Platforms set the rules, but workers and sellers push back. The studies indicate how platform sellers and workers have developed variety of strategies that individuals use to challenge and push back on the rules of the game as supposedly imposed by the marketplace platforms. They have developed new skills and strategies to take back what power that they can, to optimize within, or sometimes beyond the rules as established by the platform and other institutions, to optimize the quality of their experience. Strategies include keeping one foot in the off-line world, “multi-homing”, developing anticipatory knowledge of the algorithm, skipping jobs that promise low pay. Some use tools, bots and extra phones or devices to improve their chances of getting quality work. Others learn the unwritten aesthetics of their customers. Some obfuscate via VPNs and false profiles. This theme underscores the lack of predictability in how individuals will respond to the rules as established by platform. In these algorithmic competencies and patterns of appropriation and contestation lie not just digital literacy, but the broader craft of pursuing a platform livelihood.

Find references for this section at the bottom of this page or see the PDF for in-text citations.

In this section, we build on the conclusion of the last, which suggested that virtual SMEs and other hidden hierarchies were likely to emerge as individual behaviors on marketplace platforms. Here we talk about a variety of strategies that individuals used to challenge and push back on the rules of the game supposedly imposed by the marketplace platforms. The reason these are important to the policy and design communities is that it is not accurate to view individuals as passive cogs in new digital market machines—they are instead innovators, appropriators, and adapters (Bar, Weber, and Pisani 2016; DeSanctis and Poole 1994). Another thing these 75 studies show us is how individual platform livelihoods are acquiring a know-how of the new terrain of the platform market. They have developed new skills and strategies to take back the power that they can and to optimize within, or sometimes beyond, the rules as established by the platform and other institutions, to optimize the quality of their experience. They are far from holding a monopoly on such power; as is often the case, their best efforts will still leave them vulnerable. We are not discounting so many of the other barriers, challenges, and injustices identified across the other 12 platform livelihood quality indicators, but in this “emergent structure” theme, we emphasize those places where contestation and algorithmic competencies, almost a playbook, or what Limpen and Sisson call “tactics” (Limpin and Sison 2018), are most evident. 

Jarrahi and Sutherland (2019) coined the phrase “algorithmic competencies” to these processes of navigation and appropriation among gig workers. Their work did not focus on the Global South, so it did not make our primary corpus of 75 studies. However, this quote is nevertheless completely germane:

Workers are not passive recipients of algorithmic management and control. They develop what we call algorithmic competencies to deal with and appropriate algorithmic management exercised by the platform. Sensemaking activities allow users to create a working understanding about algorithms and how they may affect their work. (Jarrahi and Sutherland 2019, 8)

Variants of these sensibilities, sensemaking, and strategies are myriad. For example, some keep one foot in the offline world and the online/platforms world within the same livelihood. Workers (Surie 2020) and drivers (Zade and O’Neill 2016) can decide to switch on the app, or leverage social networks or other existing analog relationships to acquire or keep customers, or avoid paying the commission to the platform. Others represent themselves on multiple platforms, engaging in with the platform economics literature calls “multi-homing” (e.g., Landsman and Stremersch 2011) to get better prices for their labor and goods, be that in driving (Kibe 2020; Limpin and Sison 2018; Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020), microtasking (Berg et al. 2018), or freelancing (Muhindi 2019). Some acquire detailed anticipatory knowledge of the ins and outs of the algorithm, electing to skip jobs that promise low pay (Chen 2018); they know when surge pricing is likely to kick in (Limpin and Sison 2018), or when not to take the bait and flock to the same part of the city where all the other drivers are being told to go (Ahmed et al. 2016). Some retailers communicate with customers off-app, or face-to-face, in ways that can yield better ratings (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019).

Some users must figure out not only the basic rules of the platform, but the unwritten social cues, conventions, and aesthetics as well that separate successful from unsuccessful platform sellers. This is, of course, most apparent in social commerce (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019), like this example from overseas buyers: “My idea is that you don’t sell a product; you sell the lifestyle of Australia… [Australians] will just eat barbecue on the street, something like that…. And then your posting is like, every Aussie is wearing this pandora. So Chinese people might think, I don’t need this product, but this kind of lifestyle makes myself feeling really cool” (Zhao 2020)

Others use technology and “tech hacks” (Lehdonvirta 2018) to get a leg up on the competition and/or gather more information for success on the platform. This can be multiple screens to support simultaneous multi-homing in microwork and freelancing (Wood et al. 2019; Newlands and Lutz 2020; Anwar and Graham 2019). Others look at the payment history of clients to inform negotiation and ask for higher salaries (Anwar and Graham 2019). Some drivers in China have installed bots to circumvent platform rules (Chen 2018)

These latter examples begin to blur the line between technological optimization and what others would call cheating. More like cheating are examples of IP spoofing and VPNs (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019; Melia 2020). We discussed inclusion and the legality sections, leaving self-ratings by logging in as clients (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019), and using fake pictures or names to appear to be someone else online (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019). Reports (from the US) suggest delivery drivers hang extra phones in trees near package depots, in order to appear close by and able to receive a job (Sooper 2020)

It’s behaviors like this that stress contestation, not simply appropriation or adaptation. Overall, this structural theme underscores the lack of predictability in how individuals will respond to the rules as established by platform. In these algorithmic competencies and patterns of appropriation and contestation lie not just digital literacy, but the broader craft of pursuing a platform livelihood.


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