Predictions of large numbers of workers choosing or being compelled to access work via digital platforms have proliferated in the popular media and consultancy reports. Yet such predictions have so far not been borne out in workforce statistics. Most Australian workers continue to engage in standard, albeit more precarious, forms of employment. Given the opportunities for work that are offered by digital platforms, what is less clear is why workers do or do not engage with platforms to derive income.
Emerging research has begun to address the motivations of workers who use digital platforms such as Uber or Deliveroo. Yet there is currently little evidence of how or to what extent workers move between more traditional employment and platform work. Nor do we know what the resultant impact is on worker livelihoods. This is a worrying gap in our knowledge given that gig work is central to both utopian and dystopian views of the future of work.
Understanding diverse worker motivations and the impacts of gig work is critical to effective policy around how the gig economy reorganises work and the opportunities and outcomes available to those engaged in it. New research examining the Australian photographic industry may help explain the reticence of some occupational groups to engage in work that is organised through digital platforms.
Digital platforms in the photographic industry
The photographic industry can tell us much about the nature of worker engagement with digital platforms. There has been a recent proliferation of digital platforms in the industry, and work is highly fragmented, lending itself well to platform work. Photographers, most of whom are self-employed or freelance, would seem highly likely to engage with the new opportunities for income generation that are offered by digital platforms.
Photographic platforms operate in a number of ways. For example, they allow photographers to upload images for royalty-free sale; respond to photo shoot briefs; and access booking services. The most established platforms have been in stock photography, where sites such as iStock Photo and Austockphoto allow photographers to upload their images to be sold royalty-free for a pre-determined and usually very low price.
In the last five years, new platforms connecting photographers with buyers have emerged. Sites such as Oneflare and ImageBrief allow buyers (corporate or consumer) to submit a photo shoot brief, receive multiple quotes from photographers who subscribe to the site, and book a preferred photographer who is willing to undertake the work. Other sites, such as Snappr and Kodakit offer direct booking services at pre-established price points. To participate in these platforms, photographers pay a subscription fee to list their services and/or receive quote requests.
Level of engagement with digital platforms
As part of our research we talked to photographers who had different levels of current and previous engagement with platforms. Participants were aware of the various platforms that had emerged in the industry in recent years and most had investigated their potential for generating income.
The crucial feature that determined participation was the extent to which the platform influenced a fundamental dynamic for all photographers – their relationships with clients. Platforms which exerted greater influence over their ability to develop quality, long-term client relationships were considered to negatively impact their creative reputation and drive down the level of income on which they depended.
This included where platforms had a high influence over the price of photographic work, the perceived quality of the product and service provided by the photographer, and the photographer’s ability to source, develop and maintain client relationships. Photographers were especially reluctant to engage with digital platforms when the time, resources and costs involved were considered to outweigh the potential for income generation.
More broadly, many photographers believed digital platforms were damaging to the sustainability of the profession. Hence, it is unlikely that photographers will move towards these forms of income generation in large numbers in the near future, at least willingly.
Implications for other gig workers
It may be that we are in the early stages of upward trends in the prevalence of platform work. If predictions about the displacement of jobs and workers by technology and automation come to pass, more workers across a variety of industries may choose to, or need to, access work via digital platforms. For the time being, however, it seems that even in industries such as photography where there has been a proliferation of platforms, many workers resist for ideological and/or pragmatic reasons.
The type of work undertaken by freelance photographers stands in contrast to taxi-drivers or delivery workers, who typically engage in short-term and transactional worker-client relationships. Photographers are motivated to develop a creative reputation and deep social relationships that result in repeated transactions with clients over time. Indeed, their very success in the industry relies upon reputational and social capital.
This means that the experiences and concerns raised by photographers, and perhaps other creative workers also, may differ from those of other platform workers such as drivers, tradespeople or carers. Nonetheless, our research demonstrates that the way platforms function is likely to have significant yet differential impacts on particular groups of workers. The level of impact, and the propensity for workers to engage, depends on the motivations and professional or occupational norms of those involved. Understanding these impacts is critical when discussing how the gig economy is reorganising work and the opportunities and outcomes available to those engaged in it.
Professor Paula McDonald, Dr Penny Williams and Associate Professor Robyn Mayes are members of the Work/Industry Futures Research Program in the QUT Business School in Brisbane, Australia. Together, they are working on an Australian Research Council funded project Working the gig economy: The organisation of Digital Platform Work.