The principal criticisms of the digital platform economy are widely known. They mostly revolve around the professional instability that stems from the short-term and project-based nature of much of the work. Users frequently find themselves in a form of employment that’s isolated, fragmented and uncommonly precarious.
Less appreciated is how digital platforms impact on the fundamental question of what work actually means. Given the ever-growing reach of these systems and the many millions of people who rely on them for their livelihoods, this is an issue that we shouldn’t overlook.
By way of illustration, let’s briefly reflect on the psychology and motivations of individuals in the workplace. For some people work is simply a way of making money; for others, it’s cherished for its intrinsic meanings, challenges and satisfactions.
Most of us are somewhere on the spectrum that stretches between the two extremes. We want the money, of course, but we also value many of the other things that our professional lives can entail – our delight in what we achieve, the hurdles we manage to overcome, the friendships we make.
Now imagine someone who meets neither objective – someone who struggles to earn an adequate wage and also derives no pleasure from what they do. According to our latest research, at least for many participants, this is the stuff of the digital platform economy.
Expectations versus reality
Our study focused on the creative industries – specifically, freelance designers, of whom we interviewed dozens around the world. There are two reasons why this particular segment might be seen as especially interesting in the context of digital platforms.
First, creative professionals are typically associated with “meaningful” work. They enjoy what they do. They tend to take genuine pride in what they produce, and this pride is likely to last long after the job is done. There’s often a palpable sense of “ownership”.
Second, many freelancers choose to “go it alone” because, as the word suggests, they want to be free. They desire autonomy, the scope to make their own decisions, the chance to accept and reject offers as they see fit. This is why many of our interviewees turned to digital platforms in the first place.
So much for the theory. What about reality? Our research indicates that finding meaning and freedom in these settings is unlikely but by no means impossible.
We identified a small group of entrepreneurial freelancers pursuing truly enjoyable work and earning a sustainable income through the digital platform economy. We also found that users in emerging markets can benefit, mainly because they receive a good wage relative to their peers. But what about the rest?
Emptiness and asymmetry
Between the entrepreneurs and the emerging markets lies a sizeable and highly dissatisfied middle. Working life for these digital platform users isn’t just isolated, fragmented and precarious: it’s intensely pressured, routinely defined by fear and despair and increasingly bereft of any of the things that make a career gratifying and worthwhile.
Consider, for instance, the review-based structure of the digital platform economy. This has become so decisive that many users now prize ratings over reward. A number of interviewees told us that they would restart a project from scratch, reduce their fees or even work for nothing rather than invite negative comments that could damage their ability to attract future business.
A graduate of a top design school summed up the asymmetry of the user-client relationship when she explained how the threat of poor reviews left her humiliated and wary of online interaction. “I deserve to be treated more respectfully,” she said. “If this isn’t possible on these platforms then I’ll find a solution that bypasses clients completely.”
Understandably, clients are acutely aware of their own supremacy. “I almost feel bad paying them that amount,” one told us, “but it sounds like they’re willing to do anything just to get a good rating. That’s happened multiple times to me – when I’m not happy with something and they’ll say they would rather refund the money than get anything less than five stars.”
Where do the platforms themselves stand in the light of this inherent inequality? They’re ostensibly neutral, as perhaps befits providers of “space”, but the truth is that they more often than not side with clients in the event of a conflict – while taking up to 20% of users’ fees.
Keeping pace with innovation
The creative freelancers who comprise the dissatisfied middle feel disrespected and disempowered. They believe that they can’t control their careers, that they can’t grow professionally and that they can’t even produce the kind of high-quality work of which employees in the creative industries would traditionally be proud to take “ownership”. For them, work is a source not of meaning but of sadness and resentment – the latter directed towards the systems currently in place.
So what can be done? First of all, our research represents further evidence of a phenomenon that’s becoming more prevalent as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds: the problem of technological innovation significantly outstripping regulatory responses. Enforcing rules in an online – and therefore global – environment is notoriously hard, but this doesn’t disguise the fact that the status quo is far from equitable for many participants.
In addition, operators should assume more responsibility for digital platforms’ impact on the people who use them. It’s not enough merely to be a provider of “space”. They should at least deliver proper training or guidance. They can’t keep taking a substantial share of users’ income – however paltry that income might be in some cases – while offering so little in return.
It’s important to stress again that digital platforms clearly benefit many of their users, whether the goal is merely profit or something deeper – or even both. Crucially, it also seems safe to say that they’re here to stay.
Yet they’re not perfect – far from it – and their deficiencies are only likely to become more apparent unless we give serious thought to how improvements might be made. As the digital platform economy attracts ever more attention and generates ever-fiercer competition, sweeping enhancements – not least in relation to review systems and user-client interactions – are urgently required.
Dr Ekaterina Nemkova is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Nottingham University Business School. She co-authored the study referenced here, In Search of Meaningful Work on Digital Freelancing Platforms: The Case of Design Professionals, with Dr Pelin Demirel, of Imperial College London, and Dr Linda Baines, of the University of Southampton. The full journal paper, published in New Technology, Work and Employment, is available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ntwe.12148.