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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