The old new challenges of online labor

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research work | 2 Comments »

This is an updated version of an older post that I wrote on some of the inherent tensions and contradictions pertaining to online labor (including, but not limited to service interactions) that I’ve seen manifested in my data. I’ll be doing a presentation on this material at AoIR 12.0.  Please contact me if you’d like additional information.

Freedom versus Control:  Every Little Click You Make

For the online laborer there are tensions between increased freedom and intensified control.  You have enhanced flexibility to work anywhere (provided that you have a smart device and an Internet connection), anytime.  However, your online employer has many tools at his/her disposal for monitoring and controlling your behavior at work.  Your communication (calls, messages) can be easily recorded, and most likely is.  Such digitized information can also be quickly and easily archived and shared, meaning that there are potentially semi-permanent records of your work and/or interactions out there in cyberspace for others to see.  Companies can monitor the exact amount of time you spend on any given task, as well as the degree to which you adhere to scripts and protocols.  While your thought process may be private, not every little click that you make is.

Independence versus Dependence

For the online laborer there are tensions between independence and dependence.  On the positive side, now more than ever before you might have increased options as to who you’d like work for, for how much, for how long.  Is your employer on the other side of the planet?  No problem — you work from home, or your local coffee shop or Internet café or library.  You can do the work when and where you like.  On the negative side, you might be giving up any chance of job security.  Freelance service providers are a dime-a-dozen and can be cut off at any time, with no explanations provided.

Identity Management

For the online laborer there are tensions around identity.  Workers might have more control over their identity management, since they can potentially choose what information to share about themselves online.  Gender, ethnicity, age, accent, appearance – all of these may (finally) be moot points to the employer.  Or maybe not.  With online labor it seems to me that there is more potential for an organization to control and manipulate your online identity for their own purposes.  It might not matter to the company who you really are, but for customer service purposes maybe they need to present you (through icons, scripts, insinuations, etc.) to clients in a particular way.  Think of the cultural masking that goes on at call centers, for example.

Technology:  Making Work Easier or More Difficult?

One of the common tropes about technology is that it makes work easier, faster, and more efficient.  But does it?  In my own research, I’ve found that technology can actually make some tasks more complex, more unwieldy, and more difficult to complete.  For the online laborer, there may be increased pressure to do more work at a faster pace than ever before, with less and less time for reflection and analysis.

Culture versus Procedure

There is no doubt that technologies are connecting more and more people around the world, and that all of us, especially those of us involved in online service interactions, are engaging in more and more intercultural communication.  In terms of conflict though, is culture really the sticking point? Scholars often make culture out to be a major stumbling block, but in my research I am finding that it’s actually procedural knowledge (by which I mean information about how to do online interactions) that causes the most confusion.

The Great Question of Scale and Quality

Technologies allow online laborers to reach out to more and more people and they provide support for more frequent and convenient contact.  As companies scale their online service, however, contact potentially becomes less and less personalized.  Organizations might find themselves in the position of having to script personalization into their interactions, which arguably makes them less natural, and therefore less appealing to customers.  For those in charge of writing and/or evaluating an organization’s customer service scripts, decision trees, flow charts, etc. this issue is naturally one of concern and importance. It’s also an area where focused communication research can really pay off.

2 Comments on “The old new challenges of online labor”

  1. 1 Craig said at 11:21 am on May 17th, 2011:

    Nice post. Reminds my friend and me of a parody piece we wrote about this issue a few years ago.

  2. 2 Tabitha Hart » Blog Archive » AoIR taking place in Seattle this week said at 4:17 pm on October 11th, 2011:

    […] morning I gave a talk on online labor, a topic that I have mentioned in previous posts.  My talk dealt with the pros and cons of being an online laborer in one particular community that […]