But that also means similarly talented people can charge equal rates, regardless of their actual qualifications, even if they live in countries that have vastly different costs of living—and that Americans and other skilled workers in the developed world have a particularly hard time competing. That’s partly why the Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman warned more than a decade ago that the growth of the global workforce, with its proliferation of educated workers everywhere, “presents the U.S. economy with the greatest challenge since the Great Depression.”
Monika Taylor lives in the United States and offers psychic readings for $5 on Fiverr to supplement her full-time job. She had mostly been selling her readings on Facebook and Pinterest for about $65 to $85, she told me, but when she stumbled across Fiverr, she figured it was a good way to broaden the number of people she could reach. Though she balked when she saw that others were charging just $5 for psychic readings, she decided to list her services anyway, figuring she could raise rates once she had enough clients. She got a few clients over the last few years, but when she raised her rates recently, to $15 from $5, people stopped buying her readings, she said. Now, she has gone back to mostly selling on other platforms. “If I had to make a living on Fiverr,” she told me, “I would be living under a bridge.”
Sellers know that if they complain or ask for more money, there are millions of workers out there who will replace them. They also don’t want to ally with other workers and advocate for better working conditions because they see those people as competitors, not colleagues, Graham found. “They don’t want to make a fuss, they just want to get a five-star rating,” Graham told me. Many workers are willing to lower their rates beyond what they considered fair, the academics wrote in a paper summing up their research.
Of course, many people are having a positive experience in the online digital economy. Graham and his colleagues interviewed Arvin, a university professor in Manila, who, at the time he signed up for a digital platform, was frustrated by his low wages and long commute at the university. Once he started selling his services doing search-engine optimization, he was able to leave his university job and soon made three times what he had made before—about $600 a month—working just 25–30 hours a week. Another worker, Kim-Ly, who lives in Vietnam, found a data-entry job online that paid $8 an hour—about four times what she had made before as an accountant at a bank—that allowed her to travel abroad and buy luxury goods.
I also corresponded with Jahanzeb Malik, a 24-year-old Pakistani man who told me he made about $5,000 over two years on Fiverr creating PowerPoint presentations for startups pitching to investors. He did Fiverr while he was in school, and liked having the extra money, he said. He was good at PowerPoints, and he was good at social media, and by answering questions about Fiverr on sites like Quora, he became “a guru-like figure” in the community of Fiverr sellers, he told me. That allowed him to launch his own website, NerdsHD.com, where he blogs about the digital economy and sells what he had sold on Fiverr before, but for more money. His work on Fiverr gave him the client list and name recognition to start his own business, he told me.