Emergent practices from the decentralized co-operative web


September 30, 2021

Decentralization has become a buzzword the last several years, particularly in the realms of technology and grassroots organizing. From the promise of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies and smart contracts, to the natural metaphors inspired by fungal networks, organizers have been fascinated with de-centering power structures and building more resilient systems that are stronger than the sum of their parts.

Yet there’s a persistent disconnect between “decentralization” as an ideal and how to manifest it in real, concrete terms. To meaningfully put it into practice, challenging the centralization of organizational structures is a strong place to begin. From there, the questions that can be asked of projects are those such as: Who makes the decisions within this organization, and how are they made? What determines people’s ability to participate in decisions? While these begin to address the internal structure of organizations, it’s equally important to ask how an organization fits into the wider ecosystem. Does it aim to overpower all other players, or cooperate with them to strengthen movements as a whole?

In March, I facilitated a conversation at MozFest with projects that are radically engaging with these questions, by building tools and practices that enable organizations to work more transparently, equitably, and collaboratively. Open Collective, Gitcoin, DisCO Project, and Hypha Worker Co-operative are all organizations that my project COMPOST magazine relies on for fundraising and organizational support. As a magazine about the digital commons, we wanted to shine a light on how these projects strengthen the digital commons by creating infrastructure that enables many groups to thrive interdependently. They address challenges head on to help people with the often messy processes of funding and managing decentralized community-oriented projects.

Alanna Irving, Chief Operating Officer of Open Collective, shared her years of experience building tools for collaboration, such as Loomio and Co-Budget, to enable people within organizations to share money and power. Much of the learnings of these projects were published as a book, Better Work Together. She talked about her current project, Open Collective, an open source tool for using, collecting and dispensing money for distributed, collaborative groups. She explained how it can be especially helpful for groups that require more transparent budgeting and community control. Open Collective enables projects that are not incorporated to receive funding through fiscal sponsorship, under the umbrella of an organization with a legal entity they maintain as a commons.

The largest such umbrella organization is Open Source Collective, a US-based nonprofit that provides financial administration for over 2600 open source tech projects to receive and distribute funds transparently. Open Collective Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity entity, supports more than 240 initiatives in areas like mutual aid, climate activism, and social justice. Platform 6 is another one, based in the UK, that helps unincorporated groups become cooperatives and enables them to mutualize their infrastructure for financial and legal tooling. Social.coop, a cooperatively-owned Mastodon instance, is a project supported by Platform 6.

Scott Moore, Developer Relations Lead at Gitcoin, described how his organization enables cryptocurrency donations to fund open source tools in a way that levels the playing field for new projects. Gitcoin uses a method called quadratic funding. First described by Vitalik Buterin in 2019, it’s a way of donation matching based on how many people give to a project, instead of how much money has been donated to date. It’s called “quadratic” funding, because it uses an equation that takes the square root of each contribution amount, adds up those values, then squares [multiply the number with itself] that number. The term “quadratic” here refers to this squaring of numbers. Scott laid out an example: If Grant A received donations of $4 from two people and Grant B received $8 in donations from eight people, according to the quadratic formula Grant A would get $16 and Grant B would get $64. Their aim in adopting this mathematical approach to fundraising is to make it more democratic, so that projects receive more funds based on the actual number of people who support the project rather than the project’s ability to raise funds from a small minority of funders.

Gitcoin has helped fund many of the core libraries in the Ethereum ecosystem, as well as other peer-to-peer space including the Secure Scuttlebutt protocol and libp2p, an open source project based on IPFS. In this way the fundraising platform has served as a bridge between the cryptocurrency and open source software ecosystem.

Scott named projects that were doing work similar to Gitcoin. Commons Stack is a project building tech tools to enable groups to align community values with shared economic aims, such as through distributed autonomous organizations DAOs that pool funding for commons-based projects. SourceCred is a tool that enables teams to measure how people are contributing to projects in order to better reward people’s labor. And finally he mentioned Radicle, a decentralized app for code collaboration.

Gitcoin is collaborating with Open Source Collective on FundOSS, a pilot matching campaign for open source projects, based on a democratic funding model, which is launching soon.

Silvia López, member of DisCO.Coop and interpreter, translator and editor in Guerrilla Media Collective, shared her experience building tools and guides for decentralized, cooperative organizations to run more efficiently and equitably. DisCOs stands for Distributed Cooperative Organizations and are groups where cooperativism, commoning, open value accounting, feminist economics, social and environmental goals are built into their DNA. As an alternative model to DAOs, they provide governance templates and proposals for groups to collaborate in a decentralized team while also integrating their values into the ways they work together.

The project released a report in late 2020 called DisCO Elements, which provides an in-depth overview of how to incorporate values, care work, and mutual support into the work of creating and stewarding the digital commons. They map out three types of “value streams” — livelihood work, love work, and care work. Livelihood work is the labor that creates the income for a project, for example, contract work commissioned by a client. Love work is the pro bono work that is done to benefit the community at large by contributing to the commons. For example, publishing an organizational handbook publicly so others can learn how to manage a cooperative. And finally care work, is all the labor that goes into supporting members of a project, such as the administrative work of organizing documents, schedules, and processes. By explicitly naming these three value streams, the DisCO Project seeks to make visible all the types of labor that go into sustaining values-driven projects. Whereas livelihood work is usually the only labor that is most highly compensated, they stress that these other types of work are equally vital.

Silvia described how they have developed a formula for tracking these value streams within projects. It takes into account that people should be spending 75% of their time on the livelihood work, 25% on the love/commons work, and a dynamic tax of care work, wherein contributors are expected to do their regular, fair share of this administrative labor. A soon-to-be-published PinkPaper will lay out the technical specificities of a tool they are building to visualize and track these value streams. This application will enable teams to hold regular, transparent conversations about labor and see how members of their team are taking on different types of work, so they may adjust and correct accordingly.

Dawn Walker, Co-founder and member-worker of Hypha Co-operative, discussed how her nonprofit co-op start-up advises on sustainable organizational practices and builds custom tech tools. Incorporated in 2019, Hypha Worker Co-operative helps organizations and communities redesign their relationships with digital technology in ways that expand networks of solidarity. Currently they’re doing a mix of client work and internal capacity-building. They organize reading groups, document organizational processes, and support others trying to form cooperatives. They are the fiscal sponsor of COMPOST magazine with the help of Open Collective. They hope to expand this financial and administrative support to other tech and non-tech based projects in Toronto, Canada.

Following the individual presentations of these projects, we opened up the discussion to dig deeper into these topics. Here were some of the key highlights:

Money as a means, not an end

Alanna observed how many people have a complicated relationship with money, and that talking about it can raise some big feelings. Society, she said, has ceded a lot of power around money to the extractive mainstream economy. Because of this, many community projects cringe and move away from using money as effectively as they could. She thinks that those in the alternative solidarity space should instead think of money as a way to make things happen. Dawn commented that money can expand community capacity, and be a tool for creating accountability for tasks and projects to get done. Money can also shed light on the real sustainability of a project. Without enough of it to compensate people, projects end up having to rely on free labor — a privilege that many people cannot afford.

“We need to reclaim the power of money, use it differently, and direct it towards pro-social values.” —Alanna Irving

Make invisible labor visible, and valued

We discussed how enabling people to secure a livelihood with their project does not just create more resiliency, it can be a way to make visible the types of the undervalued labor that too often goes undercompensated. Especially with tech-focused projects, all the work that goes into ensuring the tool or platform is successful is usually not as rewarded as the work of building the tool itself. That includes writing documentation, onboarding new contributors and end-users, and publicizing the product. A radical approach to money can get us to the root of these dynamics, and brings these all-to-prevalent labor inequities to the fore.

Addressing the accessibility of tech tools

Across the board, there was an agreement that many of the tools we build and use remain inaccessible to many. Scott acknowledged how there’s still a lot of work to be done in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, as well as in open source software where major technical contributors are prioritized over individual members of the community. We then discussed how with greater cooperation, tooling, and patterns of working together, that the tech side of projects could just be another specialization, as a role that could be designated to someone. This was part of a greater recognition that we need more diversity within projects to specialize in different aspects of an organization. Tools like Open Collective and organizations like Hypha Co-operative help remove the financial, legal, and administrative barriers for those trying to build their project or address frontline needs, by enabling them to outsource this work.

The strength of decentralized systems comes from the interdependence of its parts. This is especially true when it comes to the open and interoperable Web, but applies to any resilient social ecosystem. For groups to be both decentralized and interdependent, they need to be trust-full and honest about how they in fact practice what they preach. Financial transparency is one important place where this happens — to be open and communicative about where and how projects receive money, and how they are compensating people for their labor.

The projects highlighted here are experimenting with this type of radical, pragmatic transparency. They’re the kinds of tools that will help people break out of the dominant economic logic that continues to perpetuate social inequities. I’m excited to see how these tools for economic solidarity will grow and lead to even more experimentation. Eventually, they may help us establish radically better practices on creating organizations that are truly, organizationally, decentralized and interdependent.

Additional Reading