Inconspicuous digital labor and online quality valuations: The case of a French restaurant booking and rating platform

Inconspicuous digital labor and online quality valuations: The case of a French restaurant booking and rating platform

Paola Tubaro, CNRS-LRI, Paris, <> (corresponding author)
Antonio Casilli, Telecom ParisTech, Paris, <>
Elise Penalva-Icher, University of Paris-Dauphine, Paris, <>

Philippe Caillou (Université Paris Sud XI - IUTde Sceaux)

Julian Posada (CNRS, Paris)

The platform economy has pervaded sectors that seemed hardly amenable to digitization until recently. One of them is the restaurant industry, which has seen the rise of algorithmic intermediation services for discovery of dining options (Yelp, Trip Advisor), online booking of restaurants (The Fork), and home delivery (Deliveroo, Foodora). Consequences for the industry have been at the heart of recent public debates: for example, increased online visibility potentially expands restaurants’ market share, but also exposes them to more competition and to commission fees that may substantially erode their margins.

More subtly, digital platforms reshape the sector by building a new information system that reduces uncertainty and oils the wheels of the market. Endemic uncertainty traditionally pervades the restaurant supply chain (need to anticipate demand to minimize storage of perishables, fluctuations in weather-dependent food supplies) while also making it difficult to assess the quality of the final product from consumers’ viewpoint (what is a “good” meal, a “good” restaurant?). Quality uncertainty can notoriously cripple economic choices and hamper the functioning of markets (Akerlof 1970). If traditional remedies were based on expert knowledge (certifications, labels, gastronomy guides, newspaper reports), digital platforms promote a different model based on quality evaluations produced by users – laypersons – and relying on peer control to verify their reliability (Callon, Méadel & Rabeharisoa 2000).

The resulting system can be thought of as a two-sided market (Rochet & Tirole 2003) where the platform extracts value not only from matching diners and restaurants, but also from its capacity to leverage diners’ ratings and to affect restaurants’ reputation and ultimately, their market position. Matched and sorted by powerful algorithms, the contributions of restaurant owners (their online profiles, menus, any pricing information etc.) with those of diners (ratings, posts and comments) now offer a valuable alternative informational solution (Beuscart et al 2016).

Our planned contribution discusses these issues in the broader frame of valuation studies (Callon 2009; Muniesa 2011) with the help of digital data from a major French restaurant-booking platform, La Fourchette (trading internationally as The Fork), automatically extracted with web-scraping software tools. The popularity of La Fourchette in France, and its multiple functions (restaurant discovery, ratings, online booking, and loyalty schemes) make it particularly relevant for our purposes. We focus on a mid-sized French city, Lille, where we can be confident the data covers the restaurant sector almost exhaustively, regardless of type of cuisine, opening times and other characteristics. We complete our quantitative analysis of this rich dataset with more classical fieldwork, interviewing a small number of relevant actors for in-depth insight into their practices, experiences and feelings. We compare our results to earlier evidence (Eloire 2010) to better single out the transformations that platformization has brought about in the Lille restaurant industry.

We discuss how these transformations are a seachange for labor. All the traditional professions in the industry are affected, from restaurant owners and employees (who, among other things, need

extra effort to meet new requirements such as maintaining a minimum average score to avoid ejection from the platform), to gastronomy experts (who see their monopoly challenged and need to re-legitimize their role). If their material labor changes, more digital, immaterial labor online is needed to ensure their presence on the platform is consistently up to standards. Hence for example, experts may be led to do more online activities and even collaborate with platforms themselves.

Labor also takes the form of unpaid, free and even almost-hidden contribution to value creation by non-professionals (Scholz 2012): the very online activity of diners who take the time to rate, and comment on, restaurants can be seen as labor, insofar as it contributes to creating the informational richness that the platform eventually appropriates and monetizes (Cardon & Casilli 2015).

The result is an emerging form of polarization between formal, conspicuous labor (performed by restaurant staff) and implicit, inconspicuous digital labor (performed online, behind platform APIs, both by restaurant professionals and by consumers).

The study is part of the research project RESTO, funded by the Mission for Interdisciplinarity of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (MI-CNRS).


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