July 2 2021
Have you ever considered the role of intimacy in the gig economy? The term can be used to refer to a wide range of things, like physical proximity or accessing the private space of others. These are all significant – but in this post, I want to focus instead on the intimacy created between gig workers, platforms and consumers through the sharing of personal information.
As such, exploring ‘intimacy’ doesn’t requires us to venture into any particularly murky corners of the online economy. In fact, we only have to look at how ‘vetting’ workers through an assessment of their digital identity – from work history and personal social media profiles, to (increasingly since the pandemic) health information – has become an established dynamic within gig work. While we might think that such information sharing cuts both ways – workers may also receive information about potential customers, after all – in reality, power dynamics are often loaded heavily in favour of customers. Workers face far greater consequences, for instance, if they engage with clients too infrequently. Intimacy in the gig economy can therefore work to generate and amplify inequality, often along gendered lines.
Intimacy as trust
The academic Naomi Schoenbaum has explored how we can approach intimacy in terms of trust. Although her work is focused on the ‘sharing economy’, we can also see ‘trust’ playing a similar role in the gig economy, when both customers and workers attempt to reduce risks surrounding in-person interactions by sharing biographical data such as profiles and visible rating systems. Although these data exchanges can mitigate some of the risks and anxieties associated with the gig economy, they cannot negate them entirely. Every interaction hence relies on some form of ‘trust’.
Unlike the mainstream economy, however, in gig work this ‘trust’ exists between workers and customers – rather than customers and companies – which effectively shifts responsibility from platforms to users. In some ways, this change is largely perceptual, with users (both workers and customers) only interacting with each other on the platform, rather than any further intermediary.
But the shift does have real legal implications. These have recently made headlines, particularly regarding legal challenges to the classification of workers as ‘self-employed’ independent contractors, which removes many legal and social responsibilities from the platform. Under this system, responsibility for generating trust gets placed directly on the customer. For instance, certain childcare platforms have stated that customers need to ensure themselves that workers they hire are safe, even if this entails running criminal record checks or conducting online searches on individuals because the platform has failed to verify such information.
Some jobs, such as care work, also benefit from the construction of long-term relationships which can lead to a better understanding of recipient’s needs. Platforms, however, often advertise care work exactly as they do other on-demand services – ready to be hired in an instant. Presenting care services like this implies that carers are fungible, making it hard for carers and customers to form the long-term connections and understanding necessary for high quality care. Platforms also often encourage workers to add work experience and personal data to their profile to make them more appealing to potential customers. While this can bring a human touch to the transaction, the gig economy’s ‘quantity over quality’ task-focused model works against this by preventing real relationships from forming over an extended period of time. So, whilst workers may be strongly encouraged to share personal details, this often creates little more than a false sense of intimacy focused on the short rather than the long term.
While sharing personal data on gig platforms may sometimes help customers make better-informed choices, unfortunately, it also introduces the possibility for gender bias to develop. Schoenbaum argues that, to feel comfortable, workers and customers may seek out people of a particular gender, especially in jobs involving physical contact, such as care and beauty services, or when interactions occur in a shared space, such as ride-hailing services. People may draw on heteronormative conventions, for instance, to banish the spectre of sexuality. This is particularly true when the work involves physical contact, such as massage, where clients may be navigating homophobic reflexes or avoiding anxieties about sexual threats by choosing a worker with a particular gender.
Conversely, rather than dampening down potential sexual tension or perceived threats, gender preferences can also be exploited by platforms to promote their services by injecting sexuality into transactions. Take, for example, the case of a now-axed Uber promotion in France, which advertised car rides with “hot chick” drivers. We need, however, to be attentive to a wider range of gender preference issues than those largely raised by Schoenbaum, who leans heavily on cis-heteronormative assumptions, threatening to leave trans and queer identities invisible within the gig economy.
The intimate nature of the gig economy allows users to exert more choice in their interactions. We already know, as I suggested in my previous blog, that gender bias and segregation is prevalent in the gig economy. What I’ve tried to suggest here, however, is that these inequalities do not occur accidentally: they are, to an extent, the result of considered preference. Being able to choose who to employ and engage with might help mitigate some safety issues, but this presumption often rests on cis-heteronormative ideas about sexualities and threat, circumventing an alternative understanding of safety as a responsibility shared by the platform, and not just the responsibility of users.
We shouldn’t see intimacy as an inherently negative characteristic of gig work. In many ways, such as through the sharing of place, the gig economy is inevitably intimate – and when intimacy creates trust between users, it can definitely lead to the provision of much better services. In specific sectors though – like care work – services would often benefit more from workers being able to form long-term relationships with customers to provide more personalised, quality care than the connections generated by platforms can provide. Most importantly, however, we can’t continue to allow intimacy in the gig economy to be used by platforms as a way of sidestepping their responsibilities by passing them directly onto their users. Promoting trust between users might mitigate perceived risks, but sharing personal information can just as easily exacerbate inequality within the gig economy.
- Julia Ticona and Alexandra Mateescu, ‘Trusted Strangers: Carework Platforms’ Cultural Entrepreneurship in the on-Demand Economy’, New Media & Society 20, no. 11 (1 November 2018): 4384–4404, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444818773727.
- Julia Ticona, ‘Essential and Untrusted’, Dissent Magazine, Fall 2020, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/essential-and-untrusted.
- Ursula Huws et al., ‘Work in the European Gig Economy: Research Results from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy’, FEPS in Cooperation with UNI Europa and the University of Hertfordshire, 2017. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/19922/Huws_U._Spencer_N.H._Syrdal_D.S._Holt_K._2017_.pdf
- Naomi Schoenbaum, ‘Gender and the Sharing Economy’, Fordham Urban Law Journal 43 (2016): 1023.
- Erika Allen, ‘The First Issue in Any Massage’, The New York Times, 15 September 2012, sec. Fashion, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/fashion/massages-first-issue-man-or-woman-therapist.html
- Maya Kosoff, ‘An Uber Campaign That Promised To Pair Customers With “Hot Chick” Drivers In France Has Been Scrubbed’, Business Insider, accessed 20 April 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/uber-avions-de-chasse-promotion-with-hot-chick-drivers-2014-10.
Erica is a doctoral researcher investigating spoken word poetry communities in London, their use of digital media, and the role inclusion plays within these communities. As part of her partnership with Autonomy, Erica is assisting the wide-ranging research that drives the Feminist Futures Programme.