In the early days of the internet, some commentators trying to describe the new invention and the experience of using it reached for a particular metaphor with a physical space. Google nwords shows that the term “cyberspace” grew in popularity until a peak in 2000, and then went into decline. Within this metaphor, the online platform is the plaza or the pub: a place where people encounter and interact not just with a particular website, but with one another.

Today a significant proportion of our everyday interactions – whether you’re looking for a screwdriver or a subletter or a spouse – are mediated through an online platform. As a consequence, those who have been successful in creating such platforms have gained enormous power to influence the lives of many people – not to mention enormous wealth. In a now-well known article for TechCrunch, Tom Goodwin observed in 2015 that today’s most important companies are not those that provide a concrete product, but rather those that can position themselves at the “interface” of an interaction between others, writing:

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

But as these platform behemoths have emerged, it has become increasingly clear that they are causing real damage to the social fabric through value extraction, exploitation of workers, rampant collection and monetisation of user data and negative effects on whole markets and the environment. This trend analysis is about efforts to use the power of the platform model, but in ways that are maximally socially beneficial and ethical, working to cure some of the pathologies we are currently witnessing in “platform capitalism”.

The drive to attempt just this has given rise to an impressive international movement under the banner of Platform Cooperativism. This community brings together socially-minded technologists (what we understand as “DSI”; more on this in part II), activists of various stripes, and thought leaders and academics who give theoretical substance to the models they advocate and oppose.


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DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. Find out more at DSI4EU, formally known as DSISCALE, is supported by the European Union and funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme, grant agreement no 780473.

This trend analysis was developed in cooperation between betterplace lab and TD Reply. TD Reply did the data analysis, using their data-driven sensing tool trend sonar.