The Trouble with Gig Talk: Choice of Narrative and the Worker Classification Fights

38 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2018 Last revised: 22 Feb 2018

See all articles by Shu-Yi Oei

Shu-Yi Oei

Duke University School of Law

Date Written: January 8, 2018


The term “sharing economy” is flawed, but are the alternatives any better? This Essay evaluates the uses of competing narratives to describe the business model employed by firms like Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and GrubHub. It argues that while the term “sharing economy” may be a misnomer, terms such as “gig economy,” “1099 economy,” “peer-to-peer economy” or “platform economy” are just as problematic, possibly even more so. These latter terms are more effective in exploiting existing legal rules and ambiguities to generate desired regulatory outcomes, in particular, the classification of workers as independent contractors. This is because they are plausible, speak to important regulatory grey areas, and find support in existing laws and ambiguities. They can therefore be deployed to tilt outcomes in directions desired by firms in this sector.

This Essay’s analysis suggests that narratives that are at least somewhat supportable under existing law may be potent in underappreciated ways. In contrast, clearly erroneous claims may sometimes turn out to be hyperbolic, yet harmless. Thus, in evaluating the role of narrative in affecting regulatory outcomes, it is not only the obviously wrong framings that should concern us but also the less obviously wrong ones.

This Essay is part of the Altruism, Community, and Markets Symposium organized by Duke University School of Law, the University of Virginia School of Law, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Keywords: Sharing Economy, Independent Contractors, Employee Protections, Labor Law, Taxation, Tax Policy, 1099 Economy, Gig Economy, Platform Economy, Future of Work, Uber, Airbnb, Narrative

JEL Classification: H20, H24, H25, H27, H29, J00, J32, J80, J83, K20, K23, K31, K34

Suggested Citation

Oei, Shu-Yi, The Trouble with Gig Talk: Choice of Narrative and the Worker Classification Fights (January 8, 2018). Forthcoming, Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 81, No. 3 (2018), Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 471, Available at SSRN:

Shu-Yi Oei (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708-0360
United States

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