Platform Practices

Our guiding concept for this research is the underlying belief, drawing on decades of social science research, that people are not passive users of complex digital technologies like platforms. Instead, they actively participates in appropriation, adaptation, and adoption.1

Our lens for analyzing platforms

FiDA has designed a lens to explore the impact of platforms on financial and economic inclusion.2 The term platform is used a lot, in different ways by different institutions. Based on our review of the multidisciplinary literature, we see platforms as mechanisms for hosting interaction and exchange between third parties in which the host (a) facilitates value creation (financial or otherwise) and (b) takes a share of that value but (c) doesn’t completely control the scope of interactions or their outcomes.

There are two main platform flavors. Innovation platforms, like operating systems or developer tools, emerge when an institution invites others to use its code or other assets to encourage further innovation in the provision of products and services. Windows and Android are great examples of innovation platforms. Meanwhile, transaction platforms create multi-sided markets by hosting interactions that match buyers and sellers. Transaction platforms are proliferating and touch every sector of the economy. eBay’s marketplace, Google’s paid search, Facebook’s ad market, and AirBnb’s homestays are all examples of transaction platforms. In 2018 and 2019, much of FiDA’s research focuses on transaction platforms.

It can be helpful to further differentiate transaction platforms by the types of transactions they facilitate:

  • E-commerce: online marketplaces where third parties sell goods to consumers. All transactions are processed through the website host.
  • Online work: also called online outsourcing, refers to the contracting of workers or providers to supply services or perform tasks via Internet-based marketplaces. Two major segments include microwork and online freelancing.
  • Offline-to-online: connecting buyers and traditional service providers (delivery, domestic work, taxi, etc.) that previously transacted offline.
  • Attention: platforms that treat a potential consumer’s attention as a resource or asset.
  • Data: hosted marketplaces where data providers offer data sets for a price, and data consumers can purchase or subscribe and use data for research, modelling, or analysis.

Across all these industries and kinds of exchange, transaction platforms transform markets in at least four ways: 1) aggregation and distribution, 2) transaction facilitation 3) credibility enhancement and 4) information analysis and advice. These four elements are both a “menu” for designing business models and user experiences—not all platforms offer all functions in the same ways—and a means of evaluating the impact of a platform’s entry into a market. Through these elements, platforms alter markets and can impact the prospects for success of buyers and sellers participating in it. Looking at the impact of platforms through these features enables us to develop a deeper understanding of how platforms may, or may not, create new avenues to prosperity and financial inclusion.

An interaction, not just an impact

So yes, technologies have remarkable power to shape or “impact” livelihoods. The choices that platform companies make about which people to allow to transact, how to feature goods or services on the site, which types of transactions to support, how to maintain credibility, etc. combine to create the user experience. Platforms set the rules of the game.3 Or, if you prefer the highfalutin language of media and technology studies, platforms create the affordances and constraints that govern the behavior of those on the platform.4

At the same time, people adapt. They adopt. They appropriate. For as long as there have been technologies, there have been user reactions to them. Social conventions emerge, like deciding to say “hello” when picking up the phone, or, lately, deciding not to make phone calls at all. Sometimes these adaptations become products or features; like hashtags on social media, or missed calls in India and sub-Saharan Africa. Users invent and create new ways to get the most out of whatever affordances and constraints technologies provide them, and technologies, in turn, adapt to those adaptations.5

This study focuses on that process of adaptation and appropriation. We are eager to understand the digital literacies, scripts, and emergent strategies that people have developed about what works, and what doesn’t, as they tried to bend the platforms to make the most of them, to prosper in the digital age. Some of this comes down to simply finding new ways to find more and better customers, or lower-cost suppliers, or better employees online. The classic challenges of running a business are completely recognizable in the new digital era. People still have to combine labor and raw materials and sell something for more than it costs to make. But one level down, playing out in the new digitized markets hosted or facilitated by the platforms, the scripts that work, the strategies that pay off, the ways in which platforms can be harnessed for livelihoods are brand-new and demand our scrutiny and understanding.

If we are to build or shape platforms that promote greater economic inclusion, and more broad-based prosperity and value creation, we need to understand how they are being used, and what gaps may exist where practices can be turned into products and services so that the cycle of innovation, adaptation, and re-innovation can continue.

Related Literature

This is our general theory of the case: that documenting user practices—focused on adaptation appropriation, and adoption—will allow us to see important patterns and developments as micro-entrepreneurs adjust their livelihood strategies to meet the new realities presented by the digitization of their markets by the platforms. But we’re not the first or the only researchers to be exploring this topic. Our work is inspired by and in dialogue with several studies that came before, including some of the following:

  • The FiBR project, a collaboration between Bankable Frontiers Associates and the Mastercard Foundation, and a FiDA portfolio partner, has been exploring the space recently, looking at the practices that Tanzanian small enterprises are using as they move retail online.6 For example, they spoke to a merchant, who explained “I use Whatsapp to build a relationship and trust with my customers. Before sending a package, I take a picture, upload on the platform and then send it.” How did she learn that this works? Do her customers expect the photos? If they don’t yet, will they? It’s a tiny thing, this quote, but the subtlety of building trust by using images and messaging is a digital literacy that is hard to teach, but undoubtedly important to her success.
  • Slavova and Karanasios have used a practices lens to look at the interplay between shifting “institutional logics” and hybridized individual informal practices as Ghana’s agricultural sectors adapt to increasing levels of digitization. The paper covers a great deal of ground and is more deeply engaged with theory than we can be in this study, but its focus on the ‘interaction modalities” offered by variable ICTs, available for different tasks at different times, helps link the macro and micro levels of the puzzle quite nicely, and is a good example of the power of the affordances/practices/appropriation lens.7
  • Wyche, Forte, and Schoenebeck cover some related questions in their study of how micro-entrepreneurs and the self-employed “hustle online” in the slums of Nairobi, using Facebook’s personal pages (not dedicated business pages) not only for socializing or entertainment, but also to advance livelihood schemes based on self-promotion and finding market niches.89 These are patterns that Bajpai, Larson, and Mehta call online “identity work” related to livelihoods.10 The personal pages and newsfeed of Facebook are not built for job searches or to advertise small businesses. How and why have they been appropriated in this way? And how do the people who use the platform in this way know it will work? These stories reflect how some Facebook users are turning to the app to look for jobs. Additionally, as many as two million female homemakers in India are reselling lifestyle and clothing products through Facebook and WhatsApp by obtaining the items from local suppliers who have goods in bulk and then charging a 15 to 20% commission.11
  • It’s not just Facebook. In India, a woman living in Manipur reflected that other apps are increasing her knowledge in her sector, “I watch how to make hand embroidery and how to use new machines on YouTube.”12
  • Maunder and Donner found similar patterns of identity work, including misrepresentation and status climbing/signaling, on job boards in Cape Town. What are, in essence, the emergent platform practices to support a livelihood via a Facebook page, or to upskill by watching YouTube, or try one’s luck on the online job boards?
  • Of course, the use of platforms is not universal among informal workers and micro-entrepreneurs; entrenched class constructions and gender norms13 still influence uptake and use. For instance, in a study conducted across Peru, South Africa, and India, Chen suggests that while organizations that advocate for informal workers are beginning to use ICTs in their work and organizing, individual informal workers primarily use simple mobile phones. Chen reminds us that there were limits to using ICTs as many informal workers did not have the device needed to access the internet—smartphones or computers—and many lack the necessary literacies to use the services. Among the handful in the study sample who do use the Internet, the usage is primarily restricted to the instant messaging app WhatsApp, which allows them to communicate with customers.14
  • Another study in Kenya highlights class distinctions in job platform use: young people described LinkedIn as a platform for professional networking and looking for jobs, targeted to higher-income people who already have formal employment, whereas for low-income young adults, in the Habari neighborhood, Facebook has taken up some of the functions associated with LinkedIn.15

Literacy is only part of the story

We choose the word “practices” because it encompasses literacy without being limited to it. Without a doubt, digital literacy, entrepreneurial literacy, and financial literacy are all important contributors to running a successful business online. But there is a craft—a context specificity to finding livelihood strategies that work for a given market in a given geography, with a given set of competitors—that is more than simply having the skills to put together a profile or create an Excel spreadsheet. The idea of situated practice is broader than literacy, but it should not diminish the important role that literacies will play in supporting inclusive livelihoods.

Some practices are quite specialized. For example, Venter documents emerging skills and tricks designers need to develop to use low-end mobile and shared computers to break into digital design in Cape Town. Practices also include some intuitions, like how to understand the algorithms that drive visibility on platforms.16 Donner and Maunder found a form of search engine optimization, demonstrated by jobseekers in Khayelitsha, a former Township area of Cape Town, who discovered they could have more success by listing their locations as prosperous neighborhoods like Sea Point or Clifton than their own neighborhoods.17

By focusing on “platform practices”, linking behaviors to the same four platform functions we described above, we can connect top-down design affordances to bottom-up adjustments and appropriation. Moreover, we can document the cycles of adaptation and evolution that drive innovation, and will, in turn, recommend how designers and product managers can better serve the micro-entrepreneur segment in Kenya and beyond.


  1. François Bar, Matthew S. Weber, and Francis Pisani, “Mobile Technology Appropriation in a Distant Mirror: Baroquization, Creolization, and Cannibalism,” New Media & Society, February 5, 2016, 1461444816629474,

  2. Marissa Dean and Jonathan Donner, “How Can Platforms Improve Financial Inclusion in Africa?,” FiDA Medium Channel, September 10, 2018,

  3. Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole, “Platform Competition in Two-Sided Markets,” Journal of the European Economic Association 1, no. 4 (2003): 990–1029,; Dean and Donner, “How Can Platforms Improve Financial Inclusion in Africa?”; Christopher Foster et al., “Digital Control in Value Chains: Challenges of Connectivity for East African Firms,” Economic Geography 94, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 68–86,

  4. Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 1st Basic paperback. (New York: Basic Books, 2002),

  5. Wanda J. Orlikowski, “The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations,” Organization Science 3, no. 3 (August 1, 1992): 398–427,

  6. FIBR Project, “Superplatforms: How Will Merchants Benefit from E-Commerce in Africa?,” 2018,

  7. Mira Slavova and Stan Karanasios, “When Institutional Logics Meet Information and Communication Technologies: Examining Hybrid Information Practices in Ghana’s Agriculture,” Journal of the Association for Information Systems 19, no. 9 (2018): 4,

  8. Susan P. Wyche, Andrea Forte, and Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck, “Hustling Online: Understanding Consolidated Facebook Use in an Informal Settlement in Nairobi,” in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’13 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2013), 2823–32,

  9. Jonathan Donner and Andrew Maunder, “Beyond the Phone Number: Challenges of Representing Informal Microenterprise on the Internet,” in Living inside Mobile Social Information, ed. James E. Katz (Dayton, Ohio: Greyden Press, 2014), 159–92.

  10. K. Bajpai, J. B. Larson, and K. Mehta, “Like a Hustler: Aligning Intervention Design with Informal Labor Practices,” Of the Sixth International Conference on …, 2013,

  11. Digbijay Mishra, “Homemakers Generate $9b in Sales through WhatsApp, Facebook: Report,” The Times of India, June 1, 2017,

  12. S. K. Chinmayi and Rohini Lakshané, “Of Sieges and Shutdowns,” 2018,

  13. Savita Bailur and Silvia Masiero, “Women’s Income Generation through Mobile Internet: A Study of Focus Group Data from Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda,” Gender, Technology and Development 21, no. 1–2 (May 4, 2017): 77–98,

  14. Martha A. Chen, “Technology, Informal Workers and Cities: Insights from Ahmedabad (India), Durban (South Africa) and Lima (Peru),” Environment and Urbanization 28, no. 2 (October 1, 2016): 405–22,

  15. Piia Jäntti, “The Usage of Social Media among Young Adults Living in Nairobi, Kenya: Only Entertainment or Contributions to Societal Change?,” 2015,

  16. Erin Klawitter and Eszter Hargittai, “‘It’s Like Learning a Whole Other Language:’ The Role of Algorithmic Skills in the Curation of Creative Goods,” International Journal of Communication Systems 12 (2018): 21,

  17. Donner and Maunder, “Beyond the Phone Number: Challenges of Representing Informal Microenterprise on the Internet.”