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Dawn of the Digital Sweatshop

All over the world, workers are paid pennies to do menial online tasks in a largely unregulated, multimillion-dollar industry. Welcome to the Internet's factory floor.


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Mechanical Turk eventually expanded to include work for other contractors; now, it's spawned a host of imitators and become a massive market, with well over 200,000 workers. A recent study by the trade group indicated that the industry as a whole made revenues of about $375 million in 2011 — up 75 percent from the previous year. Within that field, the fastest growing segment is microtasking, which more than doubled its revenues last year. The nature of microtasking is such that the scope of its effect on the global job market can never fully be known, but it's safe to say it's huge.

Part of Mechanical Turk's appeal is its simplicity: Employers (or "requesters," in Turk's jargon) post jobs ("Human Intelligence Tasks," or "HITs"), specifying each HIT's pay and duration. At the top of the site's dashboard, there's a live ticker of the number of HITs available; on any given day, or even at the middle of the night, there are upward of 100,000 different ones available. Some tasks require their workers to meet a certain threshold of accuracy on prior tasks in order to ensure quality, while easier ones don't; employees (or "providers") choose to do them at will. And that's it: There's no application process, no exchange of information beyond the most basic facts.

The whole process feels less like an employment agreement than any other payment transaction on the web. Turkers don't fill out tax forms, because they don't make enough money, and the job contract comes in the form of what's known as a "clickwrap" agreement — that is, a quick page of fine print at the end of which a user clicks "agree." After accepting a task, a provider has a set time in which to complete it, entirely online, and once he or she does, it goes to the requester for review. If it's approved, money gets deposited in either the provider's bank or account. Most tasks pay anywhere from a cent to a couple dollars, based on time and difficulty; Amazon takes a 10-percent cut for each transaction greater than one cent, and 50 percent for those that pay a penny.

The classic example of a Turk task is one of the ones Amazon originally built the system for: sorting merchandise into categories based on color or style for the site's massive online warehouse. But at this point, the only real theme linking all of Turk's tasks is the fact that they can be done virtually, by a labor force that's willing to be paid pennies and that can't expect to be paying too much attention. Companies use Turk to look up foreign zip codes, transcribe podcasts, match web sites to relevant search terms, categorize images based on their subject, and flag objectionable content on web sites; when I tried Turk myself, my task was to copy and paste information from a scanned business card into fields for name, email address, phone number, and the like — presumably for some kind of directory, though I, of course, had no idea where my work was going.

Behavioral science labs at colleges and universities use Turk to conduct surveys; porn sites use it to name video clips. William Franceschine of the San Francisco online-gaming startup has been paying workers between 25 and 50 cents to test his game for five minutes. Jason Grunstra, a 34-year-old currently living in San Francisco, told me he's employing Turkers to, essentially, figure out where he should move, by having them cross-reference his required amenities — the gym of which he's a member, his favorite restaurants, and the like — in order to find the perfect city.

According to a study by Panos Ipeirotis, an NYU business professor who's written at length about Mechanical Turk, some 40 percent of Turk's tasks are actually related to the creation and dissemination of spam — if you've ever been sent a bizarre link on Twitter or Facebook from a stranger, chances are pretty good that the stranger is a Turker. Before the advent of smartphones, text message search services — in which users would send a simple factual question to a given number and receive the answer almost immediately on their phones — were powered by actual people typing the query into a search engine for about a penny a pop. Turkers are essential to the work of organizing the vast and growing wealth of information the Internet age has given us; all told, including the in-house services that major Internet companies like Google and Facebook use, it's all but impossible to interact with the world wide web for any meaningful amount of time without encountering the fruits of microtasked labor — whether you know it or not.

Because Mechanical Turk's labor force is decentralized, anonymous, and invisible, reliable statistics about its demographics are hard to come by, but this is what we know: A 2010 survey by Ipeirotis suggested that 47 percent of Turk's labor force lives in the US, 34 percent lives in India, and 20 percent lives elsewhere. In an earlier study, Ipeirotis found that the median annual income for American Turkers was somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000, and for Indian Turkers below $10,000. And in that same study, he found that 49 percent of Turkers surveyed were doing so for "income purposes." His study participants included a senior looking to supplement his or her fixed income; a laid-off accountant making $150 to $200 a week to stay afloat while looking for a new job; a schoolteacher trying to make ends meet — as well as many people who were on the site for more abstract, less financially immediate reasons.


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