Opining for Pennies, Clicking for Cupcakes: Microwork and the World Wide Web

The original “Mechanical Turk” was an 18th Century imperial toy designed for the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.  A centuries-earlier version of Deep Blue, the toy gave the illusion that one was playing chess with a highly-skilled automated mannequin, when in reality the table-sized box contained a hidden chess master who manipulated the mannequin with an array of levers and wires.

Today however, the term “Mechanical Turk” is less associated with palatial playthings than with the more than 100,000 workers all over the world who work on HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) posted on Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) – a “marketplace for work that requires human intelligence.”  At the time of writing, the highest “reward” for completing an HIT successfully was $62.05 (filling out a credit score form), but this high of a compensation is a rarity.  The majority of HITs pay well below a dollar.  Reviewing a four-minute audio transcription, for example pays $0.61 while an interactive artists paid workers $0.02 each to “draw a sheep facing left.”  Most, if not all work associated with HITs is actually conducted online.

In contrast, other microwork websites, including TaskRabbit, Zaarly and others use the internet to create an interface between would-be employers and workers to complete “real world” tasks, like driving cupcakes across town.  Still, within this school there are slight differences.  Whereas TaskRabbit workers are screened by the company and the site operates according to a bidding model, Zaarly (still in beta) seems to work directly between people and with flat fees.

A third group are entities like Samasource, Skyword, and CrowdFlower which act as intermediaries between microworkers and larger companies by breaking down complex projects into discreet tasks that can be completed using paid, crowd-sourced solutions.

Analyses of these emerging marketplaces are mixed.  On the one hand are those who extole internet-facilitated microwork as an opportunity – for stay-at-home moms, un(der)employed or dislocated workers, the global poor, or even college students looking to drum up some extra beer money.  This perspective seems to have been particularly lauded by some in the international development community who see computer and phone based microwork as a valuable training opportunity and an entry into the global workforce.  Critical perspectives, however, point out the potential for platforms like AMT to promote exploitation and fuel a global “race to the bottom.”  Perhaps the much-adored “alchemy” feature on Etsy, which allowed artists and craft workers to bid on projects, was taken down last year for this very reason?

Workers voices are not being left out of the conversation.  In an effort to lower their risk of not getting paid, workers have created Turkopticon, a plug-in that enables them to “out” shady employers (“requesters” in AMT speak.)  TurkerNation is a web-based worker solidarity center – an online forum “FOR Turkers, run BY Turkers.”

Regardless of your perspective, it’s hard to argue with the fact that internet and mobile technologies are changing the ways and conditions under which people around the world work.

P.S. We’ll pay you $0.03 to share this post on facebook… 😉

You can read more about microwork here:
* My life as a micro-laborer: Exploring Mechanical Turk, Skyword, TaskRabbit, GrabCAD and more
* Serfing the Web: Sites Let People Farm Out Their Chores
* The Rise Of Micro-Labor (audio)

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Kony 2012–Simple dangerous messages

The Kony 2012 viral video has become something of a icon of the power of social media, in both its most powerful and dangerous ways. While I’ve followed the various debates only from a distance, I thought I’d just post a few thoughts and resources.    The original video itself has now (as of 4/5/2012) been viewed more than 87 million times, most of that within the first week of its release.   (Oxford Internet Institute research fellow Mark Graham provides an interesting visualization of how the video spread, based on twitter mentions.)  Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army is no longer an obscure and largely ignored phenomenon outside of central Africa, and is now the subject of wide-spread public awareness and debate.

I have yet to see a really good analysis of why the campaign was so successful (please share if you know of one).  Invisible Children has been working for many years, building a Continue reading

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Officer Pike & The Pepper Spraying Cop Meme

Officer Pike as Gingerbread Meme

Since the pepper spraying of  UC Davis students on November 18, 2011, thousands of images of Officer Pike, canister in hand, have circulated the internet.  Some of these images capture the actual incident, depicting the campus police officer systematically spraying mace into the faces of seated students, their arms linked and heads bowed. Other images, however, reconstruct the scene in new, highly-recognizable, contexts.  The hundreds, if not thousands, of pepper-spraying cop “memes” (an “idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” – Miriam-Webster) launched UC Davis to national headlines, underscoring the power of internet, graphic design, and communication technology to affect social consciousness.  We’ve put together a collection of some of these memes on Pinterest.

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Local Cyber Day Labor Sites?

One of the great things about being a professor is that my students are constantly introducing me to new trends in technology and work.  The latest innovation (well, not so new now–founded in 2008) introduced to me by a student is Taskrabbit–a sort of ‘ebay for jobs’ that links people searching for someone to do a task for them, with ‘taskrabbits’ in their city or neighborhood willing to perform the task. It turns out there are a range of new businesses performing this local ‘local cyber day labor site’ function (I just made up that term–a google search for ‘cyber day labor’ turned up zero results):

Geekatoo–local tech support;
someone2.do–making your to do list social
swifto.com–like task rabbit in the NY area
redbeacon–a local home services intermediary

This kind of project-based intermediary web-site has been around for a long time for computer programmers and related occupations (e.g. elance.com), but what is different about these new sites is their focus on local connections, the non-digital delivery of services, and the ability to hire someone for the smallest of tasks (buy my dog food is the task highlighted on taskrabbit’s web-site!). Clear social benefits: new markets and employment opportunities. Clear social challenges: falls outside the range of labor legislation, like most freelance work, so no ability to ensure minimum wage or other basic conditions of employment.

Posted in day laborers, technology | 1 Comment

Labor Talks in Detroit Go Social Media

There is a really interesting article in today’s New York Times about the UAW’s use of social media during their contract negotiations with the auto companies. The gist of the article is that the new tools are enabling the union to be more open and transparent in the negotiation process, involving a larger component of their membership in the discussions.  See:

Most of my work has been focused on the role of social media in organizing new workers, but the ability to strengthen communication with, and involvement of, current members is another absolutely critical component of strengthening unions.  Definitely worth reading.

Detailed contract summaries are available here:  http://www.uaw.org/members/uaw-bargaining/

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SEIU 1000

SEIU 1000 is a union that represents over 95,000 workers in the state of California. Continue reading

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How TXTMob influenced Twitter

How TXTMob influenced the creation of Twitter as a Social Media Organizing Tool


TXTMob—started by Tad Hirsch, Evan Henshaw-Plath (@Rabble), and others—was a forum on which participants could share mass messages with friends or strangers via SMS.  This program was created as an anonymous social organizing tool that promoted decentralized participation.  Rather than organizing protesters in one particular location, TXTMob allowed several participating groups to locate in strategic locations throughout a given region.  For example, TXTMob was used effectively to organize several spontaneous protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC).  During the RNC the same individuals did not coordinate all of the protests; rather, TXTMob allowed any participant to organize a protest, or share important information with the larger group. Continue reading

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