Online labor markets let people be people

Contemporary freelancing—at least, pre-COVID—has been enabled by digital technology which enables remote work and collaboration.  Freelancers also participate in online labor markets, such as Task Rabbit and Fiverr.  These services matchmake between workers and hirers at a relatively fine grained, task-by-task level.

This technology automates and standardizes the hiring process, collecting descriptions, histories, and evaluations of workers to feed the hiring decision.  In principle, these datasets are level playing fields, with every worker treated the same, and uniform processes across all gigs.

What could possibly go wrong?

(“People” is what could possibly go wrong.)

This month, Nahla Davies writes about her own experience on these platforms which is not that different from a lot of other work and hiring experiences [1].  <<link>> The technology may be “color blind”, but the people using it sure aren’t.

Gosh. Who’d a thunk it?

There isn’t a lot of solid research on these platforms, but some studies show that hiring, pay, and evaluations may well be skewed in favor of white males [2]. The evaluations matter a lot, because these can strongly influence getting future gigs.  And while the differences may be small, in a crowded market even a slight disadvantage can be disastrous.  And with pay at the edge of a living wage, even slight pay discrepancies can make the difference between success and failure.

Davies backs up the limited research with her own observations.  She perceives that non-white workers receive lower evaluations, which ultimately hinders their ability to get gigs, and the pay offered.

In addition, hirers act like bosses everywhere.  They talk down and man-splain to experienced professionals and, worse, hire, as Davies puts it, as “part of a reputation management attempt”.

“I’ve been asked, for instance, to be “the face” of some employers … so they can fairly transparently prove their progressive credentials.”


Now, as Davies says, we can’t really expect online platforms to cure racism, sexism, and blockheadedness.

But I agree with her that it’s not OK for the platforms to wash their hands and do nothing to protect their workers from patently unfair (not to mention unreasonable) outcomes.  If nothing else, this is a waste of human resources, which is the main product of these platforms.

Davies suggests collecting demographic information to document this kind of bias.  She also speculates on using some kind of algorithmic corrections.  The former would make it easier to document the outcomes, if nothing else.  I’d be surprised if the latter would actually make things better, and could easily make things much worse.

She also suggests changes to the decision making, including more transparency about pay and wider participation in the hiring decisions.  These are probably good ideas in any case.  And it seems to me that a digital hiring platform is well placed to enable such modifications.  In fact, why doesn’t the platform offer an array of decision-making processes, in the same way that it offers an array of gigs and workers?

I would add a suggestion that the platform should let workers rate the platform results, similar to how employers are allowed to rate workers.  I.e., if the platform is giving biased outcomes, the workers should be able to ding it, or its processes.  Maybe this should trigger lower fees to the platform, or something like that.  If the platform does nothing to help workers, the fees should be lower than when it serves their interests, no?

Freelancing it hard enough, I hate to see these “level playing fields” making things even harder for some workers.

  1. Nahla Davies, Black freelancers face discrimination on online hiring platforms, in Freelancers Union Blog, August 24, 2020.
  2. Anikó Hannák, Claudia Wagner, David Garcia, Alan Mislove, Markus Strohmaier, and Christo Wilson, Bias in Online Freelance Marketplaces: Evidence from TaskRabbit and Fiverr, in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. 2017, Association for Computing Machinery: Portland, Oregon, USA. p. 1914–1933.


Katz on the Value of Learning Stand Up

This month Michael Katz writes about “What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing” [1].

He makes several good points

1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

2. The audience decides what’s funny.

3. The only way to get better is to practice.

And, of course, “The most important, I think, is to just get started.

On the first point, he emphasizes that you need to decide “who you are”, what he case “voice”, for purposes of a specific message.

And the second point is, of course, you need to pay attention to your audience.  And, as they say, the customer is always right, and you have to pay close attention.

The third point is obvious.  But he also notes that there is always more to learn, and a humble, beginner’s attitude goes a lot way toward getting better.

And, of course, doing something out at the edge of your comfort zone is scary.  Screwing up the courage to do stand up to a bunch of strangers is really hard.  But, compared to that, pitching your own stuff, stuff that you really know and care about, should be easy, right?

This is all good advice.

I’d add a deeper point.  Stand up comedy and improv in general not only force you to put your self out there, they force you to act.  Whatever you try to do, but especially something multifaceted like freelancing, you will do well to act the part.   If you act like a talented, confident professional, then people will treat you like one—and you’ll be a step closer to being good at doing whatever you are trying to do.

Speaking as a psychologist, I’ll note that you are acting out roles in improvised little plays all the time anyway.  It’s called life.  So why not study and practice to be good at this skill?

Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, coworking can be viewed as a form of improvisational theater, in which workers enact “the future of work”, making it up for themselves.  (See the book!)

So yeah, improv is something I would recommend to everyone*.

By the way, I also recommend pretty much everyone learn a bit origami, just because there are so many useful design insights, and it’s 3D and it’s self-organizing and it’s parsimonious with materials and…  You get the idea.

  1. Michael Katz, What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog, June 23, 2020.


* Of course, I am far, far too shy to take this advice myself.  But then, I am not a successful freelancer, am I?  Do as I say, not as I do.

How Digital Technology Enables Freelancing

For the past twenty five years or so, many people point out how digital technology, especially digital networks, enable remote working, including freelancing, coworking, and general digital nomadism.

My own view is that the technology is necessary but not sufficient, it enables but does not really drive these trends in work.  (See the book!)

This winter Anna Medina reiterates this case, explainingwhat the cloud means for freelance workers” [2].  Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she declares cloud technology to be “a game-changer”.

Cloud-based technology has been a significant game-changer responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.” (From [2])

Now, to me, “cloud technology” is as much a business model as a technology.  The stuff in the cloud is pretty much what we had all along in large organizations (and which I helped pioneer).  The new thing is who owns it, and the fact that you basically rent your critical infrastructure rather than try to run it yourself.

I think Medina’s basic point is that this approach (renting form the cloud) is especially beneficial for freelancers.  I would say that it levels the playing field, making it possible for an independent worker to have the same high-quality infrastructure as a member of a large organization.

She lists the kinds of tools available, including Communication, Sharing, and Payments.

I think Medina is completely correct that a lot of contemporary freelancing and coworking would be infeasible without access to these cloud services.  Technologically, the array of services cited would be “the easy ones”, services well perfected long before “the cloud”.  She doesn’t even mention virtual machines specifically, which make possible a variety of “on demand” computing, including software development, simulation, large computations, and lots more.

From my point of view, cloud computing makes a kind of “average” infrastructure available at low cost to even an individual worker.  “Average” isn’t perfect or ideal, but it definitely places a solid floor on the quality of infrastructure, raising all boats.  Only the wealthiest organization could afford the quality that you or anyone can get in the cloud.  That’s good, for sure.

Now, the cloud does not provide everything you need.  For one thing, you need a physical place to work, and most people need other people.  That’s what coworking spaces are for.

But even technologically, cloud users have to “bring your own” stuff: computer and networks, and users have to take care to use the cloud well.

For example, earlier in February in the same blog, Samuel Bocetta discussedHow to secure client data when you work remotely” [1]. The essential point is that, no matter how great and how “secure” cloud services may be, you, the worker, must still take responsibility for protecting you clients and your own information.

Obviously, using well designed cloud services is a good foundation.  But, as Bocetta outlines, you still need to operate defensively and practice safe computing:  passwords, cryptography, and policies.   You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again.

The good news is that the steps he outlines are little different from any Internet user.  The bad news is that they aren’t any more fool proof than general Internet security.  So watch out.

To me, one of the scary parts of freelancing is that, as an independent freelance worker, you are on your own, both responsible and liable for protecting you clients.  One of the great benefits of belonging to a large organization is when you are helped by and at least partly shielded by the larger group.  A big company or university has lawyers on retainer, and also has experts who work hard to defend your systems.  You are not alone.

Yes, cloud computing is certainly a good thing for freelancers.  My own view is that it is an enabler, but not exactly “responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.”  It also is hardly the whole picture.  Freelancers are still “on their own” in many ways.  This is why coworking spaces and communities are so important and valuable for freelancers:  so you aren’t all alone.

  1. Samuel Bocetta, How to secure client data when you work remotely, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 18, 2020.
  2. Anna Medina, What the cloud means for freelance workers, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 28, 2020.


Sara Horowitz on “The Future of Workers”

I have long said that, if we’re going to talk about “The Future of Work”, I want to talk about “The Future of Workers”.

This is why I have been so interested in Platform Cooperativism, Coworking, and why I eagerly joined the Freelancers Union.

This month Sensei Sara Horowitz asks, “Is the future of work stuck in the past?” [1]  As a founder of the Freelancers Union, she has long been involved with futurist punditry on this topic for many years, and she expresses dissatisfaction with discussions that “focus on the impact on businesses rather than individual workers”.

The perspectives (let alone the interests) of actual workers are absent.

“In fact, “The Future of Work” takeaways are often radically disconnected from the needs of American workers.”

Eternal optimist Horowitz is happy to note that workers mostly don’t know and don’t care about these pontifications. She sees workers “charting their own course, building that new workplace in real time and creating the social organizations they need”.

Horowitz has her own agenda, of course.  As any good social scientist (such as me) or union organizer (such as SH) will tell you, “Workers are social creatures” (all people are social creatures), so it is a mistake to talk about gig workers as if they are isolated units, one person companies.  For Horowitz, the implication is that it is important to organizing workers for economic and political power, and, these days, she is busy creating worker owned insurance and other social safety nets.

““Future of Work” enthusiasts should focus their attention and energy on the institutions that organize workers”

Of course, labor unions are the (lost) past for most workers, so this is hardly a ground breaking prescription.  And I’m not as optimistic about the feasibility of organizing workers in the way SH talks about.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a member of the FU,  I just don’t think it is likely to gain enough power to matter.

(However, coming up with decent insurance and other benefits will be a huge plus for ordinary workers. So, you go girl!, on that front.)

I am considerably more optimistic about other kinds of worker driven “organizing”, especially coworking spaces.  Independent workers may not be able to wield a lot of political or economic power, but we definitely can create and control our own work places, and our own communities of co-workers.  This is a huge win for workers, indeed, potentially life saving.

But IMO, the secret to success for a coworking community is local, in person interaction, which is not a large-scale thing.  Everybody can belong to a coworking community, but it will be a zillion small, independent groups, not one large group.  So, coworking is very important and beneficial, but it is not really an “institution that organizes workers” in the way SH is thinking.

Obviously, we can expect both coworking and the FU to continue in the future, both serving the needs of future workers.  These two movements are different ways to address the needs of individual workers, and both are powerful because they are social.

  1. Sara Horowitz, Is the future of work stuck in the past?, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 6, 2020.


“Broad City” Portrays Freelance Life?

For the record, following a post wondering “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”, the Freelancers Union* posted an earlier item that tells us that one place to look is the TV show, Broad City [1].  The article, signed by “Trupo” (which is an insurance company partly owned by the FU), discusses the fictional life of the characters.  (Caveat:  I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of this show myself.)

“The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons.”

These two working women live the real life of a freelancer: many gigs, mostly very short term. Intermittent income, no benefits, little security.

The show plays these challenges for comedy, of course.  The point is that this is slice-of-life comedy, representing the real experience of a lot of workers living in New York City.

The FU concludes, “hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.”

I don’t know how “normative” or “non-traditional” gig working is, will, or should be. But it’s certainly good to see some realistic fiction about working lives.

As I commented earlier, why not a fictional life set in a coworking space?  I have described coworking (and by implication freelancing) as “participatory theater”, in which workers create their own story of the Future of Work.  That sounds like a decent scenario for scripted theater.

  1. Trupo, What Broad City got right about financial insecurity and episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog, January 31, 2020.

*Note:  I am a proud member of the FU.