Seesaw

Building communities as counterpowers

In history, there are few catalysts that have massively changed our world at a rapid pace through the process of creative destruction where someone comes with a better solution that breaks things that worked for the rest. At the beginning of industrialization it was technology. But for the last 20 years, network effects have taken an even bigger role in society’s change.

Technology enables us to be more productive, to build different interactions, to change our marketplaces. Those businesses that wanted to grow embraced technologies that destroyed the assets that were making their competition win, for example, when the car industry replaced the horse carriage competition.

And then the shift to network effects came in full swing. The network effect is about something working better when more people use it. Most physical goods are not like this. Food, chairs or the beach gets less useful as more people use it. And on the opposite end, if WordPress or Facebook were used by only one person, they wouldn’t be very useful either.

And one of the first enablers to network effect is that community members benefit through their interactions with the rest of the community.

Today, the  most obvious beneficiaries of network effects are the winner-take-all kind of platforms like Facebook, Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon, Google, Upwork and so on…

But their near-monopoly nature has given them disproportionate power and funds, although they are losing money by the billions. They have eroded workers rights, disrupted small businesses that form the backbone of local economies and even toppled our democracies and magnified the polarization of our media. 

So what’s the alternative?

Creating alternative network effects. The current connection economy makes it easier than ever to invite those who are not benefiting from this creative destruction to gather collectively and push back and organize together to reach more balanced outcomes.

In France, Wemind, an insurance company for freelancers has launched the neo-union Independants.co to help the normally disconnected freelance workers to gather as a collective. The purpose of this union is to give them a voice, help them understand their rights, the funds they have access to, and give them the necessary tools to express the social model they want. This sort of community can at medium term defend the freelancer’s rights in front of incumbent platforms like Upwork, which are mainly in service of their founders and investors. And by connecting its customers Wemind is helping freelancers to have a higher chance of improving their situation. The better the freelancers do, the better the insurance company will do.

In Belgium, Smart started a non-profit turned coop to help independent workers and artists to simplify their admin duties and turn their freelance upside down into a salaried job that can benefit from social security. In 2020, Smart has 100.000 members, and is present in 9 european countries.

Cyril Belange, a friend and professional translator, is gathering a community of his peers to share opportunities, learn from each other, stand for their pricing and be able to offer bigger and more ambitious proposals to its clients. A nice side effect of this connection is that, as a collective, they have more bargaining power and are not perceived as a commodity anymore.

Feminist movements have been able to counterbalance gender inequality by gathering as collectives for ages. From the Suffragettes winning the right to vote, to the MeToo movement.

From Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter, afro american collectives have been able to advance the rights for freedom and justice nobody was courageous enough to give them in the US.

Harvey Milk led the LGBTQ collective and defended their rights, but only when the group banded together. 

Ifixit has been organizing the Right to Repair movement to push back against big tech organizations like Apple, Microsoft or John Deere who are lobbying against giving access to people’s devices to charge extra for repairs and parts, to let them decide when a device needs to be retired so they can sell you a new one.

Patagonia is helping the environment against the fashion industry and other industrials. They have donated $225 million to non-profits and connected them with supporters to protect the environment through the 1% for the planet initiative. The better the environment and these nonprofits do, the better their business and their customers will do, because we’ll still have a planet on which to run businesses and buy from.

These groups are going to appear at some point. It’s up to us all to connect and help these groups get heard and understood, and build constructive alternatives together. 

If you are a company, invest in gathering these communities, it will be good for your business. Wemind or Patagonia are the living testaments of it.

If you suffer from the imbalance of power from bigger players than you, there are probably others who are waiting for someone to lead the way. And there are very likely companies serving your kind of people who’d be willing to sponsor your movement if you ask them. 

And if you are an individual, go join an existing community creating the change you seek to reinforce it and benefit from the work done by others, or start your own group by inviting a first small group of like-minded fellows and get support to push a new and more equitable vision that your collective is looking for. 

Imagine you are a coworking space or an already networked collective. You can already start doing this work for your community.

Or imagine you are a freelancer in a given job. You can start connecting your colleagues to improve your collective conditions by sharing your knowledge and by gathering to respond to larger contracts and defend your prices. This way you can avoid the race to the bottom fostered by the platformification of everything, and gain leverage in front of customers always demanding lower prices.

What imbalance of power are you, your customers or your peers suffering from? 

It’s never been easier to create the network effects that can counterbalance the abusive power of monopolies and balance the effects of disruption. What will we do with this power?

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Jaime Arredondo
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