Making platforms work: relationship labor and the management of publics

Abstract

How do digital platforms govern their users? Existing studies, with their focus on impersonal and procedural modes of governance, have largely neglected to examine the human labor through which platform companies attempt to elicit the consent of their users. This study describes the relationship labor that is systematically excised from many platforms’ accounts of what they do and missing from much of the scholarship on platform governance. Relationship labor is carried out by agents of platform companies who engage in interpersonal communications with a platform’s users in an effort to align diverse users’ activities and preferences with the company’s interests. The authors draw on ethnographic research conducted at AllDone (a for-profit startup that built an online market for local services) and edX (a non-profit startup that partnered with institutions to offer Massive Open Online Courses). The findings leverage variation in organizational contexts to elaborate the common practices and divergent strategies of relationship labor deployed by each platform. Both platforms relied on relationship workers to engage in account management practices aimed at addressing the particular concerns of individual users through interpersonal communications. Relationship workers in each setting also engaged in community management practices that facilitated contact and collaboration among users in pursuit of shared goals. However, our findings show that the relative frequency of relationship workers’ use of account management and community management practices varies with organizational conditions. This difference in strategies also corresponded to different ways of valuing relationship workers and incorporating them into organizational processes. The article demonstrates how variation in organizational context accounts for divergent strategies for governing user participation in digital platforms and for the particular processes through which governance is accomplished and contested.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Some scholars use the term “platform governance” to refer to the governance of platform companies by users, governments, laws, and regulations. Here we are primarily concerned with the governance of users by platforms (Gorwa 2019).

  2. 2.

    The names of the company and associated individuals have been changed.

  3. 3.

    In the software industry, the term “user” is typically applied to a broad range of parties who may engage with the same platform in different ways (Agre 1995; McKay et al. 2000; Eisenmann, et al. 2009). For example, ordinary people, organizations, and advertisers can all be “users” of social media platforms like Facebook; both passengers and drivers are “users” of ride-hailing platforms like Uber; and restaurants, drivers, and diners are all “users” of food-delivery platforms like Grubhub.

  4. 4.

    Platform scholars who share this broader view of governance (e.g., Fish et al. 2011; Kelty et al. 2015) have neither identified nor discussed relationship labor, perhaps because they have primarily endeavored to build general theories and typologies of participation rather than systematically investigating how governance processes are implemented within concrete social settings.

  5. 5.

    We distinguish relationship labor from two associated, but distinctly different, terms. Like “relational work” (Zelizer 2005; Bandelj 2012, 2015), relationship labor draws attention to how economic transactions are imbricated in social relations. But rather than focusing on “the effort by which people try to find appropriate matches between social relations, economic transactions, and media of exchange” (Bandelj 2015, pp. 227–228), relationship labor is concerned with how employees aid and persuade platform users. Like “relational labor” (Baym 2015, p. 16), relationship labor “is meant to emphasize effort that goes beyond managing others’ feelings in single encounters ... to creating and maintaining ongoing connections.” However, unlike the relational labor exhibited by musicians as they cultivate audiences to enhance their income-earning potential, relationship labor is wage-labor that does not require workers to blur the boundaries between professional and personal ties; moreover, the value generated by relationship workers is appropriated by the companies that employ them. Additionally, relationship workers cultivate online communities not only to build customer loyalty, but also to encourage community members to collaborate in ways that will serve the interests of the platform company.

  6. 6.

    Others have commented on the uses and misuses of the term “community” to describe those who participate in digital platforms (Postill 2008; Fish et al. 2011). Tech companies often deploy the word in ways that elide differences in power, interests, and opinions among and between platform companies and users. (Note, for example, the multiple uses of the term “community” in Zuckerberg 2017). Like other critics, our use of the term acknowledges that inequalities exist even among members of self-described online “communities.”

  7. 7.

    Relationship labor can be glimpsed in emerging studies of digital labor platforms. Some freelancing platforms employ workers who post to online discussion boards frequented by users to provide advice or forecast upcoming changes to the software (Rahman 2019; Gerber and Krzywdzinski 2019). On one on-demand delivery platform, managers call couriers to enforce scheduling policies (Attwood-Charles 2019). However, researchers have yet to systematically investigate how platform companies organize relationship labor, or the interactional practices and strategies that they use to manage their user populations.

  8. 8.

    Prior studies employ content analyses of the rhetoric deployed by platform companies (Gillespie 2010) and of users’ social media posts pertaining to governance disputes (Crawford and Gillespie 2016); examinations of user interfaces and their implications for platforms’ control over user activities (Helmond 2015; Rosenblat and Stark 2016); and observations and interviews that surface users’ and managers’ opinions and experiences of platform governance (Bucher 2013; Rosenblat and Stark 2016; Gerber and Krzywdzinski 2019).

  9. 9.

    The first author gained access to the field site through a friend who had attended high school with one of AllDone’s co-founders. The first author told the co-founder that he was interested in studying everyday life inside a tech startup by working alongside members of the organization. Upon being granted access, he informed colleagues of his dual role as both a researcher and participant. The first author engaged in a variety of mental activities – including contemporaneously reviewing and analyzing each day’s fieldnotes – to maintain a degree of “professional distance” essential to generating insights from data (Anteby 2013). Although he was deeply involved in the field site, the first author did not generate the phenomena described in this article: the company’s account management procedures were already in place when the first author began to work with AllDone’s phone support agents, and its community management activities were implemented by a colleague working in a different department. See Appendix B of Shestakofsky (2017) for further details pertaining to the author’s data-gathering procedures and analytic strategy.

  10. 10.

    Because the second author’s role in the field involved a lesser degree of participation than the first author’s, his access to managers’ deliberations about platform strategy was more limited. However, the breadth of the second author’s access (both inside of edX and among various users of the platform across four institutions) provided ample opportunities to observe the company’s governance practices.

  11. 11.

    Managers would sporadically ask email support agents to tally incoming messages pertaining to particular product features, though in practice execution could be haphazard; product designers would occasionally recruit a handful of user testers to gather feedback on potential features and to learn more about how people navigated the website; and AllDone’s marketing team periodically invited small groups of local sellers to the office for lunch or happy hour, which provided occasions in which to learn from sellers about their experiences with AllDone’s platform.

  12. 12.

    The distribution of AllDone’s phone number was intentionally limited due to the relatively small number of phone support agents on staff. Some phone calls were answered when they were received, but callers would frequently be prompted to leave a voicemail message and would later have their call returned by an AllDone support agent.

  13. 13.

    In 2014, edX created a product team, which took charge of the company’s institutional and engineering agenda (e.g., the features edX should be building or improving). Its roadmaps were based on input from members of the services team (who provided insight about users), the engineering team (who could speak to the software), and senior management (who were responsible for ensuring the company’s financial security).

  14. 14.

    Aune had previously worked at edX as a contractor, so he was familiar with both edX’s open-source developers and the company’s employees.

  15. 15.

    There is a long history of women being tasked with performing the affective work that makes capitalist exchange possible and also of the erasure of such efforts from discussions of work (Hochschild 1983; Weeks 2007; Baym 2015).

References

  1. Agre, P. E. (1995). Conceptions of the user in computer systems design. In P. J. Thomas (Ed.), Cambridge series on human computer interaction (pp. 67–106). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Anteby, M. (2013). Relaxing the taboo on telling our own stories: Upholding professional distance and personal involvement. Organization Science, 24(4), 1277–1290.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ask, Kristine, Hendrik Storstein Spilker, and Martin Hansen. 2019. The politics of user-platform relationships: Co-scripting live-streaming on Twitch.tv. First Monday 24(7). (https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9648).

  4. Attwood-Charles, William. (2018). Post-bureaucratic organizations: normative and technical dimensions. Ph.D. dissertation. Boston: Department of Sociology, Boston University.

  5. Bandelj, N. (2012). Relational work and economic sociology. Politics and Society, 40(2), 175–201.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bandelj, Nina. 2015. Thinking about social relations in economy as relational work. In Patrik Aspers and Nigel Dodd (eds.) Re-imagining economic sociology, pp. 227–251. New York: Oxford University Press.

  7. Baym, N. (2015). Connect with your audience! The relational labor of connection. The Communication Review, 18(1), 14–22.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bechky, B., & O’Mahony, S. (2015). Leveraging Comparative field data for theory generation. In K. Elsbach & R. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative organizational research (pp. 168–176). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Bell, S., Hindmoor, A., & Mols, F. (2010). Persuasion as governance: A state-centric relational perspective. Public Administration, 88(3), 851–870.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Bucher, Tania. (2013). Objects of intense feeling: The case of the twitter API: Computational culture. Computational Culture, 3. (http://computationalculture.net/article/objects-of-intense-feeling-the-case-of-the-twitter-api).

  11. Bucher, T. (2018). If... then: Algorithmic power and politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Callon, M. (1984). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. The Sociological Review, 32(1), 196–233.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Carter, M. J., & Carter, S. B. (1981). Women’s recent progress in the professions, or, women get a ticket to ride after the gravy train has left the station. Feminist Studies, 7(3), 476–504.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Cheney-Lippold, J. (2011). A new algorithmic identity soft biopolitics and the modulation of control. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(6), 164–181.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Christin, A. (2018). Counting clicks: Quantification and variation in web journalism in the United States and France. American Journal of Sociology, 123(5), 1382–1415.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Coleman, G. (2013). Coding freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Crawford, K., & Gillespie, T. (2016). What is a flag for? Social media reporting tools and the vocabulary of complaint. New Media & Society, 18(3), 410–428.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Dijck, J. V. (2013). The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. New York: Oxford University Press.

  19. Dror, Y. (2015). ‘We are not Here for the money’: Founders’ manifestos. New Media & Society, 17(4), 540–555.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Duffy, B. E. (2017). (Not) getting paid to do what you love: Gender, social media, and aspirational work. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Dyché, J. (2001). The CRM handbook: A business guide to customer relationship management. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Eisenmann, T. R., Parker, G., & Van Alstyne, M. (2009). Opening platforms: How, when and why? In A. Gawer (Ed.), Platforms, markets and innovation (pp. 131–162). Northampton: Edward Elgar.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Fish, A., Murillo, L. F. R., Nguyen, L., Panofsky, A., & Kelty, C. M. (2011). Birds of the internet. Journal of Cultural Economy, 4(2), 157–187.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Fourcade, M., & Healy, K. (2017). Seeing like a market. Socio-Economic Review, 15(1), 9–29.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Gawer, A., & Cusumano, M. A. (2002). Platform leadership: How Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco drive industry innovation. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Gebre-Medhin, B. (2018). Reengineering elite universities: Massive open online courses and the rise of applied science in American higher education. Ph.D. dissertation. Berkeley: Department of Sociology, University of California.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Geiger, R. S. (2017). Beyond opening up the black box: Investigating the role of algorithmic systems in Wikipedian organizational culture. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 1–14.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Gelles, D. (2017). Inside the revolution at Etsy. The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2020. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/business/etsy-josh-silverman.html).

  29. Gerber, C., & Krzywdzinski, M. (2019). Brave new digital work? New forms of performance control in Crowdwork. Research in the Sociology of Work, 33, 121–143.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gillespie, T. (2010). The politics of ‘platforms’. New Media & Society, 12(3), 347–364.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Gillespie, T. (2014). The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski, & K. A. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 167–193). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Gillespie, T. (2018a). Custodians of the internet: Platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Gillespie, T. (2018b). The scale is just unfathomable. Logic. Retrieved September 17, 2019. (https://logicmag.io/04-the-scale-is-just-unfathomable/).

  34. Gorwa, R. (2019). What is platform governance? Information Communications Society, 22(6), 854–871.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Gray, M. L., & Suri, S. (2019). Ghost work: How to stop Silicon Valley from building a new global underclass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Harrison, S. (2019). Five years of tech diversity reports – and little progress. Wired. Retrieved April 20, 2020. (https://www.wired.com/story/five-years-tech-diversity-reports-little-progress/).

  37. Helmond, A. (2015). The platformization of the web: Making web data platform ready. Social Media + Society, 1(2), 1–11.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hesmondhalgh, D., & Baker, S. (2015). Sex, gender and work segregation in the cultural industries. The Sociological Review, 63(S1), 23–36.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hirschman, A. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Huger, Jen. 2014. 3 million users and hiring at edX. Opensource.com. September 16. https://opensource.com/education/14/9/interview-ned-batchelder-openedx.

  42. Irani, L. (2015). The cultural work of microwork. New Media & Society, 17(5), 720–739.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Jackson, S. (2014). Rethinking repair. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski, & K. A. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 221–240). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Kelkar, S. (2018). Engineering a platform: The construction of interfaces, users, organizational roles, and the division of labor. New Media & Society, 20(7), 2629–2646.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Kellogg, K. C., Valentine, M. A., & Christin, A. (2020). Algorithms at work: The new contested terrain of control. Academy of Management Annals, 14(1), 366–410.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Kelty, C., Panofsky, A., Currie, M., Crooks, R., Erickson, S., Garcia, P., Wartenbe, M., & Wood, S. (2015). Seven dimensions of contemporary participation disentangled. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(3), 474–488.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Kenney, M., & Zysman, J. (2016). The rise of the platform economy. Issues in Science and Technology, 32(3), 61–69.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Klonick, K. (2017). The new governors: The people, rules, and processes governing online speech. Harvard Law Review, 131, 1598–1670.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Li, T. (2007). The will to improve: Governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Mackay, H., Carne, C., Beynon-Davies, P., & Tudhope, D. (2000). Reconfiguring the user: Using rapid application development. Social Studies of Science, 30(5), 737–757.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Mason, C. (2009). Venture capital. In R. Kitchin & N. Thrift (Eds.), International encyclopedia of human geography (pp. 131–137). London: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Matias, J. N. (2016). Going dark: Social factors in collective action against platform operators in the Reddit Blackout. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems, pp. 1138–1151..

  53. Nieborg, D., & Poell, T. (2018). The platformization of cultural production: Theorizing the contingent cultural commodity. New Media & Society, 20(11), 4275–4292.

    Google Scholar 

  54. O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Parker, G., Van Alstyne, M. W., & Choudary, S. P. (2016). Platform revolution: How networked markets are transforming the economy and how to make them work for you. New York: WW Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Phillips, M., Stephen, G., & Erin, G. (2019). Wall street deflates America’s favorite start-ups. The New York Times. Retrieved August 12, 2020. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/business/tech-ipo-market.html).

  57. Plantin, J.-C., Lagoze, C., Edwards, P. N., & Sandvig, C. (2018). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media & Society, 20(1), 293–310.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Postill, J. (2008). Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media & Society, 10(3), 413–431.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Rahman, H. (2019). Invisible cages: Algorithmic evaluations in online labor markets . Ph.D. dissertation. Palo Alto: Department of Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University.

  60. Ries, E. (2011). The lean startup: How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Roberts, S. T. (2019). Behind the screen: Content moderation in the shadows of social media. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Rosenau, J. N. (2009). Governance, order, and change in world politics. In J. N. Rosenau & E.-O. Czempiel (Eds.), Governance without government: Order and change in world politics (pp. 1–20). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Rosenblat, A. (2018). Uberland: How algorithms are rewriting the rules of work. Oakland: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Rosenblat, A., & Stark, L. (2016). Algorithmic labor and information asymmetries: A case study of Uber’s drivers. International Journal of Communication, 10, 3758–3784.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Seaver, N. (2019). Captivating algorithms: Recommender systems as traps. Journal of Material Culture, 24(4), 421–436.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Seering, J., Wang, T., Yoon, J., & Kaufman, G. (2019). Moderator engagement and community development in the age of algorithms. New Media & Society, 21(7), 1417–1443.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Seetharaman, D. (2019). How a Facebook employee helped trump win – but switched sides for 2020. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 28, 2020. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-facebooks-embed-in-the-trump-campaign-helped-the-president-win-11574521712).

  68. Shapin, S. (2008). The scientific life: A moral history of a late modern vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Shestakofsky, B. (2017). Working algorithms: Software automation and the future of work. Work and Occupations, 44(4), 376–423.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Squirrell, T. (2019). Platform dialectics: The relationships between volunteer moderators and end users on Reddit. New Media & Society, 21(9), 1910–1927.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform capitalism. Hoboken: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Suzor, N. (2019). Lawless: The secret rules that govern our digital lives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Tufekci, Z. (2014). Engineering the public: Big data, surveillance and computational politics. First Monday 19 (7). http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4901.

  74. Vallas, S. P. (2019). Platform capitalism: What’s at stake for workers? New Labor Forum, 28(1), 48–59.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Vallas, S., & Schor, J. B. (2020). What do platforms do? Understanding the gig economy. Annual Review of Sociology 46, 273–294.

  76. Weeks, K. (2007). Life within and against work: Affective labor, feminist critique, and post-Fordist politics. Ephemera, 7(1), 233–249.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Zelizer, V. (2005). The purchase of intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Zuckerberg, M. (2017). Building global community. Facebook. Retrieved March 9, 2020. (https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/building-global-community/10154544292806634/).

Download references

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Sharon Zukin, John Torpey, Karolina Mikołajewska-Zając, Tom Gilbert, Devika Narayan, anonymous reviewers, and participants in UC Berkeley’s Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group for their feedback on this article. Jerry Jacobs, Sigrid Luhr, and Jonah Stuart Brundage directed us to helpful references. Shreeharsh Kelkar’s fieldwork was supported with grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (no. 8762) and the National Science Foundation (NSF grant nos. 1258640 and 1353714).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shreeharsh Kelkar.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

The authors are listed in reverse alphabetical order. Both authors contributed equally to the manuscript.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shestakofsky, B., Kelkar, S. Making platforms work: relationship labor and the management of publics. Theor Soc 49, 863–896 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-020-09407-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • Algorithmic systems
  • Algorithmic management
  • Digital technologies
  • Organizational ethnography
  • Platform governance
  • Relationship labor