Within the service sector of the economy, the emerging system of ‘platform capitalism’ relies on “self-employed” workers using a platform (be it hardware or software) that is owned by a third party entity to facilitate their service delivery . This results in a situation wherein labour is sold directly to the consumer rather than an employer, using the platform as a proxy to establish the guise of self-employment. The result is that there is no real change to the fundamental relationship between labour and capital, yet many of the standard operating costs are shifted to the employee, who also forgoes the benefits and protections that centuries of class struggle has carved out for the traditional wage labourer.
Companies like Uber and Facebook have created monopolies that render both the user and the worker nearly powerless through the ways in which they sell personal data, treat employees as independent contractors, and favour shareholders above all else (Platform, 2019). In opposition to platform capitalism, Scholz (2014) developed the concept of platform coöperativism. In the following I will outline the defining principles of platform coöperativism and posit ways in which it can be applied to online publishing to further it as a ethical and creative platform.
According to Scholz (2016) a platform coöperative is a new ownership model for the web, based—much like it names suggests—on classical coöperative ideas of solidarity and democracy. Unlike platform capitalism, platform coöperativism is rooted in coöperative memberships and democratic ownership (Platform, 2019). It is built on the decentralising of online power relations and allows individuals (or groups) to benefit from the evolving digital labour market. As opposed to the venture capital funded platforms, the coöp equivalent is about the redistribution of capital and providing workers (who are typically contract) with the same protectionary methods that are given to traditional labourers (Platform, 2019). Simply put, it is focused on sharing rather than exploitation (Scholz, 2016). In Scholz definition platform coöperative has three distinct parts:
- It duplicates popular technology but under a democratic ownership model and in doing so performs a structural change which alters the distribution of capital.
- Solidarity is key. Platforms can be owned by any form of coöp (from union to city, worker or producer).
- They are founded on the reimagining of “innovation and efficiency” which benefits all. (A reimagining of basic utilitarianism).
If we want to fully understand how we could imagine a platform coöperative for online publishing, we have to understand the principles which are fundamental to its definition. Luckily for us, Scholz (2016) breaks these down rather succinctly into ten concepts.
- They provide ownership to those who create the content.
- They provide income security to workers.
- They are transparent with customer data.
- They acknowledge the work people do and appreciate them.
- Work is co-determined. Workers are involved in every stage of the process.
- A protective legal framework is provided.
- Workers have benefits and protection.
- Workers are protected from arbitrary behaviour like arbitrary discipline and firing.
- There is no excessive surveillance used on employees.
- Clear boundaries are set between work and non-work hours where employees have the right to log off.
Applying these concepts to the way we currently publish online, one can imagine a model where the authors, publishers, or even readers —perhaps even a combination of all three— are co-owners of the majority of the platform. From the outside perspective there could be little to no difference to the reader, but from a backend vantage-point, the structural operations would be vastly different. Just imagine the variety of different alternatives it could take on. For one, websites which are behind paywalls could have an alternative pay structure where you (as the reader) buy membership, like a coöp, and are given democratic input into what the site publishes. A reimagined version of the local coöp grocery store but in a digital publishing form, if you will. Alternatively, it could take on something akin to the worker run coöperative journalistic pursuits that arose out of the Greek financial crisis of 2010 ( Siapera & Papadopoulou, 2016). Here are several cases where unpaid or laid off workers took over bankrupt media outlets, making them worker-owned and operated. In other cases these coöperative media outlets emerged, much like any traditional startup, out of the need to find outlets where journalists could print freely without censorship (Siapera & Papadopoulou, 2016). Furthermore, this model could look like the platform coöperative systems we already see online, such as Stocksy. Perhaps it would be an author-owned coöp where writers received a substantial percentage or the revenue, profit sharing, and a voice in the company’s operations.
Currently, models like that of Medium are applauded for their partner programme which distributes a portion of membership fees to the writers (of locked stories) that readers engage with the most. Many view these tactics as innovated yet they still rely on traditional platform capitalist relations of instability and exploitation. If we are to move forward in online publishing, we need to adopt more bottom up coöperative systems where employee voices are heard and respected. Regardless if any of these described models suggested take off, it can be seen how online publishing can easily take on a variety of new forms.
Scholz, Trebor. 2014. Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy. Medium