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Mechanical Turk – Is it for you?

By Bryan Lambert - February 13, 2011

This week’s Tech Tip is about the Amazon website, Mechanical Turk. Basically, Mechanical Turk is a website that offers to pay a fixed amount for a specific job (HIT) done.

To highlight some of the main pros and cons of the website, I’d like to present this week’s Tip in the form of a story.

7:00 AM. The city.
The alarms blares and you reach to hit the snooze button, but you think better of it. It’s your first week on the new job; true it doesn’t pay much, but it’s work, and you’re just happy to have it. So you drag yourself out of bed and get ready for the day. While riding a bus to work you think about the day ahead, wondering what kind of assignment that you have today. Will it be verifying search results?Looking up veterinarian addresses? Or perhaps correctly categorizing products? True, the work is easy, but it is truly tedious. At least in the city the minimum wage is $9.92 an hour, and today is the day you get your first paycheck!An honest week’s wages for an honest week’s work. You quickly run through the calculations in your head. $9.92 times 40 hours – that should give you about $396. Of course, minus Uncle Sam’s bite, you’ll be left with maybe $300 to work with, but $300 is enough to get groceries, pay the rent and maybe keep the inner-web running. It’s not much, but better than nothing.

You get to work and spend the day verifying the results of various search phrases on Google. Your mind blurs after a while because the work is a bit monotonous – but you keep telling yourself that it’s work – and today’s payday. Around quitting time your boss, Mr. Goldsmith, appears at your cubicle – check in hand. You look up startled since you were expecting maybe someone HR in to be handing out the checks so you fear the worse.

“Um, what can I do for you Mr. Goldsmith?” you nervously ask.

“Um, yeah. How are you doing? I was just here to hand off your paycheck and also to let you know that there are some changes starting next week. ” He states.

Your mouth is dry and you manage to croak out, “Um, changes?”

“Yeah,” and then he goes on to explain, “we’re going to go to a more home-based work model. I believe that you have Internet access on your laptop computer at home?” You nod yes that you do, and he goes on, “Good. That makes it easier. What we want you to do is log on from home and perform these jobs from there. We are going to post the work on a third party website. The first time you’re in, you then register as a worker and then you’re set! There’s really not much to it. All the jobs for the day will be there, and as a bonus, there are a lot of other companies like ours that will be posting jobs on that website. But here’s the best part – there’s plenty of work to go around, and you are paid per job, not per hour!It’s a win-win for everyone!The faster you can get the job done, the more you make. ”

“Sounds great,” you reply, and then ask, “um, what’s the website?”

“Why, it’s a terrific website that is actually run by Amazon – you’ve heard of them of course. The actual website is called Mechanical Turk. ”With that, he hands you your paycheck with a note stapled to it giving the website. You also noticed that they are switching you over to an independent contractor, not an employee. Stunned, you get up and leave for home.

It’s the weekend, but you figure that since you are now an independent contractor you may as well get cracking on this new found work. You check out the Turk site and see that it is on the up and up. Plenty of work available and they pay you real money. It is named after a 18th century faked automaton that could supposedly play chess mechanically but really had a person hidden inside. Basically, the site lists many jobs (called HITS) that are easy to do, but require an actual human to do them. You sign up as a worker and also set up an Amazon Payments account (since that is where your pay would go) and then take a look at the HITS that are offered. Some HITS have numerous sub-HITS in them that allow you to keep doing the same simple job over and over until the full number of HITS for that job runs out.

You look at the top of the computer monitor screen and see that there are over 96,000 jobs, er, HITS available and you begin to feel better. You see that your former employer is right there at the top of the list offering the very same job that you did just yesterday morning for minimum wage at the office. The HIT they list has over 4300 HITS (sub-HITS?) available on the simple task of verifying Google search results. For each completed HIT, once it is approved, you’d be getting $0.05. You suddenly worry, since this website is open to workers around the world (though you did notice that only in the U.S. and India will they transfer money to your bank account – everywhere else only allows you to get your money in the form of Amazon gift cards), but then smile as you see that this HIT is only open to people in the U.S.

You roll up your sleeves, crack your knuckles, and get to work. You are fairly competent at this kind of work, so you work steadily for an hour. They do put in a 30-second lock for each HIT, and you find that kind of annoying since it is kind of obvious that some are good results while others are not. But, since they require that at least two of the search results be clicked on, you find that it actually takes a little longer than the 30 second allowance for each hit. In addition, they also toss in a captcha from time to time to be sure that you are not running some kind of script, but are a human really doing the actual work. After an hour, you click over to your account tab, happy at such a good arrangement that the company worked out. What could be easier? Then it hits you – in that hour you finished 57 jobs for a total payout of $2.85. You run the math again and it is right. You think that maybe you’ll switch it up and try another HIT, maybe that one will average out to paying a little better.

Feeling that there must be something wrong, you change the search results to show HITS that pay the most per HIT instead of having the most HITS per HIT (job). Ahh, here you quickly see some HITS that pay much better. One even offers $20 for a completed HIT. You click through and the HIT says that they are verifying the functionality of a website so they simply want you to fill in information for each page – but it all must be YOUR actual information. You feel a little uneasy since the terms and conditions that you read very carefully for Mechanical Turk stated that this was a violation – a requester (the person who posts jobs) isn’t supposed to ask for personal information. However, you figure that it must be legitimate, and this may be some kind of exception, since you figure that someone at Mechanical Turk MUST be checking the HITS.

You click on the link in the HIT to the site and are soon bogged down in page after page of about various “offers”. Eventually you simply abandon that HIT and look for another that may be a bit more legitimate. The next HIT down also wants the Turk worker to check the "functionality" of a website, and like the HIT before it, it also wants accurate information. In addition it states that in order to be paid you need to live in the U.S. , need have a cell phone (to test their SMS text functionality) and also when the test text comes through, you need to answer “YES” to it in order to complete the HIT and be paid. The HIT is offering to pay $5.00, so you decide to take it and click through to the link listed.  At about the forth page of filling in information, you look at the small print and realize that you are signing up for a pay SMS service to send jokes to your phone at $10 a pop.  About that time, your notice that your e-mail inbox is filling up with all sorts of offers from various SPAM sources and start to wonder if maybe you shouldn’t have been using your personal e-mail account when working those last two HITS. Alarmed you also abandon this HIT and quickly realize that many of top paying HITS seem to be fraudulent.

You decide to take a different tact, and for the next half hour your cruise through various HITS (sorted various ways). Some are ridiculous, like offering to pay $1.00 for a 500 word article – or $0.50 to rewrite an essay. You also see a lot wanting to have you “like” their Facebook page. Since these are no brainers and you search the available HITS to specifically for “Facebook” and start clicking like all over the place. Sure, your friends may wonder what you’re up to and most if these HITS only pay a penny, but a penny is a penny! There are also some surveys and you complete a few of those as well. The surveys pay a little more, but they take longer if you conscientiously do them. You go back to the top jobs that have the largest number of HITS available per job. You see those two low paying jobs and decide to skip them – but also realize that out of the top ten jobs – you are not qualified for five of them (since you do not speak Arabic, or live in France). After an hour of trolling various random HITS, you take a look at your account and see that you picked up another $1.81. So far, you have three hours invested and realize that you made a grand total of $5.11. Not that you have any of that money right now – the HITS need to be approved still (which you later find out can take several days). At this point, you navigate over to the San Francisco Chronicle’s online website and start looking through the help wanted ads.

This story basically shows you some of the benefits and drawbacks of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Some of the biggest pros being: there are always jobs (HITS) available to work and much of it is very easy to do. In addition, since the money is held in your Amazon Payments account, you can convert it to an Amazon gift card; send it to other people if they have an Amazon Payments account or even transfer it to your bank account (at least, you can transfer it to your bank account, as mentioned, if you are in the U.S. or India – otherwise your stuck with the Amazon gift card option).

There are also some cons to the site as well. Some of these include fraudulent HITS that data mine your personal information or attempt to sign you up to pay services (both of which are actually in violation of the terms of Mechanical Turk – you can report these HITS to Mechanical Turk to have them removed), no one vetting the jobs (HITS) posted for legitimacy, the ability of a requestor to unilaterally reject work. Also most of the total HITS available seem to be tied to the top ten job (HIT) requests (for example, on January 5, 2011 there were a total of 96,734 total HITS available over a total of 1491 different jobs, however almost 50% of them (47,692) were tied to the top ten jobs), a chunk of HITS not being available to you at any given time for various reasons (such as the country you live in; the language you speak, etc. – for example, on that day in January, of the 1491 jobs available, I was only qualified for 1092 of them (of the top ten, I qualified for five).

In my research of this site however, I found that, far and away, the biggest takeaway to Mechanical Turk to be the actual pay. It quickly becomes apparent that there seems to be no legitimate way for a person to even make something even close to equivalent to the U.S. minimum wage. The current U.S. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 and in my story above, I used the minimum wage of $9.92 for the city of San Francisco, CA (since one of the largest job requesters is headquartered in that city). Of the top ten HITS available, I took two of them (verifying Google search results and verifying veterinarian’s addresses) and did a number of HITS to get an idea of how long they would take – and then extrapolated those results out to an hour’s time for each.

Wondering if a site like Mechanical Turk is facilitating a work around of the U.S. ’s Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – in particular to the minimum wage portion of it (especially since some of the jobs were locked into U.S. workers only), I started asking around. I got no reply at all from Amazon, a Labor attorney and California Labor Federation (a labor union organization). Undaunted, I also asked the U.S. Department of Labor, the San Francisco Labor Standards Enforcement, CrowdFlower (aka Delores Labs - the San Francisco based company that by far and away is the largest requester of HITS on Mechanical Turk) and a person who works as a Business Agent for a union.

The U.S. Department of Labor gave me a couple of links to check to see if a worker would be covered by the FLSA or be considered an independent contractor, as well as directing me to the local office if I had any more questions. The San Francisco Labor Standards Enforcement stated that minimum wage does not cover independent contractors and that they could not offer an opinion or interpret federal or state law in that regard. CrowdFlower rudely brushed my inquiry aside as they felt I was not a legitamate enough writer to respond to. And the Union Business Agent felt that such a weighty question would be better answered by a well-trained labor law attorney, and referred me to the California Labor Federation. He did feel however (in his own, personal opinion), that “these folks [the workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk] aren't smart enough to know they are getting [messed over] (if they are) out of their Federal and/or State minimum wage. ” But he also added the caveat that they would need to be actual employees to be covered by the FLSA, not sub or independent contractors.

So, what do you think Tech Tip crowd?
Is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for you? Is it a legitimate way to earn some extra cash by doing easy (almost mindless) tasks, or is it an exploitative website that preys on a desperate work force?

Chime in on the comments section and let your voice be heard.

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