Brave New Digital Work? Working Conditions in the Crowd

Thursday, March 2, 2017 12:00pm to 2:00pm
Labor Education Center, room 166


*This conference has already taken place. Please use the information below for reference only.

SMLR’s Center for Global Work and Employment welcomes Christine Gerber and noted German researcher Martin Krzywdzinski from the Berlin Social Science Center to talk about the crowdworking platform economy and what it means for the future of work.


To write texts, test software, categorize photos, design logos or develop innovative services and finding solutions to complex scientific problems – these tasks amongst others neither require employees nor offices anymore nowadays. With the help of new information and communication technologies, such activities can be outsourced via internet-based platforms to individuals who do these jobs online while being dispersed across the globe. Thereby, this crowd is neither employed nor do they need to know the platform or client.

Due to its socio-economic relevance, the chances and risks of this new digital work model are being widely discussed within the public. Within existing research discourses, crowdwork can be connected to theories of precarious labor as it undermines labor and social laws. It also connects to the research discourse on new autonomy and flexibility claims to work. Moreover, crowdwork is discussed as chance for people who are socially, physically or geographically excluded from access to the labor market. Therefore, an empirical analysis of the working conditions within crowdwork is fundamental in order to understand whether there are approaches that offer good working conditions.

The research project group on globalization, work, and production examines the working conditions within this new model of digital work. It focuses on the crowdwork platforms and on how they regulate and organize work within this anonymous and dispersed crowd. It is based on interviews with representatives from crowdwork platforms, with experts from trade unions and academia, and with crowdworkers active on the platforms.

The findings from first interviews show a high variety of labor governance forms used by crowdwork platforms. Many forms differ strongly from the approach used by Amazon´s infamous platform Mechanical Turk, which has been the main object of research in the last years. Earning opportunities vary greatly from piecework pay and competitions to financial incentives for feedback activity within the crowd community. Ranking and reputation systems are widely used to regulate access to better remunerated and more demanding tasks, but their form also strongly varies. Some platforms use these digital reputation systems to promote self-regulation of the crowd. Others link it to a permanent activity: if a user is inactive for several days or weeks, his/her ranking sinks.

The type of performance regulation, work control and incentive creation seems to be closely linked to the task content. The findings suggest that platforms use more sophisticated and gamified mechanisms for creative and more demanding tasks while focusing more on efficiency and standardization when it comes to simple routine and support tasks. Overall, there are indications that platforms in Germany assume a more regulative role than the US models.

In this presentation, guest speakers will present and discuss our research project and first findings. Besides this, we are very interested to learn about the American research discussions related to the impact of digital technologies on work.


This event is co-sponsored by the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations.