ‘ruthless and rude critique’.

The Guardian and other newspapers make gestures towards the inclusiveness of digital publishing by featuring or spotlighting comments by some readers, or by publishing the occasional ‘above the line’ article that they invite them to write. These are typically bland, in perfect synch with the publication’s politics and other agendas, and sometimes apparently selected for their simple-mindedness. They are soon forgotten by everybody.

What do we lose from obstructing symphysis on sites visited by well-read and keen debaters?

The chance to show old media on which we place a high cultural value how to adapt their modus operandi for the digital age, or how to ‘update their business model’. The essence of what they need is the form of cooperation that technologists long ago dubbed ‘interactivity’ — with essentially two classes of operators. Publishers have to become co-purveyors of content with their audiences, on the one hand. On the other, they will ideally collaborate with other publishers, joining audiences or potential customers (markets) through shared publishing platforms or meta-sites. In the first variety of collaboration, for a newspaper, commenters and their blogs would certainly not replace trained journalists and editors, but simply operate alongside in a loose association, neither group interfering with or directing the creations of the other.

Six years ago, the main blogger on this post-Gutenberg site published, as part of an Oxford Internet Institute series, a draft proposal for such an evolutionary route for publishing. The paper suggested a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ as an economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club, made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims. For example, a newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers, with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs. Six years later, we see nothing wrong with that idea.

Ah, finance! Where are newspapers to find the funds to support any such collaboration, with social media like Facebook and Google set to devour all digital advertising revenue in the future?

Certainly not by following The Guardian’s lead, and forcing readers either to accept being targets for advertisers — or risk of being shut out of the site as punishment for using ad-blockers. Grown-up readers will not put up with being told to eat their spinach: that the newspaper is well aware of the growing popularity of software designed to defeat hidden persuaders only makes this new policy more incredible.

What is the more promising alternative? Switching from advertising revenue to reader subscriptions as a source of funds. Not traditional subscriptions, but a new kind, that would make a deep bow to symphysis. They would be subscriptions that are also tiny financial stakes in the new collaborative or interactive publishing — giving readers something, in a way that The Guardian’s plea earlier this summer for readers simply to become ‘members’ paying £5 a month does not. We have also gathered that the paper’s leaders are opposing the proposal by some senior staffers that these members be allowed to elect a special representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (See ‘Readers’ Knives’ in Private Eye, No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016) All this is a bit reminiscent of the protest and rallying cry of the early American colonies: ‘No taxation without representation!’

Even if the subscription-stakes are so small that they amount to mostly symbolic financial participation and ownership, this could actually give a newspaper an edge over Facebook. As we have argued before in this space, in a just world, Facebook would be a cooperative owned by its users. (‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ 14 February 2012)

But how on earth can a newspaper be expected to handle hundreds and thousands — conceivably, millions — of individual subscriber/stakeholder accounts?

Anyone who has failed to notice that financial institutions have been doing this, by now, for ages, should read a piece that ran in the New York Times in April: ‘Billing by Millionths of Pennies, Cloud Computing Giants Take in Billions’. Of particular interest is this passage:

… This economics of tiny things demonstrates the global power of the few companies, including Microsoft and Google, that can make fortunes counting this small and often … As tech companies get better at measuring things, other businesses can pick up on the techniques, and the fine counting at the big clouds augurs for more precise measurements and pricing …

We have been talking about such micropayments for years, on this blog — but the new term is apparently ‘per-millionth pricing’. As the NYT author suggests, this is something newspapers hoping to stay alive should start doing immediately.

How are people going to get to the ‘truth’ without trained journalists to serve them their facts?

Newspapers still perform a crucial public service when they report methodically and doggedly on important and often unglamorous issues. But — especially as they feel free to be openly partisan in their reporting of politics, now — they cannot be relied on to give us information not distorted by special interests.

Intelligent readers recognise that other sources of information deserve to co-exist with traditional media — even if many conventional editors and journalists still refuse to concede this. With atypical honesty, on this score, the FT’s editorialist Giles Wilkes admits: ‘[I]n 10 years of trying to make sense of the economic blogosphere, I have found nothing as reliably good as the blogosphere. Some of its advantages are simply practical: free data, synopses of academic papers … But what is better is how its ungated to-and-fro lets a reader eavesdrop on schools of academic thought in furious argument, rather than just be subject to whatever lecture a professor wishes to deliver. ’.

Why not let a rising tide of symphysis lift all newspapers and blogs and other sites of readers and commenters — to save Western civilisation? Yes, we are joking. But not entirely.

P.S. How can the problem of rude and unruly commenters on newspaper sites be solved without moderators often maddened by their power?

We have a solution in mind — one we have actually tried out, somewhere else. Newspapers interested enough to arrange a meeting on the subject are invited to get in touch with us at postgutenberg@gmail.com

Cooperatives: now, a famously right-wing ex-editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator emerges as an advocate of true sharing in the ownership of companies …

Joining Pope Francis, the influential, left-leaning author of Postcapitalism, Paul Mason, and the rap emperor Jay Z in proposing cooperatives as the most rational economic structure and best weapon against economic inequality, here is Charles Moore — a Margaret Thatcher biographer, right-wing journalist, and former editor of The Spectator and Daily Telegraph. He is so conservative that he converted to Roman Catholicism after the Church of England decided to permit the ordination of women priests. Where did he proclaim his love of a style of ownership that has led to muttering diagnoses of ill-advised Marxist tendencies in nearly everyone else who has — from the charismatic pontiff to the most undeniably obscure bloggers? In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, no less, in a riveting argument quoting Karl himself — approvingly. Sections worthy of special note:

…There is clearly an unmet need for a politics that goes beyond mere grievance-peddling to develop a new way of thinking about what makes a society free and secure at the same time. If this were easy, we would have heard more of it by now, and I won’t pretend to have the answers. But certain basic principles seem like the proper foundation…

Take ownership much more seriously.

Why are so few companies owned by the people who work for them, and why do both liberal and conservative political parties not offer greater incentives, such as tax advantages, for this to change? It is extraordinary that the joint stock company, the foundation of modern commercial and industrial wealth, is still so little influenced by the views of shareholders.

This is perhaps most evident in the preposterous salaries paid, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, to top executives of public companies. If the owners of these companies truly exercised authority over what is theirs, this wouldn’t happen. If these enterprises had grown over the last 20 years at the same rate as pay for the men who run them (it usually still is men), no one would be talking of a crisis of capitalism.

Ownership of housing, stocks and pensions is an area where creativity has died. This failing of our consumer society may owe something to the baby boomers’ desire to “have it now,” but another part of the problem is that people are correctly no longer confident that what they save now will be available to them later. Savings need more long-term government protection than they receive in most Western societies. A business culture based on deals and bonuses means that the best business minds are not interested in saving.

The ideal of ownership also needs to apply more fully to civil society. It might be a good idea, for example, if citizens could establish ownership rights over their local school by becoming “members.” Under the existing arrangements, how much can parents and communities creatively affect what happens in schools? The charter-school movement in the U.S. and “academies” and “free schools” in Britain are working in the right direction but remain a long way from something citizens can feel they own.

These rights would give people a voice when things go wrong, rather as some congregations have a say in their churches. In Britain, there is an admirable and long-standing body called the Wine Society, wholly owned by its members with the sole purpose of getting them good wine at good prices. There could be some bold ideas about applying this principle to things so important that they can’t be bottled, such as health.

The Victorians were more imaginative than we are about principles of mutuality—credit unions, building societies, the cooperative movement. Such organizations feel creakier in an age when people want larger sums, faster. But is it really beyond the skill of our great modern business brains to develop these concepts and adapt them to modernity? Financial creativity, unfortunately, really has become the preserve of the few, for the few.