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Videoconferencing may be a technology, but so is Sociocracy

WAO co-op uses sociocratic consent-based decision making. We use it primarily for anything that involves a budget, including the proposal I ran at today’s weekly member’s meeting. It’s recently been our end of financial year, so we compensated members who had shelled out for things that really should be paid for by the co-op.

During the pandemic, like most organisations, we defaulted to Zoom. It ‘just works’ and most people are familiar with it. We’re not a large enough organisation for the Enterprise plan to be relevant, which means that for the past couple of financial years we’ve expensed individual Zoom accounts that we’ve paid for ourselves. (Prior to that, we used Whereby)

There are plenty of reasons not to use Zoom, however. These range from security issues, to cost, to propping up capitalism. My main reason for wanting to try and use something else is decentralisation. The more we centralise the internet, the further we get from an egalitarian world where we share power.

I wondered whether, for the this coming financial year, we could replace these with something that is open source. That’s why I started to look at offerings like meet.coop. It quickly became clear that this particular option wouldn’t be viable for us, both because of the way they do their pricing (in structure, not that much different to Zoom) and because it uses Big Blue Button. While the guys behind BBB are great (I met them while at Moodle), I’ve always found the software sub-optimal. I can remember a time, for example, when everything slowed to a crawl because too many people were typing in the chat…

I’m doing a Sociocracy facilitators course at the moment and the people I’m doing it with chose to use the main public Jitsi instance. I hadn’t used Jitsi for a good few years, and so was impressed by how much it’s improved. I guess the pandemic and the need for everyone to videoconference helped with that. So, given that we have a WAO Digital Ocean account and Jitsi is a one-click option in their marketplace, I quickly span up and configured a droplet using the recommended settings. With backups enabled and the recent 20% price hike, this came in at $48/month!

When I asked around as to whether this was reasonable, I was informed that other hosts can provide the grunt needed to host a videoconferencing solution much more cheaply than this. In addition, and I probably should have checked this first, there are community-run Jitsi instances one which anyone can run meetings.

Unsurprisingly, then, when I ran a proposal at this week’s WAO meeting, we concluded that while it’s nice to run our own stuff, we were in effect paying for a vanity URL and the functionality can be easily obtained for free (or certainly much more cheaply) elsewhere!

One of the reasons I wanted to share this story was because it stands in stark contrast to how technology has been adopted in other organisations I’ve worked in and with. In the above example, a member (me) took it upon themselves to experiment and bring the findings to the rest of the co-op. We used the instance I span up to run the meeting, so we could see the pros and cons. In the end everyone, including me, voted against the proposal to spend almost $600 on videoconferencing for this financial year.

What will we use instead? I should imagine it will be a bit of a mixed economy. For better or worse, we use Google Workspace which includes Google Meet. I’m not a big fan, but it’s a backup option that’s available to anyone with an @weareopen.coop email address. We’ll probably continue to use Zoom for community calls, because it’s zero friction and the breakout rooms ‘just work’. For co-op meetings and co-working sessions I should imagine we’ll use a community-run instance of Jitsi.

If you’ve got suggestions of (viable, stable) alternatives, let me know! Add a comment below, or message me on the Fediverse.

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