Working for an algorithm: Power asymmetries and agency in online work settings

Corentin Curchod, Gerardo Patriotta, Laurie Cohen, Nicolas Neysen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Drawing on interviews with 77 high-performing eBay business sellers in France and Belgium, this article investigates the power asymmetries generated by customers’ evaluations in online work settings. Sellers revealed a high degree of sensitivity to negative reviews, which, while infrequent, triggered feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. Their accounts exposed power asymmetries at two levels: the transactional level between sellers and customers and the governance level between sellers and eBay. Our findings highlight three main mechanisms underlying power asymmetries in this context. First, online customer evaluations have created a new form of employee monitoring in which power is exercised through the construction of visibility gaps between buyers and sellers and through an implicit coalition between buyers and the platform owner, who join together in the evaluation procedures. Second, by mediating and objectifying relations, algorithms reproduce power asymmetries among the different categories of actors, thereby constraining human agency. Third, online customer evaluations prompt sellers to exploit their practical knowledge of the algorithm to increase their agency. Through the lived experience of working for an algorithm, our findings contribute new understandings of power and agency in online work settings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)644-676
JournalAdministrative Science Quarterly
Volume65
Issue number3
Early online date25 Jul 2019
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Keywords

  • power asymmetries
  • algorithms
  • online evaluations
  • sociomateriality
  • agency
  • practice

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