Someday, Twitter will implode.
This may not be a big deal for you. You may not have the little blue bird-labelled app on your phone, constantly shooting countless tweets into your feed.
But Twitter is a big deal. It has 100 million daily active users, and 317 million people around the world use it at least once a month.
To put that into perspective, about 106 million people watched the last episode of MASH, a record that would not be equalled until the 2010 Super Bowl, which had 106.5 million viewers.
So Twitter has about three times as many regular users as watch one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Surely it should be able to make money, right?
Nope. Twitter has never managed to be profitable. And its stock price has been on a steady decline because – get this – investors are worried it doesn’t have enough users.
So what happens when Twitter drops off the face of the Earth, crushed by debt and abandoned by investors?
There would definitely be some good sides. We don’t need to be endlessly trolled by Nazis, misogynists, mean 13-year-olds, and Donald Trump. Twitter can be an ugly place. It can, at its worst, be a tornado of trolls, bullies, and Russian bots pretending to be soccer moms from Duluth.
But it can also be a valuable source of information, news, and community. (And funny cat GIFs. So many funny cat GIFs!)
And it would be a shame to lose that because the company’s management can’t figure out how to turn Facebook-style profits off 140 character blipverts.
Yes, despite hundreds of millions of users, and revenues of $2.53 billion last year, Twitter loses money. Their actual cost of doing business was about $932 million, but they also spent a big wodge of money on R&D, and almost a billion dollars on sales and marketing.
(There’s no line item in their budget for “getting rid of Nazis” or “building tools to block harassment,” oddly enough.)
In short, Twitter is a service that lots of people like and use, but which can’t seem to function as a profit-generating service.
There are usually two answers to that. You can let it die, or you can nationalize it.
Nationalizing it would be bad. Which nation? Twitter is global. Putting it under the thumb of the United States or the EU (or much worse, Russia or China) would be a catastrophe. It would be seen as propagandistic at best, an espionage tool at worst.
There is a third option. Twitter’s users could take over.
We could cooperativize it.
You know about consumer co-ops. You probably belong to one, whether it’s an actual Co-op store or gas station, or a credit union.
Member-driven co-ops have several advantages over corporations.
Financially, they’re accountable to keep a service running efficiently for the benefit of their members, not to make a profit for investors. They can run at break-even levels.
They’re also internally democratic. Twitter users are often confused when the corporation, for example, decides that what we need is not a purge of malicious bot accounts, but a change from square to round profile pics! The company’s priorities do not always align with that of the user base.
If Twitter became a co-op, its members would elect the leadership. With a constituency almost the size of the U.S. population, that would doubtless be an interesting experience. But fortunately, there’s this technology that allows people from around the world to communicate quickly and easily. And it forces politicians to keep things brief (or learn to thread their tweets).
I might be wildly optimistic here. I have no idea how to get from “failing corporation” to “democratically organized cooperative.” I have only the vaguest of ideas about how to generate revenue, certify memberships, and organize delegates for tens of millions of active users.
But I know that Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-used websites, is operated as a not-for-profit service by a foundation. So it can be done.
I also know that Twitter is more than a company. It supplies not a take-it-or-leave-it service, but a platform and a social network that has become an institution, and a public resource. It is a private company, but we use it like a part of the commons. And like any other common good, the best group to manage and protect it is its own users.