What’s in a name?
A lot, I suspect, when the subject is cooperatives.
Writers delete or tear up drafts, painters scrape paint off canvases that refuse to match the visions of a mind’s eye – and versions of co-owned enterprises, surely hundreds of thousands of them over the years, have ended up on some equivalent of the cutting-room floor.
But associations with failures of the past should hardly be allowed to stain the excellent solution cooperatives could be. Certainly not now, when – as noted on post-Gutenberg last week in a post about Facebook – the World Wide Web is proving to be a matchless engine for running them, and getting around the classic banes of collaborative ownership and administration.
What if our name for these organisations has become the chief enemy of their promise? Should we call them something else? Say, leaps – as in a leap of leopards, to convey a jump in the right direction for co-ownership and co-action? Peer-to-peer pods, anyone? Straightforwardly, collaboratives? Or just flats, perhaps, as shorthand emphasising that these are anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian and decentralised structures.
The next few years should see the evolution of specialised terms for variations of such online organisations – or simply net-related groupings – that meet different needs. I have for some time been fondly considering an exaltation of bloggers for our key-tapping multitude, in a nod to the seductive title of James Lipton’s book about collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks.
Since last week, search engines have led me to others who think that Facebook should be turned into a cooperative – although there was little open support for this suggestion when it was first proposed under the screen name ‘postgutenberg’ last September in a comment beneath David Mitchell’s semi-serious call for the ‘nationalisation’ of the social mega-network. (That comment, too, was inexplicably censored by The Guardian, but I have a copy of the page as it was before the axe descended.)
A writer for Reuters, Paul Smalera, carefully set out the reasons why a collaboratively owned and run Facebook makes sense:
Why not share the company itself? It’s fine to talk about technology’s power to change the world if you’re the one who’s going to profit from it. But this isn’t really a change […] it should become a nearly one-of-a-kind company for the technology sector: a co-op.
Facebook wouldn’t be forgoing its fundraising if it abandoned its IPO and became a co-op. […] In Facebook’s virtual community, its 845 million users could easily pay a small sum — say $5 in the U.S. and some locally adjusted equivalent in other countries — to become an owner. Some of that money would be used to buy out existing stock owners and set up the new management model — it would still have Zuckerberg as CEO with a management team, but with the same one vote that every other member has. Over time, if Facebook’s owners keep the cost of becoming a member as low as possible without in any way starving the site for cash, Facebook could even become the world’s first trillion-dollar company — just in a way no one has ever previously imagined.
He went on to give even more specific suggestions for how it might operate:
Facebook already offers voting tools, organization pages, recommendation links, polling, etc. With the help of a management team and committee structure, it would be pretty easy to let members assign themselves to committees and shape Facebook into the community they want it to be.
[T]hink of a sample proposal. Say a user wants Facebook to give 10 percent of its income to charity.
1. She creates a new page and persuades her friends to follow it. The page holds the pro and con discussions of the proposal.
2. After hitting a certain threshold of followers, the page makes the Revenue Committee agenda, where a subcommittee is assigned to study its feasibility and write a summary about the proposal’s impact on Facebook, including how it would affect the bottom line.
3. The committee then votes on the summary — if it’s approved, it goes into a general Facebook meeting, where the entire user base gets to vote. […]
Commenters on the Smalera piece were understandably pessimistic about the chances of Mark Zuckerberg handing over Facebook to its members. So was a colleague of his, Edward Hadas, in a critical but beautifully balanced consideration of his arguments a few days later. He concluded on an encouraging note:
[T]he limited success of the cooperative movement does not equate to a resounding triumph for its ideological opposite – the shareholder value cult. If profits were all that mattered for the economy, then more than a quarter of all American workers would not be employed by enterprises that function, often quite well, without profit motive – 17 percent by governments and another 11 percent by private, not-for-profit, organisations.
In organising the economy, greedy schemers and utopian dreamers are not the only alternatives. Like well-run government agencies and prudent shareholder-owned companies, well-designed cooperatives can be efficient servants of the common good.
The expectation of resistance to a pure cooperative explains why the keirestu-cooperative — first proposed two years ago for the evolution of publishing – does not entail starting a co-owned enterprise from scratch.
It lays out, instead, a scheme that amounts to a halfway house for old print media moving into the future. A newspaper publisher could experiment with sharing ownership of a segment of its site with readers paying small sums for their subscriptions or shares. This section would ideally be one in which readers already contribute most of the content today, in their role as commenters.
As part of the experiment, the co-owners would share any profits from advertising attracted to the trial site, which would give them an extra incentive to lure more readers and part-owners to it.
Setting up such a site – starting with software design and registering co-owners – would cost money. A newspaper publisher could share that, and the expense of site administration, by entering simultaneously into a funding partnership with, say, a book publisher catering to essentially the same audience.
That would make for a collaboration resembling the loose affiliations between firms that the Japanese call a keiretsu.
People who reject that word as too exotic need to know that it is easy to say – ky-ret-su – and should remember that there was a time when we were just as frightened of the word karaoke, which has since become as unremarkable as pizza.
The scheme is all. A keiretsu-cooperative by any other name would be fine by me – as long as someone, I mean, some few, are brave enough to try it out.