The Dystopian Digital Sweatshop That Makes the Internet Run


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.

Since then, several companies have sprung up that have taken on AMT's model and acted as recruiters and intermediaries for businesses in need of data processing services. In 2009, researcher Lilly Irani identified microtasking as a “dystopian extreme” of the broader trend for “increasingly contingent, low-paid labor."

Consequently, she and programmer Six Silberman created the browser add-on Turkopticon which “turkers,” as AMT workers call themselves, can use to warn each other off low-paying customers and intermediaries. Companies using the crowdworking platform are called “requesters.” The Turkopticon is ironically modeled on English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, another 18th-century invention. Never fully realized, the building design was intended to enable one-way surveillance of prisoners and other social “deviants.”

In July, 3,662 reviews of requesters were submitted to the site by turkers. Silberman believes there's a disjunction between the reality of crowdworking and speculation about its future. He says, “Much of the talk that does exist about crowdworking seems to be entirely enthusiastic. I think there is plenty of room for informed voices advising caution and restraint.”

Despite the popularity of the browser add-on, turkers have mixed feelings about regulation. A “bill of rights” prompt given by Irani and Silberman in 2008 found that only seven out of 67 turkers wanted a minimum wage. Only two were interested in forming a union. However, the vast majority did want the power imbalance between them and requesters corrected.

AMT's biggest draw for businesses is that requesters pay only when they're “satisfied with the results”, which is a term and condition of the agreement written by Amazon. Turkers have no rights to claim back their work, if it's rejected – or to ask the anonymous requesters for an explanation. Their anonymity also raises ethical questions, as turkers can’t make a fully informed decision about who they choose to work for. But resistance to government intervention is evident on the unofficial forum Turkernation.

“The main reason I 'microtask' -- some of my tasks are really long -- because I'm disabled and this is the easiest way for me to work. For many of us, myself included, this is a source of primary income. This type of work should not be regulated at all. First of all, no one forces us to do it. Second, we take variable time on tasks based on real life distraction. Trying to force minimum pay rates would only make people do less because they know they are still going to be paid, forcing the work overseas,” one poster says.

Workers who use it as a secondary or tertiary income are equally against federal intervention. Another responded, “I absolutely do NOT want the government getting much more involved. I'm okay with paying income tax on all my earnings (which I did last year, and will definitely do so again this year), but there should be no more government involvement than that.”

More sporadic workers benefit from the government's tax-free allowance of $600 for additional income – one incentive for microtasking. However, the forum, as much as it is a support group, takes the low pay conditions as a default, only allowing posters to unlock threads about how to get higher-paying microtasks as they build up their presence on the site.

Paradoxically, it acts like a de facto union, protecting its members from unscrupulous requesters and offering support and seasoned advice to newcomers. It also provides the only contact with requesters who often use the site to introduce themselves or address ongoing grievances. Self-management chimes with the independent nature of turkers, according to one poster.

Some turkers may also fear that regulation of the crowdworking industry would wipe out more low-pay, casual work that is essential to cover basic bills.

One “Bill of Rights” respondent says: “Legally speaking, the failure to offer MT’s what they offer employees is a good thing. We operate as independent contractors, not employees. Were we employees, they would set the hours one worked, assign HITs as they saw fit, take out taxes, sit on the funds until payroll time, etc. ad nauseum.”

Ipeirotis’ qualitative research found that turking had become a lifeline to workers hit hard by the recession. “No available jobs in my area, have applied to over 40 jobs no calls so far been 3 months. Do it to pay my bills which includes rent and diapers for my kids until I find work again,” says one worker.

“I have a degree in accounting and cannot find a real job, so to keep myself off of the street I work 60 hours or more a week here on mTurk just to make $150—$200. That is far below minimum wage, but it makes the difference between making my rent and living in a tent,” says another respondent. Even when turking wasn't a primary source of income, workers often found it necessary in order to top up wages from a low-paying full-time job. One microtasker replied, '“How do you make ends meet on a dollar an hour? You don’t.  All you do is add to what you make with your regular job and hope it is enough to make a difference.”

AMT and the Finnish crowdworking intermediary Microtask both identify US-based crowdworkers as independent contractors. The label, which is coming under increasing scrutiny, covers a huge swathe of professions and semi-skilled work. Classifying workers as independent contractors frees companies from covering insurance, paying minimum wage or paying for breaks.

However, the distinct, and unprecedented, nature of microtasking makes it hard to compare to the industries it is replacing such as translation or traditional data center outsourcing. Crowdworking initially appears a logical conclusion to a long process of deunionization, cost-cutting, wage deflation, and weakening employment regulation.

Irani's phrase “dystopian extreme” is not so far-fetched. Microtasking is only one part of the growing crowdworking industry which includes skilled work such as graphic design and web development. But it’s also likely to be the testing ground for dubious practices such as gamification, which is integral to making microtasks the cheapest way of outsourcing data.

Gamification involves the application of games mechanics and elements to routine work, such as instant feedback, virtual "badges" and rewards for unlocking "levels." It’s a buzzword in microtasking. Companies such as Microtask see it as a means to make microtaskers come back repeatedly to do otherwise unchallenging work.

Crowdworking intermediaries want to make the millions of remotely located workers in their “distributed workforce” more competitive with each other and willing to work longer hours. At the moment, many platforms allow workers to choose their tasks, and potentially microtask in between domestic activities. But Microtask has always embedded its tasks into simple games that make the work seem less boring.

CEO Ville Miettinen says gamification was a crucial factor in making individual volunteers give up on average 100 working hours each to help digitize the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti. He says that any voluntary microtasking is strictly for charity, or public organizations such as the Finnish National Archives.

However, the company's presentation to potential clients features a diagram that projects that crowdworking will free employers of "hard currency" spending altogether. The goal is a sporadically available part-time workforce that will be paid via virtual currency, service credits or virtual goods. Workers could be producing commercial work for virtual currency in the future.

Rajat Paharia of gamification strategist Bunchball says that virtual rewards or credits are one way of motivating a "distributed workforce." His company is currently gamifying intermediary Crowdflower's practices.

“If you hit a certain level or a certain number of points [for performing well], you can get double credits on your phone. Or you can have a choice of shift, if you move up in the work community,” he says. In other words, gamification can “reward” workers with flexible working and other benefits that employers should already offer – without cost -- to create a productive and happy working environment.

Crowdflower's Mollie Allick extends this kind of "choice" to pay. She says, “We see that workers are incentivized by a lot more than traditional cash compensation – about 60 percent of our workers are incentivized by virtual credits. We're actually seeing an increase in the number of participants willing to do work for virtual currency. That could also mean people willing to work for cellphone credit or airline currency, so we're seeing a diversification in pay streams.”

Currently, Crowdflower pays workers between 3 cents and $1 for a task, claiming that "trusted workers" receive the more complex, higher-paid work. On its Web site, workers are referred to as “contributors,” undermining the idea these basic tasks could be considered labor.

One of the defenses of low payment for microtasks is that it can be fun or a way to kill time. One turker says, “In the short term it's unpredictable, which makes it pleasurable when you scroll through the HITs Available screen and make your catch. I can see the slot-machine aspect -- be online at the right time when a good requester is posting, accept a bunch of good HITs, ching-ching-ching nickels in the bucket.”

Crowdflower reported 300 percent annual growth in February, on the back of supplying industries with over 300 million microtasks. Some of these tasks are embedded within Facebook games, where contributors can generate enough currency from working to buy virtual goods. However, most games by Facebook's partner Zynga veto redemption of virtual currency in the real world.

Revenue from social games on the network are estimated to be worth $2 billion this year. The reality is neither vendors, marketers nor games companies want virtual wages to correlate to cash compensation. Determining what constitutes a minimum wage in virtual currency will be a long-haul for legislators, and industry stakeholders.

Alek Felstiner, attorney at the US Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor, is at the forefront of considering the legal treatment of virtual goods and currency as labor compensation. Speaking in his personal capacity to AlterNet, he says, “Virtual currency does raise several questions about who is actually paying the worker. It also raises compliance issues -- how do you accurately value virtual currency to make sure someone receives the legal wage? And, more fundamentally, if you pay someone in virtual currency, but -- as most games do -- you reserve the right to revoke that 'license' and recoup those virtual assets, have you actually paid anyone?”

Organization may be necessary to prevent cash wages hitting a dirt floor, due to “diversification of pay streams.” Felstiner, again speaking in his personal capacity, believes that crowdworkers can potentially benefit from the same protections as regular employees if they take collective action.

Unionization or collective bargaining could enable them to be the first group of workers to tackle the issue of virtual compensation, which impacts on anyone who has ever exchanged virtual goods on Facebook. Felstiner says success in claiming benefits hinges on legally classifying crowdworkers as employees, in some circumstances, rather than independent contractors.

If a contractee only has control over the final product, then the worker can be classified as an independent contractor. But the term has come under scrutiny due to high-profile cases, such as that of FedEx drivers claiming employee status. Reclassified as employees, they will have entitlement to overtime, the state minimum wage, and payment for meal and rest breaks.

He continues, “Crowdworkers would need make a compelling case that employers can get that same flexibility while adhering to certain minimal standards. One likely argument -- used with varying degrees of success by unions and other labor groups in the past -- would be that crowdworkers with minimal protections are more qualified, produce better work, and build longer relationships with employers. By design, this industry allows employers to avoid grappling with those issues.”

Felstiner’s 2011 article "Working the Crowd," published when he was a student at UC Berkeley, envisions protections such as “a wage floor, some basic transparency and dispute resolution in work agreements, and reputation portability” -- none of which interfere with the mechanics of the crowdworking model.

Workers at the extreme unskilled end of the crowdworking spectrum remain largely invisible, but they face some of the the same problems as other workers in more established industries. They also present the opportunity to tackle new Web 2.0-era issues, such as the impact of virtual payment types on real pay.

Microtaskers almost perfectly fit academic Guy Standing's definition of the precariat (coined from proletariat and precarious): an unorganized casual on-demand workforce working for low pay, without benefits or access to their direct employer. But this precariat workforce could be at the forefront of challenging big business' most insidious and futuristic attempts to curb workers' rights.

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