In 2007, Stephanie Costello had a boring office job with a lot of downtime that she spent online. She recalls the day she read one of those articles on MSN.com that have become a staple of the Internet: how to make extra money online. These types of articles often appear in the soft-news sections of MSN, Yahoo and other sites, usually with the message that there is money being left on the table. Costello was intrigued at the prospect of cutting through the boredom of her day with the opportunity to pick up a little extra cash. She went to the website, Mechanical Turk, where companies can post tiny tasks and workers can find and perform them online. It was free to register—no call for an “investment” up front, which indicated that it was not on its face a scam. And she began making money immediately. Very small amounts of money.
Costello is a trailblazer of sorts. She was one of the early workers to join Mechanical Turk, the first online, crowd-based, micro-labor platform. In her telling, she sounds like an alcoholic describing her first drink. It was fun at first—and when it became less than fun, it was still useful, if only to get through the week. But six years later, it has become a serious problem, and not just for Costello.
Mechanical Turk is the innovation behind “crowdworking,” the low-wage virtual labor phenomenon that has reinvented piecework for the digital age. Created by Amazon in 2005, it remains one of the central platforms—markets, really—where crowd-based labor is bought and sold. As many as 500,000 “crowdworkers” power the Mechanical Turk machine, while millions more (no one knows how many exactly) fuel competitor sites like CrowdFlower, Clickworker, CloudCrowd and dozens of smaller ones. On any given day, at any given minute, these workers perform millions of tiny tasks for companies both vast (think Twitter) and humble. Though few of these people have any sense of their finished work product, what they’re doing is helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted.
Currently, computers are very good at certain sorts of tasks, such as identifying spelling errors, processing raw data and calculating financial figures. However, they are less able to perform others, such as detecting a positive or negative bias in an article, recognizing irony, accurately reading the text off a photograph of a building, determining if something is NSFW (not safe for work) or discerning among ambiguous search results. This is where the “crowd” comes in. In the current iteration of crowdworking, individuals are tasked with those parts of a job that a computer cannot perform. This work is used both to fill in the blanks and to train the computer algorithm to do a better job in the future.
Crowdworking is often hailed by its boosters as ushering in a new age of work. With the zeal of high-tech preachers, they cast it as a space in which individualism, choice and self-determination flourish. “CrowdFlower, and others in the crowdsourcing industry, are bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before, and we operate in a truly egalitarian fashion, where anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them,” asserts Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, in an e-mail exchange. (CrowdFlower claims to have “among the largest, if not the largest, crowd” available, with roughly 100,000 workers completing tasks on any given day.)