Counting online workers

I have just discovered this very interesting new paper by Otto Kässi, Vili Lehdonvirta and Fabian Stephany. Their data-driven count of online workers is not without reminding of this research published last year, which I did with Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli.

There are differences of course: theirs is a large multi-country study while we focused on one national setting (France). Also: Kässi et al. consider online labour in general, while we looked specifically at micro-work.

Nevertheless, there are striking similarities. Both studies included larger as well as smaller and more peripheral platforms, often left aside in previous research. Both started from the numbers of registered users declared by the platforms in scope, although this is likely an upper bound. Indeed registering may not mean using, and for example researchers (like ourselves) and journalists would register only to observe, especially when registration is open and easy.

Also, both studies used web traffic analysis data but for different purposes. We used them as an estimate of minimally active users – those who connect at least monthly, as per the definition given by the providers of these data. For the platforms we observed, these numbers tend to be lower than registrations.

Instead, Kässi et al. have used these data to assess registration numbers for the platforms that do not report them. My first reaction would be to think their estimates are likely a lower bound. But presumably their use of a mix of sources, and the seriousness and caution with which they have conducted their estimate, provide enough correction.

Finally, both studies attempted to correct estimates downward by taking into account multi-homing – the tendency of users to rely on multiple platforms. The coefficient of Kässi et al. is 1.83, ours was 1.27. The gap is due to the fact that we focused only on micro-work: if we had counted participation across all types of online labour platforms, our coefficient would be just below 2 – not far from theirs! Kässi et al. also correct for the possibility of multiple workers using a single account, which we did not observe in our French sample. One might imagine other corrections depending on observed usages. For example my ongoing Latin American study of micro-workers suggests that there are unofficial sales and purchases of highly rated platform accounts, more likely to access better-paying tasks – again, something we did not observe in France. Kässi et al. rightly note that all these corrections come from ad hoc surveys and should be interpreted with caution.

Overall, I would say that both studies point to the need to put in place new and creative methods to account for these new forms of labour that traditional statistical studies fail to capture well. The price to pay, as both studies stress, is a high degree of uncertainty. I also dare suggest that both are mixed-method studies: while the design is essentially quantitative, input from smaller and even qualitative research is crucial – for example to get insight into multi-homing and multi-working.

Before concluding, let us recall the key results. Kässi et al. reckon that there are 163 million freelancer profiles registered on online labour platforms globally, of whom approximately 19 million have worked at least once, and 5 million work more intensely. We estimated that approximately 260,000 French residents are registered with micro-work platforms, of whom some 50,000 are ‘regular’ workers who do micro-tasks at least monthly, and a more restrictive measure of ‘very active’ workers would decrease this figure to 15,000.

Are these numbers large or small? Curiously, our French study attracted both criticisms: some worried that we might be overstating the importance of micro-work, others wondered why we bothered for such a tiny part of national GDP. It is not easy to answer this question, as the answer depends on the perspective taken and the goals – the same numbers would mean different things to policymakers and researchers, for example. Nevertheless, I think that the point that is important to all, is to say that this population exists and needs attention – despite its limited visibility and the fuzzy boundaries that make it so difficult to assess its size.

Big data and the hypothesis of the end of privacy

In the late 2000s, voices suggesting that our societies might be nearing the ‘end of privacy’ became increasingly deafening. Our cultural, political and regulatory environment was on the verge of major transformation – so went the narrative. Businesses rejoiced as notoriously, less privacy and more information oils the economy.

In a video interview with Italian media Idee Sottosopra, I review the courses of action taken by various stakeholders, in particular Internet companies, and examine their conflicts and controversies. I show how the very concept of privacy, inherited from a long legal and judicial tradition, should be revised and redefined to appropriately describe today’s online interactions.

Overall, there is no deterministic and inevitable tendency to exclude privacy from our societies, but rather a tension between social forces for and against privacy, which has accompanied the advent of the digital economy and especially social media. The positions of stakeholders, especially users, are often ambiguous, and social media companies attempted to leverage this ambiguity to their own advantage.

Yet civil society reactions have been stronger and stronger, and after initial David-vs-Goliath attempts of individuals and small associations, more and more authoritative institutions have taken seriously the defence of privacy. We are no longer left to costly and little-visible individual choices, and especially after entry into force of GDPR in Europe, we have now an unprecedented opportunity to act at a more systemic level.

Big Data. L’ipotesi della fine della della Privacy | Società Digitale | Idee Sottosopra

Embeddedness in digital platform labour

Starting from Granovetter’s seminal 1985 article, the concept of embeddedness has given new life to economic sociology. With it, it has finally been possible to operationalize the idea that factors other than individual, under-socialized choices drive the economy. In addition to people’s own interests and motivations, the social environments of which they are part contribute to shaping their action. With this idea, economic sociology could claim legitimacy as a valid approach to study the market and the firm – beyond the exclusive pretensions of much economics.

The idea of embeddedness and its operationalization were not without their critics, though. After all, one may say that economic sociology has performed better in its analysis of the firm, than of the market. The very meaning of the embeddedness concept has been stretched a lot over time – also getting back, on occasion, to the quite different nuances that Polanyi attached to it back in the 1940s.

In a just-published article, I go back to this concept and challenge it against digital platforms – recently emerged economic coordination devices that, in the view of many, defy the traditional firm/market boundaries. This helps uncover a new idea: extends the economic-sociological concept of embeddedness to encompass not only social networks of, for example, friendship or kinship ties, but also economic networks of ownership and control relationships.

Applying these ideas to the case of digital platform labour pinpoints two possible scenarios. When platforms take the role of market intermediaries, economic ties are thin and workers are left to their own devices, in a form of ‘disembeddedness’. In this sense, I confirm the results obtained by a group of Oxford scholars in a similar setting. But when platforms partake in intricate inter-firm outsourcing structures, economic ties envelop workers in a ‘deep embeddedness’ which involves both stronger constraints and higher rewards.

I show that with this added dimension, the notion of embeddedness becomes a compelling tool to describe the social structures that frame economic action, including the power imbalances that characterize digital labour in the global economy. Granovetter’s original idea can still provide a lot of insight to help us understand the transformations of today’s economy.

The article is available here.

A preliminary version of this article was presented in a seminar in September 2020.

Internship offer (3 months, master’s level, spring 2021)

The research project TRIA (from its French title “Le TRavail de l’IA: éthique et gouvernance de l’automation”) is a study of the production systems of artificial intelligence. We investigate “micro-work” platforms, which allocate small standardized tasks to crowds of providers, and use the outputs of their work to prepare and annotate data for machine learning algorithms. We study the ramifications of this phenomenon in Spanish-speaking countries, which have remained under-researched so far despite their strong participation. With data from an empirical survey already started in 2020, and to be analyzed through mixed methods (including advanced NLP techniques), we will address important issues related to digital platform governance, online work ethics, and consequences (e.g. in terms of bias) of the use of these humans in the production of artificial intelligence.
Funded by the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), the TRIA project resembles research teams in the Paris and Rennes regions in France, as well as partners in Spain (Barcelona and Valencia) and Canada (Toronto).

We are currently looking for a student intern to help us set up a survey targeting micro-workers in Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
He/she will help us to :

  • update an inventory of micro-work platforms operating in Spanish-speaking countries, a first version of which was created in 2020;
  • launch a replication of the online questionnaire, already fielded on, on another micro-work platform;
  • to liaise and ensure communication between the project teams.

The applicant should :

  • be enrolled in the first or second year of a master’s degree in social science (like sociology, political science, management or economics) ;
  • have skills in the design and/or execution of questionnaire surveys;
  • have some prior knowledge of, or at least interest in, the transformations of work and/or the societal effects of digital technology;
  • be able to work independently, with advanced relational skills;
  • have a fairly good command of French or English, and at least a basic knowledge of Spanish.

More information is available in the enclosed job description.

Unboxing AI conference

I’m excited to be part of the organizing team for an upcoming conference entitled “Unboxing AI” and aiming to open – at least to an extent – the black box. What are the material conditions of AI production? Who are the multitudes of precarious workers who contribute to it in the shadow, by generating data and checking algorithmic outputs? What are the geographical areas and the social scope of the work that produces today’s intelligent technologies? These are some of the questions we aim to explore.

The first two days of the conference (November 5 and 6, 3pm – 7pm CET) will bring together highly regarded international specialists from a wide variety of disciplines (sociology, law, economics, but also the arts and humanities…). On the third day (November 7, also 3 pm – 7 pm CET), there will be a doctoral colloquium with a selection of very promising work by young researchers.

The conference was initially planned to take place in Milan in March 2020, and had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the health situation is still critical, we have opted for an online-only version. At least, this format is cheap – no need to travel to attend – and we can welcome a more geographically diverse range of participants. Indeed the afternoon-only schedule is meant to enable colleagues from North and South America to attend.

Participation is free of charge but prior registration is required. You will find the programme as well as registration forms here
(please note that there is a separate form for each of the three dates of the conference).

The conference is organized as part of the initiatives of our ‘International Network on Digital Labor‘ and is co-sponsored by ISRF (Independent Social Research Foundation), the Nexa Center for Internet and Society, and Fondazione Feltrinelli.

Covid-19 and transfer of risk on digital platform workers

At an internal meeting of the IDHES lab in Gif-sur-Yvette, and then at an event at the University of Bologna, I have had the pleasure of presenting recent research on how the current health crisis reveals a new dimension of digital platforms – their tendency, wherever possible, to shift risk from clients to workers, within its ecosystem. The paper, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli, is now under submission for a journal.

Here is an abstract:

As the recessionary effects of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic become
manifest, the paper discusses their effects on digital platforms and the
workers in their eco-systems. Against the possibility that platform
labor may be a buffer against crisis-induced layoffs, our analysis of
the risks associated to it suggests that it may eventually increase
precarity, without necessarily mitigating health risks for workers. Our
argument is based on a comparison of the three main categories of
platform labor – “on-demand labor” (gigs such as delivery and
transportation), “online labor” (tasks performed by freelancers and
micro-workers) and “social media labor” (like content generation
and moderation) – in terms of the health and economic risks involved in
coronavirus times. We show that platform managers have deployed varying
strategies to transfer risk from themselves and their clients onto
workers, exploiting and deepening the existing power imbalance between
them. Success in achieving this has enabled them to secure their bottom
line even at the expense of working conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic
has brought to light how digital platforms apply a management style that
revolves around transferring the burden of risk to their own workforce.

Crowdworking Symposium 2020

With Antonio A. Casilli, I will be presenting a paper tomorrow at the Crowdworking Symposium organized by the University of Paderborn, Germany. Unfortunately, we will participate only online because of the health situation.

Our mini-paper (3 pages), entitled ‘Portraits of micro-workers: The real people behind AI in France’, is available here.

The platform economy, labour and Covid-19

On 18 September 2020, I present my research on the platform economy and its impact on labour in Covid-19 times at Nantes Digital Week, as part of a special event organized by CGT, a Union.

The mobility restrictions that accompanied the pandemic encouraged use of digital tools to socialize, study and work, suggesting that automation is gaining ground and that technology enables contactless – hence safe – interactions in much of our social life. Yet behind apparent automation, precarious and unprotected human labour is hidden. Workers recruited through digital platforms to make these solutions work, are in fact disproportionately exposed to risks. I illustrate these ideas in three main cases: food delivery workers, that enabled the restaurant industry to stand the crisis even during lockdown; commercial content moderators that are to return to office sooner than others, to protect our safety online; and AI micro-workers who trained tools whose sales have gone up during stay-at-home rules, such as voice assistants, and helped the creation of datasets for much-needed health applications.

First seminar of the year!

Next Thursday, 17 September, I have been invited to give a talk as part of the cycle of seminars organized by the quantitative sociology research group at CREST-ENSAE, Palaiseau (Paris area). Although the health situation is still bleak, I am glad to return to almost-normal functioning by giving an in-person talk. Hopefully there won’t be any new lockdown before that.

I will present an in-progress paper provisionally entitled:

«Disembedded or deeply embedded? A multi-level network analysis of the online platform economy»

The two types of platform labour analyzed in the paper.

In this paper, I extend the economic-sociological concept of embeddedness to encompass not only social networks of, for example, friendship or kinship ties, but also economic networks of ownership and control relationships. Applying these ideas to the case of digital platform labour pinpoints two possible scenarios. When platforms take the role of market intermediaries, economic ties are thin and workers are left to their own devices, in a form of ‘disembeddedness’. When platforms partake in intricate inter-firm outsourcing structures, economic ties envelop workers in a ‘deep embeddedness’ which involves both stronger constraints and higher rewards. With this added dimension, the notion of embeddedness becomes a compelling tool to describe the social structures that frame economic action, including the power imbalances that characterize digital labour in the global economy.

How many ‘micro-workers’?

Finally published! Counting `micro-workers’: Societal and methodological challenges around new forms of labour is a paper that I co-authored with Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli, and that hs just been published in a special issue of the journal Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation.

What is it about? ‘Micro-work’ consists of fragmented data tasks that myriad providers execute on online platforms. While crucial to the development of data-based technologies, this little visible and geographically spread activity is particularly difficult to measure. To fill this gap, we combined qualitative and quantitative methods (online surveys, in-depth interviews, capture-recapture techniques, and web traffic analytics) to count micro-workers in a single country, France. On the basis of this analysis, we estimate that approximately 260,000 people are registered with micro-work platforms. Of these some 50,000 are ‘regular’ workers who do micro-tasks at least monthly, and we speculate that using a more restrictive measure of ‘very active’ workers decreases this figure to 15,000. This analysis is important to better understand platform labour and the labour in the digital economy that lies behind artificial intelligence.