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The rise of the Hustle Economy

by on July 31, 2020

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A successor to the service economy?

 
Nuance is arguably lost amidst the madness induced by the pandemic and the political economic crisis that has followed. As a society we continue to be distracted by sensational narratives and irrational concerns, while at the same time, the increasing complexity of our society makes it hard for us to understand what is happening around us.

Currently, a key undercurrent is the rapid if not radical reconfiguration of our economy, and employment. While we recognize unprecedented unemployment numbers, we also have to keep in mind that the Internet as social and economic infrastructure change the dynamics in which such an economic disruption occurs.

There continues to be good reason to suggest we’re entering into a global depression, however the speed and resilience of the Internet will certainly play a role, probably in good and bad ways.

Finding work, or more specifically finding income, will most likely be different than how it was done in the past. Enter the concept of the hustle economy, sibling to the gig economy, and poised to play a significant role in any potential economic recovery.


We’ve all recognized that this pandemic has translated into a huge boom in business for big tech, but what about those medium tech companies (who aspire to be big tech)? These platforms that enable the hustle economy have been booming:

It wasn’t just Patreon, either, which added more than 100,000 new users between mid-March and July. OnlyFans reported daily six-figure sign-ups on its popular cam site. Etsy logged 115,000 new sellers in the first three months of the year, more than double the past two years’ user growth. Teachable, which lets people make and sell online courses, signed on 14,000 new creators between March and July, and in July reported its first quarterly revenue over $10 million.

Such products range from ebooks and meal plan templates to online classes, podcasts, membership clubs, newsletters, and porn. They proliferate on platforms including Patreon, Twitch, Substack, Etsy, Teachable, Knowable, Podia, Thinkific, Supercast, Lulu, Smashwords, Outschool, OnlyFans, and Gumroad.

These platforms generally take a cut of each sale made, ranging from 5% to 50%, or charge a recurring fee to sellers for accessing their market. Tech investors have dubbed this the “passion economy,” a place where anyone can profit doing what she loves. But because that term risks both exaggerating the payoffs of this work and obscuring its ties to the gig economy, the last great labor “disruption,” we might better call it the “hustle economy:” an online labor market in which platform-dependent workers create and monetize their own digital products. Like Uber drivers or Instacart shoppers, workers in the hustle economy need a platform to succeed. But their work is individualized, self-directed, and on their own schedule — one “creator” can’t substitute for another.

Obviously this hits home, as I’m somewhat engaged in this activity. No, I don’t have an OnlyFans that I’m pushing, but this newsletter is part of a rash of newsletters hoping to find success on substack.

Though I would push back in that I don’t do what I do out of passion. I suspect this is true for a lot of people as well. Work is not always driven by passion, sometimes work is done because it can be done, or should be done, and not because we want to do it.

One of the myths of the sharing economy that is even larger in the hustle economy is the faux entrepreneur. The idea that the worker is not a worker but instead a contractor who is their own boss. The reality is that the algorithm is the boss. Which means the platform has all the power.

In the view of academics like Ron Eglash, a professor at the University of Michigan, it’s not even clear what differentiates platforms like Patreon or Etsy from Uber and DoorDash before them. Workers in the hustle economy remain wholly dependent, Eglash notes, on the platforms that supposedly empower them. To further paraphrase Karl Marx: Is the platform a tool used by the worker — or is the worker a tool used by tech executives?

I find the same adage applies to social media. Unless you have a clear strategy in hand or focus in mind, you’re not using social media, it is using you.

Frantz Fanon was an Algerian revolutionary, psychiatrist, and writer who examined the psychological impact of colonialism. His book The Wretched of the Earth, seems particularly relevant to both the impact of digital platforms (vis a vis neofeudalism and serfs) as well as the revolutionary role he envisioned in the lumpenproletariat.

Marx was always dismissive of the lumpenproletariat, the phrase used to describe the unemployed and the precariously employed. His view was that only the working class, with its industrial commonality and motivation for better conditions, would be able to lead and drive the revolution. Marx felt that the unemployed were neither united nor motivated to demand change.

Fanon disagreed. Fanon believed that the unemployed had nothing to lose, and while they lacked the union, as a platform for organizing and mobilization, they could nonetheless be organized and motivated to overthrow the forces that held them down.

Maybe the digital platform offers a similar kind of focal point for organizing? This is partly why legal efforts to recognize gig economy “contractors” as workers.

What happened this week: in the United Kingdom, drivers launched a precedent-setting new lawsuit to demand access to their data. The UK Supreme Court also heard arguments in the final stage of a long pending case on driver employment classification. And that’s not all. In Australia, gig companies lost in a class action suit brought by taxi drivers. And all of this follows on a critical decision by Canada’s Supreme Court on June 26 which ruled that drivers cannot be bound by forced arbitration agreements.

What does it all add up to and why is it critical to gig companies’ business model? All these legal battles have three fundamental implications. First, Uber and other gig companies cannot succeed if they have to operate by the same rules as other firms. Second, since their business model cannot succeed within the boundaries of law, the companies must use a defensive strategy that seeks to overturn the law rather than contest the facts. Third, to succeed in escaping legal accountability these companies must fragment disputes – and this is why both the Canada and UK cases represent a pivotal moment that may define our future global economy

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On the one hand there is reason to believe that the excesses of the gig economy are being addressed and can be curtailed. However on the other hand, we’re entering an economic environment where labour will be in abundance and desperate. That’s part of what enables and fuels a hustle economy: people needing to hustle to pay their rent or feed themselves.

As a result you can imagine a logical extension where the hustle economy leads to the camping economy as more and more people become homeless or live in their van/RV.

very excited for Artifact 2.0


Part of the problem is the sleight of hand narrative that surrounds both the gig economy and the hustle economy. The words and concepts distract people from their desperation and the resulting exploitation by placing the focus on what could be rather than what actually is.

Imagine instead if there was truth in advertising? Imagine just like when you buy junk food or cigarettes, and the nutritional or health information is mandated on the wrapper, that when you sign up for the hustle economy, you first see numbers and stats that predict your potential success.

Patreon indicting what the average monthly income is, and the likelihood of you making those few dollars or less. YouTube projecting potential income and likely subscriber rates, that would end up making the lottery look like a better bet.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to have better transparency, accountability, and honesty when it comes to these delusional dreams of Internet fame and wealth. Until that time, we’ll have to keep encouraging counter narratives in hopes that people see through these myths and budget their time and attention accordingly.


This is a fantastic video that sums up the issues quite effectively and entertaingly:

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