Technology

Mechanical Serfdom Is Just That


I spent a day crowdsourcing for Amazon's Mechanical Turk and all I have to show for eight hours in an online work marketplace is a measly $4.38

It's 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I'm ready to make some money. The coffee's kicking in and I've logged on to Amazon.com's (AMZN) Mechanical Turk. It's an online marketplace that matches workers with employers willing to pay on a per-piece basis for such tasks as verifying addresses, transcribing interviews, and translating text. I'm no stranger to grunt work. I worked my way through college. Early in my subsequent career, I held stints as an editorial assistant—which meant a lot of typing, photocopying, and schlepping lattes for editors in exchange for the occasional byline. None of that could have prepared me for Mechanical Turk, which posts jobs—known as "Human Intelligence Tasks"—in a format that resembles a job board. It takes me about 20 minutes to sign up, including arranging how I'll be paid. One option is having funds deposited into an Amazon card. I and my editor decide to donate my earnings to the San Francisco Food Bank, where $1 can feed a person a day. By 9 a.m., I'm embarking on my first HIT: verifying five museums' website addresses and operating hours—for 10¢. The work is easy and surprisingly interesting. (I will definitely check out the International Spy Museum the next time I'm in Washington.) I breeze through four additional museum-related HITs and before I know it, an hour has passed. I've earned 50¢. The minimum wage in California is $8.00. Minimum Wage Is Hard To Achieve

Workers will struggle to make much money serving Mechanical Turk, named after a chess master who toured Europe in the 18th century in the guise of an automaton. It's difficult even to earn minimum wage, according to Panagiotis Ipeirotis, an associate professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and student of Mechanical Turk. A few workers who spend a lot of time on the site are able to earn more than $1,000 a month, according to a survey conducted by Ipeirotis in February. He says most spend a day or less per week on the system, often earning less than $20 weekly. What's the Turk's appeal? Even low wages can go far in some places. As of February 2010, about half the service's workers were located outside the U.S, including 34 percent clicking in from India. That's a sharp rise from the 20 percent to 30 percent overseas worker proportion tallied in earlier periods by Ipeirotis' research. In the U.S., most users are supplementing an existing income, he says. Amazon doesn't break out revenue from Mechanical Turk, although it collects a 10 percent commission on pay, with a half-cent minimum per transaction. Ipeirotis followed all the HITs posted on Mechanical Turk for two months and in March 2009 reported that the average value of HITs posted per day was $2,000, which indicated the e-tailing giant was taking in $200 a day, or $6,000 a month. I'm determined to generate higher returns, so I gravitate toward writing gigs, which I've been told pay a higher hourly rate. A post for a 400-word article about "why you should use video in your company" catches my eye. The requester wants an informative and original article. The potential wage is $2.00—one of the highest-paying writing jobs I've found. What's worse, I'm not eligible to apply for this job until I have proven my ability on other tasks. That's Worth 20 Words 20 Years Ago

Let me put this in context. When I began freelance writing in 1998, the going rate for most articles was about $1 a word. I got $2 per word when I was really lucky. I averaged about 1,000 words—and $1,000—per week. (My editor worked for as little as 10¢ a word in the early part of that decade.)

I learn quickly to proceed with caution. Some jobs ask me to download suspicious-sounding software or to add apps to my Facebook profile. Amazon makes clear that it has "no control over the quality, safety or legality of the services," let alone a requester's ability to pay me. Let the worker beware. One job asks me to rewrite an article in my own words. It must be written in the form of a news story, although it cannot resemble the original. The piece is about President Barack Obama's State of the Union address and it seems familiar. When I compare it with a Jan. 25 New York Times article, I see that the first six paragraphs are identical. The job pays 77 cents, but no amount of money could persuade me to plagiarize. I move on. Next, I try transcription jobs because I've been transcribing my interviews for more than a decade. I try an 8-minute interview with an elderly woman in a nursing home that pays about $1.20. If I'm accurate, I can make a bonus that will bring total earnings to more than $2. I get about half-an-hour into it and press the wrong button, accidentally deleting my transcription. I try a different interview, this time an English woman being interviewed about the school her children attend. Her accent is heavy and the job takes an hour; when I try to post the Microsoft Word document I've created, the Mechanical Turk page has timed out and I can't get back to the HIT. I click frantically to find it. There's no one to ask for help. Two hours of work, zero dollars. Longtime Professional Turns Unreliable

As I click around for the right HIT, I inadvertently make it seem as if I've abandoned some jobs. Having damaged my statistics, I'm now considered fairly unreliable. Few transcription jobs are available to me, a college-educated professional with 20 years of work experience. As a last resort, I try surveys. Some are quite involved, such as one from a business school that asks me to look at an income statement of a fictitious tech company and decide if my client should continue a partnership with it. I take seven surveys for $2.55. Later, I attempt some 1¢ tasks because I've heard that these can add up for workers who do them quickly. After seven hours of diligent work, I've earned a grand total of $4.38—or 63¢ per hour. That's about what I'd make toiling in a California prison. Even if I were to become so productive that my earnings tripled, I'd be looking at $13.14 per hour. In a developing country, where 95 percent of the population earns less than $10 per day, that might not be so bad. In San Francisco, that wouldn't cover a day's parking near my office. In the cheap lot, no less.


Later, Baby
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