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Classification Struggles: How Do Workers React to Being Classified in Online Labour Markets?

Classification Struggles: How Do Workers React to Being Classified in Online Labour Markets?


Millions of workers who offer services such as logo design or software development remotely via digital marketplaces are perpetually categorized and classified by private platform providers. Examples of these consequential digital boundaries are plentiful. Platform firms construct ‘virtual borders’ (Lehdonvirta, 2022) to regulate who gets access to their marketplaces, define what counts as online labour and what does not, and curate worker quality with a toolset ranging from search- and recommender algorithms to badges and reputation scores.

The underlying classifications of labour constructed by platform firms are always hierarchical and explain some of the variation in workers’ market outcomes. Despite their consequential and pervasive nature, little is known about whether workers are at odds with the digital boundaries created, how they put the centralized classification infrastructure to practise in their encounters with clients, and how they generally respond to being classified online.

This project seeks to answer the research question: How do workers experience and respond to being classified in online labour markets? In the literature, informal practises by workers and their reactions to platform-constructed classifications are generally conceptualized as a form of worker agency. Such agency is often discussed either through the lens of online freelancing as self-employment or as the outcome of resistance against platform-based control.

Based on interviews with freelancers active across two digital marketplaces, the project argues that alas neither approach fully explains the agency online freelancers experience as data providers, when making centralized classification systems at the core of digital marketplaces work in local and specific interactions with clients, and as users of the classifications by platform firms. Instead, it proposes that re-purposing Bowker and Star’s (2000) concept of ‘categorical work’ offers a valuable entry point to study worker agency online.

Key Information

  • Dieter Schwarz Stiftung gGmbH
  • Project dates:
    February 2022 - January 2023

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