25 Jul Sharing the Spoils of the Gig Economy
Amongst the problems with the Sharing Economy – and its offshoot, the Gig Economy – is the fact that shares in it tend to be pretty unequal. In fact, even more than is the case of a usual employee-employer relationship, oftentimes the ‘employee’ in this example (who is really a gig worker) ends up with a pittance compared to the organization that helps them find the work.
An effort to get more of the spoils of their work into hands of the Gig Workers is behind a new start-up called Stocksy.com, which is profiled in this article from the New York Times. Stocksy is a service that provides stock images by photographers for sale to users. Unlike other sites which provide similar services, it is structured as a ‘co-op’ owned by the photographers, who get a bigger cut than they would otherwise. Run by the former owners of iStock (a company that was sold to Getty Images in 2006 for $50 million) it is an attempt to more equally share profits, and to provide better incomes for Gig Workers who frequently find their Gigs pay a lot less than they would like.
Although I would think that photographers are less vulnerable to exploitation than many Gig Workers (more on that in a moment) the truth is that as structured right now the Gig Economy does not work all that well as an economic model for many. To start, in large part you cannot even buy shares in it, meaning that the vast majority of investors cannot participate in it. Companies like Uber and Lyft are based in Silicon Valley and backed with significant amounts of venture capital, and for the most part there is little indication that they will go public anytime soon. More problematically for those who work for these organizations, the companies tend to be structured such that the vast amount of profits go to the companies, making many of those who work this way very much what I would call ‘involuntary Gig Workers’, workers who would rather have ‘real’ jobs.
The fact that photographers are being drawn to Stocksy because they are unhappy with existing stock companies does surprise me a bit. Thing is, the photography industry has always had a large number of ‘voluntary Gig Workers’, those who work alone or in very small groups. Traditionally, they have sold their services to a series of buyers rather than a single client. The advent of sharing platforms such as stock photo sites, or even the advent of the internet at all is potentially a huge boost to them, since they can make their wares available to a much larger platform. In fact, a study by Gig site Thumbtack saw skilled professionals with differentiated services to be the big winners from the Gig Economy, and predicted that that success would continue over the coming years. In contrast, they saw those providing undifferentiated services (one ride to the airport is really the same as another) as at risk of losing their gigs altogether as technology such as driverless cars takes over.
Stocksy’s model, whereby they end up paying their members a dividend at year end (providing they have ‘surplus revenue’) may be copied by others in the Gig industry. Then again they might not – the big, Silicon-Valley backed players are a bit of a monolith against other players, and co-op based services will only work if a sufficient number of photographers choose to only provide services to them rather than others.
The big picture though, is that the Gig Economy is still a work in progress. There are things to be gained from being a part of it, but it is going to take some time before workers and ‘employers’ and buyers and sellers figure out the mix that makes the most economic sense to each of them.