What would it be like if Facebook users owned and controlled Facebook, or if Uber drivers owned Uber? What would be different, and how do we get there? In the following short essays, five of us explore that question—imagining the prospects for mixing cooperative business models with the online platforms that many of us rely on daily.
A cooperative renaissance on the Internet is possible, and new tools make it more and more within reach. But it will mean changing the habits of financing and governance that have come to rule the tech industry. It also means changing how we, the users go about choosing what we use, and how.
Three Ways to Put Tech Platforms into the Commons
by Janelle Orsi
Do you suppose the founders named it ”Airbnb” because they envisioned pulling billions ‘n’ billions of dollars out of thin air?
Ok, while I poke fun, I do confess that there is much to love about Airbnb, the online platform that enables travelers to book private rooms and homes in lieu of hotels. I like that Airbnb has turned countless people into casual home-based hoteliers. But, unlike conventional hotels, Airbnb wouldn’t have many assets to sell if liquidated. That rumored $20 billion company valuation relies largely on the loyalty of users. Like I said, thin air.
Especially because I can think of at least three replacements for Airbnb that would inspire greater loyalty of the masses. In a moment, you will meet Co-bnb, Munibnb, and Allbnb. None of them exist, but they are potentially very real.
The notion of “the commons” lies at their core. So far, my favorite explanation of the word “commons” comes from writer David Bollier, and I paraphrase: A commons arises whenever a group of people decides to collectively manage a resource with a special regard for equitable access and long-term stewardship. Much preferred to “a few guys manage a resource with a special regard for making billions of dollars.”
Today, we rely on software platforms for access to work, to information, and even to each other. Tech platforms are where we metaphorically graze our sheep and gather as communities, but usually while paying “rent” to large companies. Oxfam reported that the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world. We have a choice: Keep using platforms that widen the wealth gap, or build tech platforms as commons. So here are a few examples of the latter.
Co-bnb, as I’m calling it, could be an online marketplace owned and democratically controlled by the people who rent space to travelers. You can call it a “freelancer-owned cooperative,” a term possibly coined by Josh Danielson, founder of Loconomics.com. Loconomics just bought out its shareholders and became a cooperative corporation to be controlled by the freelancers who use the platform to offer services such as babysitting, home cleaning, and dog walking. The mission of Loconomics is to enhance the viability of freelance work, a task most reliably led by freelancers, themselves.