Rich get richer, also in the platform economy

Christoph Lutz

Crowd workers do not reap the benefits of flexible work.

Advocates for the platform economy argue that anyone with a computer or mobile device can work when and where it suits them. In a survey of 606 crowd workers in India and the U.S., we found this is not the case. Rather, tasks are often designed so that they impede flexibility.

Crowd workers are people without employment contracts who accept small or large ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’ (HITs) from one or more companies. A HIT is a task best performed by a human, as opposed to an automated computer system. Examples include academic surveys, data categorization, business feedback, content creation and image tagging.

According to one respondent in the U.S., “most of the time, it makes no difference if you use a mobile device or not, but some requesters put a requirement to NOT use a mobile device, which is infuriating and makes me not wanna work on their HITs”.

Flexibility in how HITs are completed matters because many low-income internet users do not have access to a laptop or desktop computer, or a reliable internet connection. If the platform economy is to provide economic opportunities for workers outside the traditional labor market, they must be able to complete tasks on the devices they have.

Slow internet and poor equipment is a challenge particularly in India, as one respondent described: “When I used my old Internet connection, I was unable to accept some of the good HITs. So, I thought to change my Internet provider with high-speed Internet and hence I purchased a new high-speed Internet connection for the purpose of [crowd working].”

To make crowd work more inclusive and mobile friendly, policies must address different barriers in different places. In India, platforms and requesters can support crowd workers by subsidizing or sponsoring data plan upgrades or by providing workplaces. In the U.S., platforms and requesters can design more mobile-friendly interfaces and tasks, helping workers increase productivity by combining mobile and non-mobile devices.

In the absence of such policies, we found a rich-get-richer effect. Relatively financially strong users are able to land more and better paying HITs, enabling them to invest in better equipment and increase productivity. Meanwhile underprivileged workers struggle to benefit from the platform economy.

You can read the full paper here: Newlands, G., & Lutz, C. (2020). Crowdwork and the mobile underclass: Barriers to participation in India and the United States. New Media & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820901847

Published 3. June 2020

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