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Crowd labor matches quirky jobs with micro-workers

Tasks such as transcribing business cards or titling porn films give rise to a vast army of temporary employees in matches made through Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

June 09, 2012|By Patrick May
  • Catherine Fraser transcribes a phone conversation of an insurance claim on Amazon's Mechanical Turk at her home in Mountain View, Calif.
Catherine Fraser transcribes a phone conversation of an insurance claim… (Dai Sugano/San Jose Mercury…)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The job didn't pay much: $4 an hour if she really hustled. But for Catherine Fraser, a recent community college graduate from Mountain View looking to pick up a little extra spending cash, the work was a hoot.

"I told a friend 'I'm now working in the porn industry' because I had to watch little clips of adult movies for a minute or two and then give them titles," says Fraser, 35, part of a growing global army of people making pennies in their spare time doing piecemeal — and often quirky — online micro-tasks. "We were limited to a small number of characters and encouraged to get creative."

So Fraser would come up with creative euphemisms "just to spice things up."

She soon graduated to more savory micro-gigs — taking little surveys, transcribing insurance claims and writing product descriptions for $2 apiece — dipping her toes into a sprawling and little-known global subculture of digital grunt workers. Largely unregulated — a spokesman for the California labor commissioner's office said it was "starting to pop up on our radar" — this massive labor pool is starting to transform the traditional workplace, helping to power the tech renaissance that is unfolding in Silicon Valley.

"Crowd-sourcing harnesses the collaborative nature of the Internet and enables us to connect, from a labor perspective, in ways we could never do before," said analyst Martin Schneider with 451 Research. "Like manufacturing has done forever, crowd labor lets us break down a job into tiny components, where one bit of fact-checking or writing a few sentences is now the equivalent of gluing that chip onto a computer board."

Whether it's rating the relevance of a search engine's results to help train its algorithms or grading the sentiment of customer tweets (angry? irritated? happy?) for Fortune 500 companies, or screening dating site photos for inappropriate content, this cadre of anonymous workers is supporting huge swaths of the social networking empire.

"Crowd-sourced labor started off as this weird thing with people doing these funny little jobs in their spare time, but now it's really catching on," said Bill Quinn with Boulder, Colo.-based Trada, which hires people to help advertisers beef up online search campaigns. "I think 2013 will be the breakout year because the concept's not so strange to companies anymore."

The numbers back that up. A study by the industry group said crowd labor revenues were up 75% in 2011 to $375 million. And the number of crowd workers is growing even faster, climbing more than 100% last year, with about 40% of the 6-million-member workforce living in developing countries.

Although some workers can make six-figure annual salaries on more sophisticated tasks, one of the fastest-growing job segments, up 133% last year, is micro-tasks like the ones Amy Ellis of Alpine, Texas, does when her 2-year-old daughter is at school.

"I've done things like 100-word product descriptions that pay $2.25 each, like why you should buy this brand of fluffy towels," she said. She gets her work, like many of her fellow micro-taskers, from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online labor market that pairs businesses, or "requesters," with "Turkers" who compete for HITS, or "human intelligence tasks," for a specific price and time frame. One recent job listing on Turk, for example, offered to pay 2 cents to "copy text from business cards."

Ellis' husband works full-time. She makes $70 a week on average and spends it on groceries. "It's not a lot of money," she says, "but I love the ability to log in and do a few minutes of work whenever I feel like it."

But like others, Ellis has also discovered the sleazier side of crowd labor, starting with "scammer workers doing product reviews who just rip off content from other sites, and scammer requesters who are looking for fake reviews of hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

"My favorite one," she said, "was a hotel in Virginia that had all these negative ratings on Yelp — cockroaches, hookers in the neighborhood, that sort of thing — and they were paying Turkers $4 to read about the hotel online and write a four-star review, even though they'd never set foot in the place."

The community, says Mechanical Turk Vice President Sharon Chiarella, is largely self-policed. "Workers and requesters earn a reputation on Turk," she said. "And we make it clear to requesters that if they treat workers poorly they won't work for them anymore."

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