Platform precarity: surviving algorithmic insecurity in the gig economy

Alex Wood, University of Birmingham

Thursday 9 July, 4.00-5.00 PM

The gig economy refers to the use of digital platforms to sell labour power. This new organisation of work has spread rapidly with algorithmic control being central to its success (Rosenblat and Stark, 2016; Wood et al., 2018). This algorithmic control relies on platform-based reputation systems with the threat of negative feedback, which hurts future earning ability, intended to disincentivise opportunistic behaviour on the platform. However, accidental, erroneous and malicious feedback mean that even earnest workers’ reputations are never entirely safe, as a consequence reputational damage represents a new significant source of precarity in the 21st century. That these reputations only exist on a particular platform, moreover, means that workers can become locked into a platform and thus dependent on it. Fear of harsh feedback and opaque changes to platform design are sources of constant worry for many workers, which we term ‘algorithmic insecurity’, and leads to unpaid labour. In this paper we explore workers’ individual and collective strategies for surviving algorithmic insecurity. We draw on a cross-national study of remote gig economy workers in both high- and middle-income countries. Our findings are based on semi-structured interviews (N=81) with 35 remote gig economy workers in the Global North (N. America and the UK) and 35 in the Global South (the Philippines), and 11 with freelancer community advocates; and participant observation of 15 freelancer community meetups and events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Manila and London. Additionally, we draw on data from an equal quota survey of 360 workers. We demonstrate that in the face of this precarity workers deploy individual survival strategies, such as learning how to manage client demands and filtering potentially vindictive clients.

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Alex Wood is a Lecturer in the Sociology of Work at the University of Birmingham and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute where he’s a member of the iLabour project. He received his PhD from the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University in 2016. As a sociologist of work and employment, his research focuses on the changing nature of labour relations and labour markets. His book ‘Despotism on Demand: How Power Operates in the Flexible Workplace’ was published by Cornell University Press in May 2020.