The Online Platform – a New Iron Cage?

or: This bazaar is brought to you by Peer Economy Design, Inc. – The Iron Platform.

by Carla Ilten

Microsoft FUSE lab’s recent call for project proposals on the “peer/ sharing economy” that is emerging online prompted me to dig a little deeper into both the available literature and online platforms. I found some parallels between platforms that organize peer exchange and the platforms that I have recently studied in more detail which organize microvolunteering and -lending (Ilten and Postigo, work in progress). Sure, the obvious similarity between Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kiva and Sparked is that they coordinate participation of growing numbers of users. But who are they – peers? Not so much. The most interesting parallel to me is that these platforms are similar organizations. Here is an attempt to articulate those thoughts more clearly – and maybe end up with a research question and theoretical agenda.

While there is a good amount of research on contributors and labor in peer production (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006; Dijck 2009), as well as a literature on trust and reputation systems (see, we are still lacking an understanding of managed peer economy platforms as new forms of socio-technical organizations. This perspective becomes crucial as newer peer economy platforms move further into the service sphere, where online coordination and offline services are mediated by platforms as brokers. Much of the discourse about peer to peer platforms still focuses on platforms that seem to meet the ideal of cybercommunism and practical anarchism – a perceived absence of management (Benkler 2013; Vadén and Suoranta 2009), and ignores the organized actors which increasingly provide the architectures for mass peer to peer systems. These brokers, often companies, govern inclusion and exclusion of participants to the platforms, for example through more and more elaborated identity provision systems. Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit do not meet utopian visions of communal sharing; rather, CEOs and designers deliver a matching service to entrepreneurial individuals and derive a share through monetizing those peer to peer services. A hybrid market niche for mediated – or rather: managed – peer to peer services seems to have emerged – a phenomenon that calls for an organizational analysis.

A few authors have begun to mobilize social theory and organization theory to make sense of the processes of government that occur in all structures of coordination. O’Neil uses Weber’s theories of authority to explain the organization of hacking communities through hybrid forms (O’Neil 2014). For example, index-charismatic authority is a new, reputation-system based form of authority which emerges from networked architectures. Rather than “hacking Weber”, Kreiss et al. (2011) bring his organizational theory of bureaucracy – the ideal type of rational formal organization – back in. Criticizing the “utopian orthodoxy”, the consensus in new media studies that views peer production as inevitably non-proprietary and socially leveling, the authors suggest that “the rationalist spirit and bureaucratic power may yet infuse peer production” – in both welcome and alarming ways (2011:243). While bureaucratic structures can be highly constraining, they have also introduced mechanisms of accountability and explicit rule-making in organizing whose fate is uncertain in managed peer to peer systems. Kreiss et al. ask whether “peer networks serve less as alternatives to Weber’s iron cage of rationalization, than as implements of its diffusion.” (Kreiss et al. 2011:256)

How can we make sense of this ambivalent argument? We need to untangle (but possible re-tangle) the two concepts that make up the iron cage: 1) bureaucracies/ bureaucratic structures/ really existing bureaucratic organizations/ “iron cages;” and 2) the rationalist spirit/ rationalization/ “the iron cage.” With this distinction, we can start asking about the location of power in these structures. So if peer economy platforms and microaction platforms fail the ideal type of formal bureaucracy in terms of accountability – and, impersonality, I’d like to add –, why should we think about them as bureaucratic structures?

Think of the other most widely used metaphor for bureaucracy: that of a rational machine, an architecture that is designed to coordinate large amounts of processes smoothly. This technical dimension of bureaucracies goes to the heart of what a sharing economy does: divide up labor. At the same time, much more fuzzy mechanisms of sharing are at work (John 2013): in order to participate, peers must provide identity information – share themselves. The design mechanisms of identity production are elements of a socio-technical architecture which is not developed by peers, but delivered by entrepreneurs, programmers, and designers.

Science and technology studies have a long history of showing how technological infrastructures are not neutral, but unfold social and material power – artifacts have politics (Winner 1995), and this is particularly critical for digital platforms, where materiality can evade our view (Gillespie 2010). While most research on the peer economy either ignores the material basis to peer exchange systems, or heralds web structures as inherently “peer” (decentralized), I think that good old organizational theory on bureaucracy can help us really pay attention to the “plumbing” (Musiani 2012) that structures peer economies. Again, we must focus on individual platforms (organizations, architectures), and look out for the broader rationality that is embodied in these cases. They certainly have a new look and feel that is quite different from Weber’s state bureaucracies. But the structures governing participation and exchange, cast in algorithms, are no less rule-based and hierarchical on the technical dimension of the architectures. Importantly, the newer architectures of participation that I have called managed or mediated above come with some fairly centralized design/power structures. This is a departure from what we could almost call “traditional” (or, to stick with Weber: value-rational) online peer production in for example Free Software projects. This bazaar is brought to you by Peer Economy Design, Inc., the banner could read.

So what kinds of cages are these new architectures? Weber’s original term stahlhartes Gehäuse translates not so much into cage as than into casing, or housing. Or, in the era of online structures, into platform. We are not so much stuck in that iron casing as we are voluntarily stepping onto new iron platforms that efficiently and appealingly organize processes we feel compelled to participate in. The rationalist spirit has a new vehicle, it seems – a great opportunity to bring organization theory, social theory and STS together (once more) to see the bigger picture that connects rationalities and social structures.


Benkler, Yochai. 2013. “Practical Anarchism Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State.” Politics & Society 41 (2): 213–51. doi:10.1177/0032329213483108.

Benkler, Yochai, and Helen Nissenbaum. 2006. “Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue*.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (4): 394–419. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00235.x.

Dijck, José van. 2009. “Users like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content.” Media, Culture & Society 31 (1): 41–58. doi:10.1177/0163443708098245.

Gillespie, Tarleton. 2010. “The Politics of ‘platforms.’” New Media & Society 12 (3): 347–64. doi:10.1177/1461444809342738.

John, Nicholas A. 2013. “Sharing and Web 2.0: The Emergence of a Keyword.” New Media & Society 15 (2): 167–82. doi:10.1177/1461444812450684.

Kreiss, Daniel, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner. 2011. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.” New Media & Society 13 (2): 243–59. doi:10.1177/1461444810370951.

Musiani, Francesca. 2012. “Caring About the Plumbing: On the Importance of Architectures in Social Studies of (Peer-to-Peer) Technology.” Journal of Peer Production 1 (online).

O’Neil, Mathieu. 2014. “Hacking Weber: Legitimacy, Critique, and Trust in Peer Production.” Information, Communication & Society 17 (7): 872–88. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2013.850525.

Vadén, Tere, and Juha Suoranta. 2009. “A Definition and Criticism of Cybercommunism.” Capital & Class 33 (1): 159–77. doi:10.1177/030981680909700109.

Winner, Langdon. 1995. “Political Ergonomics.” In Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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