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The Dystopian Digital Sweatshop That Makes the Internet Run

Meet the workers making $1.20 an hour "microtasking" for billion-dollar brands like Microsoft and Amazon--right here in the US.
 
 
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There's a workforce deployed by billion-dollar brands like Microsoft, eBay and Twitter – a workforce that has no entitlement to basic benefits, and is paid an hourly wage of approximately $1.20. They're the products and the projected future of corporate outsourcing, but they're not based in Chinese factories or Indian call centers. They're working at their home computers, in the US, right now. We depend on their labor to navigate the Internet and make our lives easier.

Microtasking is a fast-growing industry that is expected to take a significant chunk of the $400 billion made annually by the global outsourcing market. The average worker in what is called the "crowd" will work for hundreds of companies in one day, spending no longer than a minute on a single job.

Every time we search online for contact information, it's likely the website URL, phone number and address details were collected for a few cents each by hundreds of different workers, many of them in the US. Every time we find the right product on an e-commerce site, it's because it – and all the other products – were tagged by a human.

Microtasks and Human Intelligence Tasks, as they're called on Amazon's platform, are small repetitive jobs that computers can only do with a high degree of error, such as tagging pictures, recognizing handwritten text, categorizing the “mood” of a tweet, and assessing the “family friendliness” of an image.

Payment for these tasks is usually below 10 cents. They're meant to be easy but they can take much longer than the official time designated by the company. Crowdworkers do all this stuff, and make the Internet seem a magically self-maintaining system, making the occasional blip in categorization or tagging content amusing enough to flag up on Twitter or Facebook.

Crowdworking also eats into more traditional industries like database management and translation. For example, a manuscript can be broken down into single words that are discretely translated, checked and then put together again in chunks of sentences which are individually read for syntax.

The "crowd” performs these tasks and delivers the work through an intermediary such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) or Microtask at a speed and cost formerly unimaginable to large corporations.

This Web 2.0 version of outsourcing hasn't faced the same scrutiny as physical labor in foreign factories. Apple's practices in Shenzhen have become emblematic of corporate greed. The company's overnight turnarounds and frequent upgrades are only possible because of an on-site workforce that works up to 14-hour shifts, handling chemicals in battery farm conditions that would be illegal in the US. Consumers are now less able to claim ignorance about the human cost of the global giant's products, even if they won't stop buying them.

But unlike workers in China, crowdworkers can’t be easily be figured as part of the collateral damage of globalizing capitalism.

The large numbers of crowdworkers based in the US are overwhelmingly college-educated, female and under 35 years of age, according to research by New York University professor Panos Ipeirotis. They work from home, mostly at their own pace, making them less visible in the workforce. They often do microtasking to top up their primary income. The best known platform is currently AMT, where the average hourly wage in 2010 was calculated by Ipeirotis to be $1.20.

Started as an in-house site in 2005 for identifying duplicate pages on Amazon, Mechanical Turk quickly developed into the first and largest recruitment site for crowdworkers. The platform is named after an 18th-century chess-playing automata which was internationally renowned for its mastery– until it was proven there was a human crouched inside, moving the pieces.

 
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