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Freelancers on the Network

New infrastructure based on digital technology is changing the way we work, creating new jobs and requiring workers to develop different skills.

A large number of workers are moving from working for organizations to freelancing on job networks. Platforms like UpWork, Fiverr, and Freelancer allow freelancers to find a market for their services. Others are more specialized: Dribbble and 99Designs allow designers to find new work, Clarity and Experfy cultivate high-end specialists, and Zaarly and TaskRabbit match workers to lower-end work. Meetup gives freelancers a way to network with peers and learn from them, while Twitter, Medium, Quora, and ­LinkedIn enable these independent workers to build a brand and increase their influence in the market.

As they grow, these platforms will exert greater control over the career prospects and livelihood of the workers who participate. The more easily a form of work is commoditized, the more the balance of power will shift away from the worker and toward the platform. A driver on Uber may be more replaceable or interchangeable with counterparts than a host on Airbnb or a seller on Etsy. Etsy and Airbnb have invested in the community of producers on their platforms, in recognition of their value to consumers. Similarly, Dribbble showcases designers, giving them a way to build their own brand and find high-end work, while 99Designs requires designers to compete with each other for projects. Individuals taking up networked work will need to strategically choose the platforms where they can most effectively build their reputation and customer base. 

The more easily a form of work is commoditized, the more the balance of power will shift away from the worker and toward the platform.

The benefits that come with a steady job are offered only piecemeal in the this world of freelance platforms, so networked workers need to be insured against risks associated with participation in alternative markets. For example, hosts on Airbnb run the risk that their apartment will be trashed by a traveler. Independent workers need mechanisms for learning and improvement. To provide them, platforms could invest in community management practices and offer ongoing feedback to users on the basis of past interactions.

Most important, today’s networked work environment doesn’t offer the stability or health-care benefits of a traditional job: it’s not governed by the same sort of social contract. Regulators must create policies to address the issues workers face in this new environment. Third parties not associated with specific platforms could also develop new businesses offering these services to networked workers, to substitute for what traditional employers once provided.
The careers of the past depended on our ability to leverage relationships in offline professional networks. The careers of the future will depend on our ability to leverage online networked platforms. Workers’ reputation on these labor platforms, and their ability to build a business across multiple platforms without becoming overtly dependent on one, will determine success in the age of networked work.

The author, founder of Platform Thinking Labs, thanks Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne for ideas contributed to this article.

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