Around the world, people and small businesses are working and selling in new ways, using digital platforms. News reports, heated policy debates, and especially our daily interactions with drivers, delivery people, freelancers, innkeepers, and virtual e-commerce storefronts all underscore a growing awareness that there is something essential and different about finding one’s way and earning a living in the platform economy.
This page describes our overarching framework for understanding these platform livelihoods, our term for the broad umbrella encompassing both platform work and platform sales.
More specifically, we define platform livelihoods as active human efforts, sometimes combined with tools or assets, deployed to create value outside of the constructs of a stable employer-employee relationship, mediated by the infrastructure and accompanying logic of digital platforms.
From this definition, and drawing on a detailed literature review of 75 studies of platform livelihoods in the global South, this framework addresses three broad questions for the digital development community:
What are the experiences of people with platform livelihoods?
We identify twelve elements—the kinds of experiences that individuals share and value when discussing their livelihoods with friends, family, and even the occasional researcher. They are a mix of economic, subjective, and broader human development experiences.
What are similarities and differences between platform livelihood types?
We offer a landscape of nine illustrative types of platform livelihood. Note that these are roles that individuals or small enterprises can fill, rather than “business models” or the names of specific platforms.
These are not the only roles that platforms are transforming or enabling, but these nine represent enough of the diversity in platform livelihoods to make two key distinctions. These types mix local and global (digital only) markets. Some of these roles are for individuals seeking work and offering their labor. Some of these roles are for small enterprises and even small farms, looking for new sales channels and new ways to connect with markets.
The early research and policy literature has been concentrated in platform work, especially ride-hailing, freelancing, and microwork, but in the longer run, platform sales (whether via marketplaces, social commerce, or search and discovery) may end up altering the livelihoods of a greater number of people around the world.
What kinds of technologies and business models support platform livelihoods?
Individuals and small enterprises use a mix of platform services and approaches to pursue their livelihoods.
- The most easily recognizable way via formal digital marketplaces —the formal “multi-sided markets” in labor, goods and services, though with individuals and small firms can find customers.
- Informal social commerce—selling goods, services and even ‘influence’ via personal Facebook pages, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. is also growing in popularity and impact, even if the research literature here is still sparse.
- And there is often (still), search and discovery. Millions of small businesses pay for advertising on Facebook and Google and other social media platforms, Many work to refine how they appear on maps or other digital databases and apps. Some have websites or social media pages or storefronts of their own. These activities, too, support platform livelihoods.
These activities and services blur and intersect as digital platforms continually slice and recombine, mediating the connections between sellers and their markets in ever-changing ways.
One the one hand, the digitalization and platformization of economies seems to reward sellers and workers who have developed capabilities in more or more of these than one approaches.
On the other hand, it is simultaneously a critical matter for inclusive digital development policy that these mediated connections do not divide, dissuade, or discriminate against small scale sellers and the self-employed.
In the longer run, we may update the online evidence map and accompanying discussion with a per-technology filter to better reflect differences and similarities (in practice and in policy) across these technological approaches.
How to use this framework
By providing a common language framework and a map of several kinds of platform livelihoods, this framework can help uncover many trends and cross cutting issues. For example, in this first iteration of the literature review we used the framework to explore four durable themes: gender, rurality, youth, and COVID-19. We also outline four emergent dynamics worthy of scrutiny: fractional work, amplification, hidden hierarchies, and contestation.
We hope that you might and use this framework in your own research, design, or policymaking activities. All the materials in this framework are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. We ask only that you provide attribution if this turns out to be useful to your research.
The platform livelihoods framework was developed in collaboration with Qhala, with the support of Mastercard Foundation