Looking back at the Symposium „New Perspectives on the Digital Economy: Sharing, Platforms & Regulation“
Researchers from the Weizenbaum-Institute, the BI Norwegian Business School, and emlyon Business School jointly organized and hosted the online symposium, “New Perspectives on the Digital Economy: Sharing, Platforms & Regulation” on December 2nd, 2022. The event brought together a diverse group of renowned international scholars, sharing and debating their cutting-edge research and insights on the digital economy. It was an opportunity not to be missed for anyone interested in the frontiers of research on sharing, platforms and regulation in the digital economy.
2 December 2022
by Mikko Laamanen, Christoph Lutz, and Volker Stocker
The second symposium New Perspectives on the Digital Economy: Sharing, Platforms & Regulation was held online on December 2nd, 2022. The event was jointly organized by Christoph Lutz (Nordic Centre for Internet and Society, BI Norwegian Business School), Mikko Laamanen (Lifestyle Research Center, emlyon business school) and Volker Stocker (Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society/TU Berlin) and attracted more than 60 participants from 16 countries. The four sessions, each consisting of two or three presentations, featured a stellar line-up of speakers, who delivered eleven inspiring and thought-provoking talks. The format provided a unique platform for researchers to connect and engage in lively debates, fostering an enriching international research environment.
Karolina Mikołajewska-Zając (University of Queensland Business School) opened the symposium with a talk entitled The sharing economy’s past and our platformed future through a digital ecology lens (slides here; recording here). In her talk, she suggested ecological epistemology as an approach for understanding the developments of sharing economy platforms. In contrast to contemporary research on the platformized web centered around the notions of power, control, or force, she argued that ecological epistemology allows accounting for patterns of digital organizations configurations and capturing their effects on individuals, groups, and institutions. Drawing on her research on CouchSurfing, Karolina illustrated the impact of technology-based linear interventions into the complex circularity of the world around this early sharing economy platform. Indeed, each solution to a problem on this platform immediately gave rise to novel and ever bigger problems requiring ever more expansive solutions. Theorizing from her empirical material, Karolina put forward that quick fixes are likely to become self-perpetuating and ecologically destructive games without ends when a platform loses a proportion of its flexibility to adjust to becoming (more) specialized and committed. Platforms are prone to become locked in a pattern whereby they need to resort to ever more expansive ad hoc mega measures to survive in the short term. Instead, Karolina called for further consideration of the health of the web as an ecosystem and the continued diversity of ideas that can stop the erosion of the sharing economy and rebuild diversity in its organizational forms and ideas.
In the second talk of the first session, Giana Eckhardt (King’s College London) and Samuelson Appau (Melbourne Business School) presented their ongoing research on When Brands Regulate Markets (slides here; recording here). Giana and Samuelson shared their findings on how sharing economy platforms and brands have disrupted markets that are not (or poorly) regulated, specifically focusing on the market entry and impact of ride-hailing apps in Ghana. They explained that since the taxi system in Ghana is peculiar and poorly regulated, the arrival of Uber disrupted the local market in an unusual way. Sharing platforms and brands usually enter (well-)regulated markets and attempt to avoid the same regulatory burden their incumbent competitors must bear. Regulators often grapple with finding and establishing appropriate guardrails to regulate these market entrants to achieve a level playing field. In stark contrast to this more common scenario, Uber entered a poorly regulated Ghanaian market and assumed the role of a “regulator”. Instead of undermining existing regulations, Giana and Samuel showed how the company positively contributed to improved market conditions and outcomes, for example, related to security and prices. This has far-reaching implications. They showed that sharing economy platforms and brands can act as “regulators in unregulated markets”. Since this role is fundamentally different from a scenario where they are regulated companies, governments need to rethink their approach to regulating respective markets, accounting for options in which they regulate “with/through the [sharing] brands/platforms.”
In the final talk of the first session titled The Openness of Data Platforms, Mark de Reuver (TU Delft) delved into the world of data platforms, which facilitate data exchange between businesses (slides here; recording here; paper: de Reuver et al., 2022 here). In his talk, Mark highlighted the peculiarities of these platforms and identified a set of problems that give rise to important research questions in the field of data platform openness. Mark emphasized how the openness of data platforms is, to some extent, necessary to reduce or break the dependence on big tech’s AI systems, and also identified and discussed research challenges relating to (1) novel approaches to achieve platform-to-platform openness (the three strategies described are: 1. via complementors that connect (multiple) data platforms (“Complementor Bridge“); 2. via direct exchange and interoperability between (industry-specific) data platforms (“Interoperability“); 3. via a “Meta-platform“) and (2) (unprecedented) risks of opening up data platforms. In his talk, Mark developed a research agenda for examining data platform openness and concluded that interdisciplinary work is needed to meaningfully address the identified questions.
Pinar Özcan (University of Oxford, Said Business School) opened the second session with her talk on Competition in the Age of Data & Platforms. Pinar delved into the latest era of a platform revolution and shared insights from several of her (ongoing) research projects on how platform business models and big tech companies are disrupting regulated industries. The talk focused on three sectors: banking and finance, healthcare, and education, and drew on insights from the U.K. and the U.S. Pinar highlighted that big tech companies have recently entered these highly regulated markets, changed markets and competition, and disrupted the power balance. Moreover, they have (begun to) “digitally colonize” these industries. In the sphere of banking and finance (Dinckol et al., forthcoming), regulatory reform that opened up data access facilitated novel (platform-based) business models and incentivized market entry by big tech companies, primarily by venturing into the provision of payment and insurance services but also lending and credit services. In health care and education (see Özalp et al., 2022), big tech companies (i.e., GAFAM) have entered markets through various strategies, including collaboration). When considering the incentives for incumbent firms to develop and adopt platform business models, trade-offs and tensions must be taken into account (see Furr et al., 2022).
In the second talk of Session 2, An Information-Economic Perspective on Platform Governance, Johannes Bauer (Quello Center at the Michigan State University) presented his thoughts about regulating digital platforms (slides here; recording here). Drawing on insights from an ongoing research project, Johannes explained the need to conceptually capture innovation as a combinatorial process, laying out that platform-related innovation can be understood as “a system of dynamic relations and feedbacks” (Bauer & Bohlin, 2022), giving rise to a “dual governance problem.” On the one hand, platforms need to address internal governance problems (e.g., related to data and knowledge sharing to facilitate innovation by third-party complementors). On the other hand, public decision-makers need to address external governance issues (e.g., aligning private with public interests). Strategies to address the dual governance problem shape the entrepreneurial search for innovation and the ‘size’ of the innovation opportunity space and yield implications for external platform governance. By examining the challenges through an information-economic lens, Johannes argued that this can inform the evaluation of the need for public policy interventions and help design appropriate intervention strategies that balance mitigating unintended consequences (e.g., constraining the innovation search space or heightening path dependencies) and preserving institutional and organizational diversity.
In the sixth talk of the day, Alessandro Gandini (University of Milan) presented his ongoing work on Neo-craft work: a case of ‘platformised’ labour (slides here; recording here). He described the important role of platforms as points of production and as infrastructures: how platforms bring together supply and demand of work, and consumers and clients within the social relations of production. A platform offers essentially an object as well as the model for facilitating platform labor. He differentiated between (1) platform-based work in which the platform organizes and takes an active role in directing workers; (2) platform-dependent work where the labor of content creators is not directly organized or monitored, yet essentially algorithmically managed by the platform, and (3) the gray area of platformized work where the platform is essential though work is not necessarily undertaken on the platform. In this context, neo-craft stands both for new craft and artisanal work, but also for the neoliberal repositioning of these activities into the economy. The idea of neo-craft is epitomized in authenticity and in a cultural conception of value as the source of meaning in work, with a growing interest in status, taste, and cool on the consumer side. Social media and digital platforms in general are key to this signification through curation and Instagram driven aesthetics: increasingly, social media work is perceived to be part and parcel of the new way of doing and selling craft. As algorithms play an important role in facilitating circulation in social media, platformized work implies a dependency of rankings and a need for skills to ‘negotiate’ visibility. Alessandro concluded his presentation with an illustration of the ongoing work that explores the dynamics of the neo-craft worker agency vis-à-vis that of the platforms across various contexts and geographies.
In the second talk of Session 3, Brooke Duffy (Cornell University) presented her research on Platform labor and the politics of algorithmic in/visibility (slides here; recording here). Brooke introduced the topic of the creator economy, including some of her earlier work that highlights the importance of social media platforms and their affordances. Creators heavily depend on platforms to make a living and their careers are structured by both the promise and precarity of platform visibility. In that context, algorithmic precarity describes how creators must cope with the volatility and opacity of platforms and their algorithms. Based on in-depth qualitative research with a diverse range of content creators, the talk delved into aspects and experiences of such algorithmic precarity. Content creators spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the algorithms prioritize certain types of content over others, developing folk theories and exchanging with fellow creators. Algorithmic punishment refers to platform practices such as demonetization, blocking, blacklisting and shadowbanning, where creators develop strategies such as suppression, experimentation, resignation and circumvention to avoid or overcome such punishment. The research also showed how inequalities and privilege manifest among content creators, with some having insider knowledge and easier access to the appeals process.
In their talk Platformization of Labor in Context: The urban embeddedness of delivery riders (in Buenos Aires) based on work co-authored with Letizia Chiappini, Davide Beraldo and Giovanni Rossetti stressed the need to move away from a universalist perspective on platformization (slides here; recording here). Instead of considering platformization as a uniform global process across locations, their discussion emphasized the importance of capturing the geographical dimension in platformization, not only from the perspective of the strategic role with regards to regulations and the differences in the labor markets, but also from the perspective of the workers themselves. Examining delivery riders, Davide and Giovanni highlighted the emergence of solidarity within this fragmented workforce and forms of algorithmic resistance by riders based on their experience in three urban contexts: Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, and Milan. For instance, in Amsterdam, workers attempt to optimize their working conditions by combining different types of bikes and delivery apps with personal deep knowledge of the city and its infrastructure. In Buenos Aires, contrastingly, algorithmic transparency was the main issue that riders considered important, particularly when it comes to support in case something unexpected happens. The Milanese interviews highlighted the relevance of the mobility infrastructure and how conflict with the train providers who did not allow to bring the bikes on trains impacted the possibilities to perform this work. Overall, from a methodological point of view, the geography and practices as well as the lived experience of riders in the different contexts are key issues for comparative work on platforms.
In the first talk of the final session, entitled It takes a village: The relational nature of explaining AI, Lauren Waardenburg (IESEG School of Management) presented her in-depth ethnographic research on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software by the police force in the Netherlands (slides here; recording here). Lauren emphasized aspects of explainability and interpretation in the context of the rise of AI as well as the ongoing discourse on explainable AI. The research showed how ordinary police workers made sense of the algorithmic predictions from a crime anticipation system and how they tried to use these predictions to solve cases. Lauren illustrated the topic with the issue of car burglaries: From the first predictions of the AI system to the solving of a burglary case it can take months that are filled with in-depth police work, including data analysis, reporting, patrolling, interviewing, meetings and other routines that are removed from the complexities of the underlying algorithms but still necessary to make them work. The challenge of explaining AI must thus be seen in the specific application and use context, and it involves more than mathematical relationships between input and output. Instead “explainable AI is relational, longitudinal and ongoing.” Or in other words, as the title of her presentation aptly states, “It takes a village” to make AI systems work in practice.
Yin Liang (Durham University) showcased her ongoing research in the talk “Becoming or not becoming a side hustler: An investigation into the role and qualities of the working life framework in the gig economy (slides here; recording here). In collaboration with Jeremy Aroles (York University) and Bernd Brandl (Durham University), her paper looked into the phenomenon of side-hustling as a manifestation of new types of work emerging in the gig economy. Side-hustling describes income-generating work that is separate from someone’s full-time work. It is a core element of the gig economy and is often appreciated due to its flexibility. However, little is known about the drivers of side-hustling, especially how platforms can encourage side-hustling. To study this question, Yin and her co-authors relied on the quality of working life framework, including four dimensions (flexibility, control, working conditions, recognition) and four corresponding hypotheses. A survey conducted in 2022 served to test the hypotheses and the data was analyzed with logistic regression. Flexibility turned out to be an important predictor in an individual’s decision to become a side-hustler, while the other dimensions of the quality of working life framework were less important. Yin then discussed practical implications of the findings for platforms and policymakers, including the need to develop labor law in a way that is fit for flexibility needs in the gig economy.
In the final talk of the Symposium entitled Platform Labor Meets Racial Capitalism: The Case of the Influencer Pay Gap, Angèle Christin (Stanford University) presented her ongoing research on racial inequalities among influencers (slides here; recording here). The work is in collaboration with Yingdan Lu (Stanford University) and investigates inequalities in influencers’ monetization strategies. Angèle started with a reference to recent revelations where influencers accused brands of gender and race discrimination and discussed the literature on inequality in platform labor, for example Tressie McMillan Cottom’s research. The analysis is based on data from the Instagram account influencerpaygap (https://www.instagram.com/influencerpaygap/?hl=en). Influencerpaygap was created by marketer Adesuwa Ajayi to gather crowdsourced information on the highest paid collaboration between influencers and brands. Ajayi shared more than a thousand posts over a year, often containing information on the influencer’s gender and ethnicity. The content analysis of these posts revealed three main findings: 1) the earnings are lower than industry templates; 2) influencer agencies and brands use racialized metrics to justify paying less to black influencers; 3) there is a small compensation gap between white influencers and non-white influencers but the negotiation gap between these two groups is much wider. White influencers are considerably more successful in negotiating improved payments than non-white influencers. Angèle concluded with a discussion of the implications of these findings, problematizing the inequality dynamics of the influencer industry and reflecting on methodological opportunities and challenges of crowdsourced data such as influencerpaygap.
The symposium was a great success. It not only attracted a significant number of engaged attendees from around the world but also featured a full day of captivating presentations and insightful discussions on a wide range of highly relevant and timely topics. Notably, it fostered productive discussions among speakers, between speakers and attendees, and across disciplinary boundaries. For those who attended and wish to revisit the talks, and for those who were unable to participate, the recordings can be accessed on the PLAMADISO YouTube channel (here).
Bauer, J. M., & Bohlin, E. (2022). Regulation and innovation in 5G markets. Telecommunications Policy, 46(4), 102260. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.telpol.2021.102260
de Reuver, M., Ofe, H., Agahari, W., Abbas, A. E., & Zuiderwijk, A. (2022, December). The openness of data platforms: a research agenda. In Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Data Economy (pp. 34-41). https://doi.org/10.1145/3565011.3569056
Dinckol, D., Özcan, P., & Zachariadis, M. (forthcoming). Regulatory Standards and Consequences for Industry Architecture: The Case of UK Open Banking. Research Policy.
Furr, N., Özcan, P., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (2022). What is digital transformation? Core tensions facing established companies on the global stage. Global Strategy Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/gsj.1442
Özalp, H., Özcan, P., Dinckol, D., Zachariadis, M., & Gawer, A. (2022). “Digital Colonization” of Highly Regulated Industries: An Analysis of Big Tech Platforms’ Entry into Health Care and Education. California Management Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/00081256221094307