Toward a “platform-adjacent” approach to the gig economy

by Dr. Niels van Doorn, Associate Professor of New Media and Digital Culture, University of Amsterdam

6 min read

What happens on the platform does not stay on the platform. Likewise, what happens elsewhere often impacts what happens on the platform – and how. If this seems like a simple and intuitive observation, you would expect research on platform-mediated labor to take it to heart, and to take into account its implications. Yet, by and large this has not been the case. Indeed, most gig economy research to date has focused on how digital platforms control and shape the labor process while people are logged into their app and ‘on the job’. In other words, researchers have so far been mostly interested in what happens in platform-mediated spaces of production, rather than seeking to understand the “external” factors co-determining who engages in gig work, why they choose to do so, and how (much) they work.

I place “external” within quotation marks, since part of the point I aim to make in this short blog post is that researchers and policymakers should stop thinking about these factors as somehow outside or beyond their purview. Critically, the problems of the gig economy are not just labor and platform problems; they are social, political, as well as political economy problems that crystalize in gig work but extend far beyond this relatively small segment of the labor market. If we continue to frame this problem space in narrow terms, focusing on how platforms violate labor and employment laws, it may be contained and neat solutions can be formulated. Yet such a narrow perspective threatens to foreclose what is perhaps the most pressing question facing us today: how do gig workers and platform companies survive?

This question imposes itself on us in the context of a growing body of research showing that, even if the gig economy remains a relatively small labor market segment, it forms a site of both opportunity and precarity for some of the most vulnerable populations seeking work. In this same context, it has been remarkable to witness the trajectory of a company like Uber, which recently claimed its first ever quarterly profit after suffering $33 billion in losses over the past 14 years. How are we to make sense of these entangled realities – and why should we?

In a recent paper, Aaron Shapiro and I propose a “platform-adjacent” approach to gig economy research, which departs from the premise that the activities, interests and dependencies of gig workers and platform companies are not confined to the commodified service transaction that has received most critical attention. When listening carefully to the stories that people and platforms tell about themselves, researchers will hear about the many different things that people care for, need, or want, and what preoccupies them besides gig work. Moreover, we will notice how platforms change their story depending on who they are addressing (e.g. financial and market authorities investors, shareholders, policymakers, courts, and workers).

A platform-adjacent approach refocuses our attention toward the different types of resources available to platforms and gig workers, while providing new insights into their dependencies and obligations “beyond the gig”. Consequently, this expands the horizon of regulatory and policy efforts to curb platform power. In our paper, we argue that regulators should follow the money as well as the worker. Following the money may entail various kinds of redistributive tax reform as well as imposing limits on mergers and acquisitions in the gig economy. It also includes efforts to curtail platform companies’ de jure and de facto propertization of intangible resources, moving beyond calls for more “algorithmic transparency”.

Meanwhile, following the worker means exploring ways to raise labor standards across low-wage industries in order to halt the degradation of work that makes gig platforms relatively appealing to those located at the margins of national labor markets. As gig work has increasingly become migrant work, policymakers should also be held accountable to make migration regimes less restrictive, punitive, and exploitative. Finally, in light of the fact that many gig workers are women and minorities, social policies should advance the rights and emancipation of these groups at work, in the household, and in society at large. Platform policy should, in this sense, be treated as a type of social policy.

Ultimately, real social justice and economic equity can only be achieved once we stop focusing on platform culpability and acknowledge that the gig economy is fully embedded in societies whose problems demand more ambitious policy responses than are currently on offer. 

About the Author

Dr. Niels van Doorn is an Associate Professor of New Media and Digital Culture in the Department of Media Studies and the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded Platform Labor research project (2018-2023). He holds PhD in Communication Science (2010) from the University of Amsterdam. 

Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.

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