In the last post, I discussed the relationship between members, especially with the intriguing implications of being a P2P organization, with no authority figures. But I never did get around to talking about how to define membership itself.
At a certain level, it’s almost useless to define membership, because every platform co-op will just have to start the process over again with its own needs and expectations. Still, it’s worthwhile to toss some ideas against the wall, even if they only serve as a conversation starter in other groups.
A fundamental part of cooperativism is something called patronage (more precisely, as Robert Benjamin of (MediaMatters)[http://www.membersmedia.net/] points out, the patronage dividend). This the part of the budget that, if it were going to single person or small group of people, would be called profit. It’s the surplus left over when suppliers and workers have been paid in full. When you pay into the general fund, it’s your way of recognizing your fellow members’ work. When you receive your patronage (dividend) payout, it’s your fellow workers’ way of saying they want you to do well. Typically, co-ops distribute it on an annual basis, but they don’t have to. It can happen whenever a co-op decides.
What does this have to do with membership? Well, by definition, members are the ones who receive patronage dividends. In a conventional worker co-op where people show up to work five days a week, this needs no further comment. In a distributed co-op, however, where members see each other rarely, maybe never, this could become problematic if a member went months or years without doing any work. They could continue to receive patronage dividends without making any contribution at all. In a P2P structure, there would be no recourse after the fact. The problem can only be addressed before it happened, and in such a way that everyone has an active incentive to support everyone else.
We could deal with this using reputation scores, but reputation scores are meant pretty specifically to encapsulate the actual quality of work done, not be used as a disciplinary measure. We could boycott them by not sending them more work, but the whole problem is they are already doing too little work. We have no option of trying to force them to take work. We could try to kick them out, but I can assure you that would be a long, messy process.
Much better to use an incentive system than a disincentive system. My thought is this: distribute patronage dividends immediately, but only to workers who have paid into the fund in the last 90 days. (Ninety is an arbitrary number; it could be 30, 365, or whatever.)
For example: member A does a job for a client, and gets paid. Members B, C, and D receive a small but welcome patronage dividend payout. Member E does not get that payout, because he hasn’t paid into the fund in four months. Getting back into the pipeline isn’t hard–all he has to do is take a job that pays into the fund, and he’ll start receiving patronage again, for the next 90 days. If most members of the co-op are taking regular work, they’ll also be getting patronage dividends regularly. It’s in their interest for others to do well. Reciprocity, even if indirect, is hardwired into the structure of the co-op.
Something similar could be done with voting: to take part in a vote, you have to have taken part in at least three of the last five votes. Restoring the vote to lapsed members could take place by voting “present” for three out of five votes, or some such thing.
These approaches make membership more of an activity than a condition. You would have to opt in on a continuous basis. So, that’s how I define membership: those who have opted in (recently).