The ways we organise
From labour to action, from individuals to communities
Is the future of work shifting from the institutions to the individuals?
Self-employed and temporary workers together make up 20% of workforce in the UK. In fact, self-employed workers as a category has grown 3x as fast as traditional full time work, and made up a third of all jobs gained since the 2008 financial crisis. In large part, this was driven by necessity rather than choice, with over half joining from unemployment or inactivity, and average earning lagging behind traditional full time jobs.
This is coupled with a burgeoning trend termed the Passion Economy, where a new generation of platforms such as Substack, Patreon and Teachable promise the opportunity for individuals to monetise niche interests and skills by cultivating loyalty from small groups of ‘true fans’. This is often enabled by their monetisation models, typically subscription based, marking a shift from the heavily skewed ad-based monetisation model where less than 1% ‘creators’ take home more than $10,000 per year. The future looks to be ripe with opportunities for the solo entrepreneur.
Yet if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is a renewed sense of appreciation for the institution and community. Covid highlighted the consequences of gradual shift in risks from the corporations to the individuals, leaving many bearing the cost of health risks and little safety net to sustain livelihood. We are now seeing a reversal of this trend towards self-employment and the Gig Economy model, exemplified by the latest ruling on Uber’s worker classification and JustEat’s switch to an employee model. Creators in the Passion Economy are also at risk of burnout, having the pressure to consistently produce high quality content while engaging with their audience and scaling distribution. In the midst of all this, ‘community’ is making a come back.
The traditional employment model is being unbundled. Where social connections, safety nets, learning, and livelihood used to come in a single package, now this is giving way to new forms of organisations. This is because learning and the collision of ideas are intrinsically social, as are the ways we manage money and risks.
“ What if the organisation really should be a process of emergent self-organising, and always changing when the context changes? … Instead of the topology of organisational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the picture of work is a live social graph.“ — Esko Kilpi
Iterations of digital platforms on the internet is enabling us to come together in new ways. The designs of platforms with intrinsic social propositions shape the way we interact and form new relationships. From subcultures bonding over niche interests on Reddit and Tik Tok, to the serendipity and scaled intimacy experienced on Clubhouse, or the transactional customer-driver relationships on Uber and Deliveroo — platform structures and incentives influence the way we interact and connect. Where is the future of social organisation heading?
In my observation there are three main ways we organise online besides the traditional social networks that replicate our real life relationships:
A great example of the emergent nature of networks is the Covid Credit Collaboration, formed off the back of a single tweet at the beginning of the pandemic in support of the UK’s self-employed. This quickly turned into a weekend hackathon, a working prototype in 48 hours, and conversations with government agencies the Monday after. On the other end of the scale spectrum, hashtag activisms from #GoogleWalkout to #MeToo had garnered global actions and storytelling against both immediate events and long-standing issues. Account tagging @ enabled rapid alignment of the right people, while # and retweets fuelled messages’ rapid dissemination. Live audio presents an interesting lens to the future of flash network — in its ability to bring together timely debates and provide avenue for collective grievances, but also collective ideation and organisation in both an immediate and ongoing basis.
Collectives are purpose aligned groups of people who build and experiment together, but also share in their economic and social upsides or downsides. This is illustrated by examples like Every, Koodos, and Hype House, where individual creators come together to pool resources, audience, and efforts, while maintaining individual autonomy and exposure to any upsides. This calls for platforms and tools that enable a core group of people to collaborate, build, grow audience, and manage wealth together — Stir and its Collab Party is a step in this direction. This is somewhat analogous to the growing interest over ‘co-operatives’ and ‘co-ownership’ models for digital platforms as we look for more equitable share of business upsides amidst a series of platform IPOs where investors and executives have the most to gain. CoopCycle and Up&Go are driven by the same philosophy to enable drivers and cleaners to benefit from their business upsides.
Crypto-networks’ decentralised structure is reinventing this co-ownership concept in a new light. Smart contracts on blockchain enable governance and economic incentives to be built-in and hence facilitate trust and collaboration between decentralised actors. For example, Reddit’s Community Points enable users to own, capture value, and vote to govern their community. Social Tokens could act as a mean for fans to share a piece of a creator’s revenue. Jesse Walden’s pieces on Ownership Economy and DAOs-Coops provide excellent discussion on this trend.
Probably the most common type of communities on consumer internet and in real life — people brought together by shared interests, identities, and experiences. The Subreddits, Tech Twitter, Facebook groups, study cohorts, support groups, and exclusive memberships. From the casual to the professional, people gather to learn and discover together. Interest communities are about knowledge building and identity formation, discovery and tribe finding. Platforms facilitating these goals in turns are designing incentives and pathways for direct community interactions and engagements — tapping into our needs for personal utility, financial, or social rewards. We share memes for entertainment and banters, curate contents to build reputation and audience, connect to collaborate and support. As Jono Bacon puts it, “Social capital is a key currency in communities. It is forged from respect, which in turn generates influence.” Would vanity metrics and the constant need for status signalling give way to more intrinsic motivations to engage, such as mastery, ownership, and belonging?
“Density, not size, is key for a thriving social network” — Rika Sukenik
Increasingly, people are favouring smaller and more intimate groups and fostering online relationships in real life over the loud internet’s town halls and social feeds. Examples of products enabling these small scale interactions are Donut and ConnectClub, which facilitate 1-to-1 connections in large slack groups and recreate digital encounters. Facebook also acknowledged the co-existence of such more private ‘digital living rooms’ with the public forums that provide better discovery and reach. As we look to build digital native platforms that transform our schools, bars, churches, public squares — how would we continue to facilitate authentic relationships and deliberative exchanges?
Hannah Arendt in her book ‘The Human Condition’ distinguished the concepts of Labour, Work, and Action. We labour by necessity, work to create artefacts that endure, and act to embody self-expression that inevitably collide with others, namely the agency of political life.
As we seek to redefine our traditional ways of ‘work’ — from the 9-to-5 to the Gig and Passion Economy, from labour to action, so too are the ways we organise evolving. How would the technology platforms we build bring us together to create greater meanings?