Membership, part 1

The membership of a platform co-op is an interesting question. On the one hand, it seems like barriers to entry should be quite low, because that’s democratic and open, which is a cooperative value. On the other hand, barriers to entry should be pretty high, because we’re talking about a workplace, and it’s in every worker’s interest for all the other workers to be capable of high-quality work.

If clients are also members (even with different rights and responsibilities), that’s another wrinkle. The whole point of having clients there would be for mutual support and to bolster both the quality and quantity of work.

And there’s still another wrinkle if the co-op is fully distributed and peer-to-peer. If no one is able to enforce standards of quality after the fact–because no one has that institutional authority–then the only way to enforce standards of quality is with reputation scores. If clients and even other workers gravitate towards workers with better reputation scores, that means each worker is responsible to him/herself to do the best work possible, to bring their reputation score up. (As a sidenote, there should be multiple ways to improve one’s reputation score, or new workers will never have a chance to catch up. Perhaps tying cost to the score would incentivize clients to look around more. But that’s another discussion.)

Using reputation scores means that a platform co-op is equitable, but not strictly egalitarian. Neither the workload nor pay will be equal across workers. It will also not be anyone’s assumption that any two workers are interchangable in terms of quality or specialization. However, when it comes to decisions about the co-op itself and how it operates, the traditional policy of one member, one vote, will still hold true.

But there’s still more to consider. The best model we have of P2P organizations is the many projects that self-organize to produce open-source software. Most open-source code is produced by volunteers, but apart from that, there are a lot of parallels, the biggest of which is that reputation is gained by doing the best work. Because that work is made available to the general public, the quality of open-source software continues to rise steadily. But that doesn’t mean that everything is lollipops and rainbows within projects or between projects. There can be very acrimonious debates within the community. If they can’t be resolved, the side with fewer people can splinter off from the larger group into what is known as a “fork.” They have the code (because it’s open source, and available to all), but they don’t have as many people to work on it. This is a gamble for both sides, because while most forks end up failing, the ones that succeed tend to end up eclipsing the original project.

The reason I bring that up is that the same thing could happen to a platform co-op. The possibility is always there, because with no central authority to force members to agree to stay, members are free to leave. The way to mitigate that risk is for members to consider their own actions in the light of the good of the entire organization, because if they don’t, other members may not reciprocate. Instead of asking what the co-op can do for them, members need to ask what they can do for the co-op–not once or twice, but day in and day out.

So, there’s an interesting tension. At a certain level, workers compete with each other to gain higher reputation scores (and work). At the same time, it’s not in anyone’s interest for the balance to ever skew too far, and even less so for there to be an appearance of bias in the system, because disgruntled workers always have a recourse readily available.

We’ll continue this discussion in the next post.

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