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.

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.

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.

PhD studentship available

I have an exciting opportunity for a brilliant master’s degree holder willing to do a PhD in economic sociology. The topic of the thesis is “The division of data labour: How multi-level micro-work networks elucidate the social and economic dimensions of artificial intelligence”. The studentship is generously funded by CNRS.

More information and application form (both in French and in English) here:

The trainer, the verifier, the imitator: Three ways in which human platform workers support artificial intelligence

New article, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli and Marion Coville, just published in Big Data & Society!

The paper sheds light on the role of digital platform labour in the development of today’s artificial intelligence, predicated on data-intensive machine learning algorithms. We uncover the specific ways in which outsourcing of data tasks to myriad ‘micro-workers’, recruited and managed through specialized platforms, powers virtual assistants, self-driving vehicles and connected objects. Using qualitative data from multiple sources, we show that micro-work performs a variety of functions, between three poles that we label, respectively, ‘artificial intelligence preparation’, ‘artificial intelligence verification’ and ‘artificial intelligence impersonation’. Because of the wide scope of application of micro-work, it is a structural component of contemporary artificial intelligence production processes – not an ephemeral form of support that may vanish once the technology reaches maturity stage. Through the lens of micro-work, we prefigure the policy implications of a future in which data technologies do not replace human workforce but imply its marginalization and precariousness.

The three main functions of micro-work in the development of data-intensive, machine-learning based AI solutions.

The paper reports results of the 2017-18 DiPLab project, and is available here in open access.

Internship offer, TRIA project

I am currently seeking to hire a student intern for new research project TRIA (Les TRavailleurs de l’Intelligence Artificielle / Los TRabajadores de la Inteligencia Artificial). Start as soon as possible, conditional on evolving regulations at the end of the current lockdown. Max 6 months.

A full description of the project is enclosed (in French).

HDR Paola Tubaro

(English version below)

J’ai le plaisir d’annoncer la soutenance de mon habilitation à diriger des recherches en sociologie intitulée :

Décrypter la société des plateformes: Organisations, marchés et réseaux dans l’économie numérique.

Cette soutenance aura lieu le mercredi 11 décembre 2019 à Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, salle 931, à 10h00.

Si vous souhaitez venir, merci de confirmer votre présence grâce à ce lien car les personnes externes à Sciences Po ne pourront pas accéder à la salle si elles ne sont pas annoncées.

Le jury sera composé de :

  • M. Gilles Bastin, Professeur des universités, IEP de Grenoble (rapporteur)
  • M. Rodolphe Durand, Professeur, HEC Paris
  • M. Emmanuel Lazega, Professeur des universités, IEP de Paris (garant et rapporteur)
  • Mme Béatrice Milard, Professeure des universités, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (rapporteure)
  • M. José Luís Molina González, Professeur, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • M. Tom A.B. Snijders, Professeur, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

La soutenance sera suivie d’un pot. 


Le manuscrit original conceptualise la récente montée en puissance des platesformes numériques selon trois dimensions principales : leur nature de dispositifs de coordination alimentés par les données, les transformations du travail qui en découlent, et les promesses d’innovation sociétale qui les accompagnent. L’ambition globale est de décortiquer le rôle de coordination de la plateforme et sa position à l’horizon de la dualité classique entreprise – marché. Il s’agit aussi de comprendre précisément comment elle utilise les données pour ce faire, où elle amène le travail, et comment elle gère des projets d’innovation sociale. Je prolonge cette analyse pour faire apparaître la continuité entre la société actuelle dominée par les plateformes et la « société organisationnelle », montrant que les plateformes sont des structures organisées qui distribuent les ressources, produisent des asymétries de richesse et de pouvoir, et repoussent l’innovation sociale vers la périphérie du système. Je discute des implications de ces tendances pour les politiques publiques, et propose des pistes pour la recherche future. 

I am pleased to announce the defense of my habilitation to direct research in sociology entitled:

Decoding the platform society: Organizations, markets and networks in the digital economy

This defense will take place on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 at Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, room 931, at 10am.

If you wish to attend, please confirm your presence through this link because people who are external to Sciences Po will be denied access to the room if they are not announced.

Members of the jury are:

  • Prof. Gilles Bastin, IEP de Grenoble (referee)
  • Prof. Rodolphe Durand, HEC Paris
  • Prof. Emmanuel Lazega, IEP de Paris (advisor and referee)
  • Prof. Béatrice Milard, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (referee)
  • Prof. José Luís Molina González, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • Prof. Tom A.B. Snijders, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

There will be drinks after the defense.


The original manuscript conceptualizes the recent rise of digital platforms along three main dimensions: their nature of coordination devices fueled by data, the ensuing transformations of labor, and the accompanying promises of societal innovation. The overall ambition is to unpack the coordination role of the platform and where it stands in the horizon of the classical firm – market duality. It is also to precisely understand how it uses data to do so, where it drives labor, and how it accommodates socially innovative projects. I extend this analysis to show continuity between today’s society dominated by platforms and the “organizational society”, claiming that platforms are organized structures that distribute resources, produce asymmetries of wealth and power, and push social innovation to the periphery of the system. I discuss the policy implications of these tendencies and propose avenues for follow-up research.

Microwork platforms: a challenge for artificial intelligence, a challenge for employment?

With our sponsors France Stratégie and MSH Paris-Saclay, we convene an international conference on micro-work in Paris on June 13, 2019, followed by the first INDL (International Network on Digital Labor) workshop on June 14. The event will include a “meet the microworkers” panel on June 13, where workers, platform owners and client companies will take the stage. There will also be presentations of the results of national and international surveys (notably ours, DiPLab) on these emerging forms of work, and discussions with French and international academic and institutional experts.


After Uber, Deliveroo and other on-demand services, micro-work is a new form of labor mediated by digital platforms. Internet and mobile services recruit crowds to perform small, standardized and repetitive tasks on behalf of corporate clients, in return for fees ranging from few cents to few euros. These tasks generally require low skills: taking a picture in a store, recognizing and classifying images, transcribing bits of text, formatting an electronic file… Despite their apparent simplicity, these micro-tasks performed by millions of people around the world, are crucial to create the databases needed to calibrate and “train” artificial intelligence algorithms.

Internationally, Amazon Mechanical Turk is the most widely known micro-work platform. In France and in French-speaking Africa, other platforms are attracting a growing number of workers to supplement or even substitute for their primary income. How widespread is the phenomenon? How to recognize, organize and regulate this new form of work? How, finally, does it relate to traditional forms of employment?

Presentations and discussions are held in French and English, with simultaneous translation.

The programme is available here.