AI at Wharton
Authors: Benjamin Shestakofsky & Shreeharsh Kelkar
How do digital platforms govern their users? Existing studies, with their focus on impersonal and procedural modes of governance, have largely neglected to examine the human labor through which platform companies attempt to elicit the consent of their users. This study describes the relationship labor that is systematically excised from many platforms’ accounts of what they do and missing from much of the scholarship on platform governance. Relationship labor is carried out by agents of platform companies who engage in interpersonal communications with a platform’s users in an effort to align diverse users’ activities and preferences with the company’s interests. The authors draw on ethnographic research conducted at AllDone (a for-profit startup that built an online market for local services) and edX (a non-profit startup that partnered with institutions to offer Massive Open Online Courses). The findings leverage variation in organizational contexts to elaborate the common practices and divergent strategies of relationship labor deployed by each platform. Both platforms relied on relationship workers to engage in account management practices aimed at addressing the particular concerns of individual users through interpersonal communications. Relationship workers in each setting also engaged in community management practices that facilitated contact and collaboration among users in pursuit of shared goals. However, our findings show that the relative frequency of relationship workers’ use of account management and community management practices varies with organizational conditions. This difference in strategies also corresponded to different ways of valuing relationship workers and incorporating them into organizational processes. The article demonstrates how variation in organizational context accounts for divergent strategies for governing user participation in digital platforms and for the particular processes through which governance is accomplished and contested.