o-ownership has mostly been missing in the implicit social contracts of the online economy – the Internet-enabled platforms that employ networked forms of connection and transaction to transform industries, workplaces and livelihoods (Parker et al., 2016). The principal owners of platforms, along with founders, have been the investors who inject capital in expectation of generous returns. Technology companies may offer stock options to early employees; users, in contrast, have been treated like external customers. Yet in many cases they don’t pay the company any money while contributing essential content (e.g., virtually everything one encounters on platforms like Facebook or Reddit), or they entrust to the platform their personal data and their livelihoods. Platforms train users to think of themselves as participants in ‘peer production’ (Benkler, 2007) and a ‘sharing economy’ (Schor, 2014). But the online economy’s ownership structures habitually fail to reflect either the platforms’ stated aspirations or their social realities.
Managed by Q’s directors, however, recognized that its office-cleaning ‘operators’ were a class of users that served as the company’s face to the office-owning clients who provided revenue; co-ownership, therefore, seemed like an appropriate way to incentivize operators to take their responsibility seriously. The announcement also made for good press.
Canonical notions of corporate structure and governance, even when they encompass a wide variety of stakeholders, tend to affirm the practice of granting ownership and control to investors, since they bear direct financial risk (Jensen, 2000; Monks and Minow, 2008; Parmar et al., 2010). But when platforms hold near-monopoly status and wield control over urban transportation networks or data about intimate relationships, their risk profile is more complex than a share price. Platforms increasingly act as infrastructure, enabling productive activity among users – from individuals to large organizations. They’re not just a means of production but a means of connection. These webs of dependency, however, have not reached the platforms’ boardrooms. Managed by Q’s experience, together with a growing body of research on cooperative models, suggests that platform builders may be missing out on opportunities shared ownership could present – from retention, loyalty and diversity among their users to untapped potential for financing and public benefit (Albæk and Schultz, 1998; Davidson, 2016; Hueth, 2014; Molk, 2014; Pérotin, 2016).