Inspired by the founders' experiences at the Occupy camp in Civic Square (in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa), the Loomio project began with the subversive goals of creating an online platform for large-scale "general assemblies" and consensus democracy generally, while earning a modest living for a core team of software developers. In keeping with that vision, Loomio constituted itself as a worker-owned tech cooperative, and and licensed the software they created under the GNU AGPL copyleft license.
Personally my interpretation of the NSA revelations is that* every online platform that gets popular will be compromised*. There is no easy “magic bullet” solution, but the best hope we have is decentralization. That means, instead of having one huge monolithic platform with everyone’s data in one place, we envisage a massive network of small pods. Some of them would be federated together, and some would be totally independent and hidden. Basically we want to avoid creating a huge target for surveillance, and empower people to take control of who they share their data with.
Another co-founder, Ben Knight, tells Nathan Schneider of Yes! Magazine about how the co-op set about covering its costs (mainly salaries for the workers) in light of these ambitious goals:
We’ve felt from the beginning that traditional venture capital is not a good fit for an organization that puts its social mission first.
So rather than seeking startup funding from ventures capitalists, they ran two crowdfunding campaigns to cover their expenses. First a smaller one to fund the initial prototype, and then a more ambitious one to help them get to Loomio 1.0. However, after two successful rounds of crowdfunding, the Loomio co-op needed a further round of funding that would use less staff time and last longer.
Sadly, seeking funding through a multi-stakeholder co-op, where users could also be owner-members ("exit to community" to quote Nathan Schneider and the Unicorns United group), was not a well-known idea at that time. So Loomio made a compromising decision to seek funding from outside investors. Ben again:
Our lead investor is Sopoong Ventures, a social venture fund based in Seoul ... we work closely with our investors as trusted advisors. We take their input seriously, and if they ever feel we’re getting off track, with our business or our social impact focus, then we’ll engage in deliberation to come to a shared understanding. But the bottom-line decision-making sits with the cooperative.
This sounded like a good balance. Until I learned that while there are 15 worker-owners pictured at the top of that 2016 Yes! Magazine article, only 5 people are paid to work on Loomio in 2020. I learned this from a comment by Loomio developer Rob Guthrie, who also said:
We have found that a traditional SaSS model is the only thing that can provide enough revenue to approach covering our costs ... Requiring payment to use Loomio after a free trial is the most successful way we have found to ensure that people who get value from Loomio support it's ongoing development.
Rob mentioned this in response to a thread proposing a decentralized model, so presumably the current Loomio decision-makers worry that a federated model is harder to monetize than the centralized model, because groups could leave Loomio.org after the free trial - or self-host from day 1 - without losing the benefits of interacting with the groups on Loomio.org. In other words, Loomio is no longer interested in a decentralized model, because the pressure to provide a return on investment has bent their decision-making away from their founding aspirations, and towards ways of ensuring they make a profit.
As a longtime supporter and evangelist of Loomio, and a contributor to their crowdfunding, I find this deeply frustrating. But all I can do is note the lessons learned about the unavoidably compromising nature of capitalist investment (even "impact" investment), and think about what can be done to fulfill Loomio's founding mission, with or without the help of Loomio.org and the current staff of the Loomio Cooperative.
Because Loomio is free code under AGPL, it could be possible for the community to fork the software and create a federated version ourselves to link some of them together. If we used an open standard for federation like ActivityPub or Zot, our fork could become part of a "fediverse" of other federated software like Mastodon, PeerTube, Hubzilla, and Zap. There are already a number of groups hosting their own Loomio server.
But is that really the best use of developer efforts to build a decentralized decision-making platform? The only significant things Loomio offers over other forum software are the proposals engine and polling tools. As a forum platform, Loomio doesn't compare all that well to other free code projects, for example the Discourse UI is much faster and more responsive on older devices, both desktop and mobile.
Perhaps it would be better to develop a set of plugins that add Loomio-style decision-making to existing group discussion software that is either already decentralized, or intends to develop that way? Or work with the developers of other existing decision-making platforms who are interested in decentralization?