Platform Livelihoods

A framework to help uncover trends

Jonathan Donner
Oct 19 · 5 min read
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Image for post

Around the world, people and small businesses are working and selling in new ways, using digital platforms. News reports, heated policy debates, and perhaps especially our daily interactions with gig workers, freelancers, 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 year, Caribou Digital has been working with Qhala and with the support of the Mastercard Foundation on a project exploring the “Quality of Youth Digital Livelihoods” in Kenya. That research, with its particular focus on how young women in Kenya experience platform work and platform sales, is well underway.

As a way to connect to the ongoing research and policy discussions, and to help create our interview guide, we read everything we could — 75+ primary research studies of platform work and platform sales in the Global South. We excited to report that Caribou Digital and Qhala have just released v1.0 of that review in a PDF, and in a searchable, filterable, online resource in the form of an evidence map.

Underpinning these new resources is an emerging overarching framework for understanding platform livelihoods, our term for the broad umbrella encompassing both platform work and platform sales. This post, also a page on the platform livelihoods website, is our most succinct (October 2020) version of the platform livelihoods framework.

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 that detailed literature review of 75 studies of platform livelihoods in the Global South, this framework addresses three broad questions for the digital development community:

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.

A table with 12 elements of platform livelihoods
A table with 12 elements of platform livelihoods
Platform Livelihood Experience Elements

In the review, 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. We feel strongly that platform work needs continued research and policy attention, as millions turn to platform labor amidst changing economies and a global pandemic.

At the same time, and in the longer run, platform sales (whether via marketplaces, social commerce, or search and discovery) may end up altering the livelihoods of millions more.

This lens suggests that these two growing domains, platform work and platform sales, are supported by overlapping affordances of platformization — indeed it is often the same platforms supporting job seekers and microentrepreneurs alike. The lens invites synthesis of insights for policy and practice that draws on both domains, while retaining space for more comparative or specific inquiry into one livelihood type at time.

A 2x2 figure with illustrativee platform livelihood types like ‘driver’ and ‘farmer’
A 2x2 figure with illustrativee platform livelihood types like ‘driver’ and ‘farmer’
Platform Livelihood Types

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.

A figure with three connected circles, representing platform practices: search and discovery; social; and marketplace sales
A figure with three connected circles, representing platform practices: search and discovery; social; and marketplace sales
Platform Livelihood Practices

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.

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital…

Jonathan Donner

Written by

Sr. Director for Research, Caribou Digital. Author: After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet (MIT Press) #digitaldevelopment #ict4d

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

Jonathan Donner

Written by

Sr. Director for Research, Caribou Digital. Author: After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet (MIT Press) #digitaldevelopment #ict4d

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

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