Companies like Airbnb, RelayRides, Lyft, Sidecar, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and TaskRabbit are all platforms where anyone can become an entrepreneur, renting out their cars, their homes, or simply their time to the highest bidder. In Silicon Valley, this move is cast as a disruptive unleashing of untapped value, and an empowering opportunity for participants.
There's another way of looking at these participatory platforms, though, and that's through a murky lens of exploitation. Let's stipulate that the traditional economy isn't exactly protecting the quality of jobs—unless you're excited about working as a "human robot" in an Amazon fulfillment center. Still, in the traditional economy, as in bowling, there are rules. Whether you're a hotel maid, a cab driver, a delivery person for UPS, a software tester or graphic designer, you're entitled to a minimum wage, worker protections, and maybe some basic benefits.
However, if you do the equivalent of the same work on one of these newfangled participatory platforms—rent out a room in your home on Airbnb, give rides to strangers in your car via Sidecar, make runs to IKEA for Taskrabbit, design logos on 99Designs, or complete tiny tasks on Fiverr or Mechanical Turk—you're not entitled to any of the above. Estimates of average earnings on Mechanical Turk range from $1.20-$5 an hour.
In Danielle Sacks' recent Fast Company story, Ann Miura-Ko, a Taskrabbit investor, says the errand marketplace has the potential to become "a people-powered API," meaning other companies could use it to outsource delivery, furniture assembly or other services to the general public. In other words, it can become a microtemp agency, albeit without the most basic benefits to workers. Sharing economy lawyer says that "In a lot of cases, the TaskRabbit is going to meet the definition of an independent contractor... The laws have become stronger and stronger over time, but employers are trying every way they can think of to get around them."
Recent news, however, suggests that the same technology that created the participatory economy could also make it more fair. Turkopticon is a browser plugin co-created by an ex-Googler that grafts a reputation system onto Amazon Mechanical Turk. It lets Mechanical Turks see reviews of employers (aka "requesters") that are written by their peers, and avoid scammers or those who don't pay. The cofounder, Lilly Irani, calls it "a tool to spark awareness" of the broader labor issues facing people whose gigs have become microgigs.
Advocates like Neal Gorenflo of Shareable.net, Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union, and Orsi suggest that the ultimate way for the sharing economy to become more fair is for these platforms to actually be created and owned in common by the very people who make them possible. "These venture-backed peer economy superstars are just one part—an incredibly important part—of a larger economic ecosystem that’s still in its early stages," Horowitz wrote recently on her blog. "We also need to build a strong social sector based on models like cooperatives, where members have ownership and profits are shared."
In other words, if the next TaskRabbit or Mechanical Turk were owned and run by the Rabbits and the Turks, they'd be truly people-powered, and truly disruptive.
[Sharing Image: Gts via Shutterstock]