Most people know about Amazon. Fewer know about Mechanical Turk, the crowd-work platform Amazon owns and runs. It’s a website where workers (“Turkers”) can find jobs, and employers (“requesters”) post them. Jobs are anything one might do on a computer that a computer cannot do alone — tagging photos, writing copy, classifying videos, taking surveys. But jobs are not very big. Instead, each project is broken down into numerous tiny “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or HITs.
Imagine a requester wanted to translate this article into French. Offline, someone might hire a single person to translate the whole thing. But on MTurk the piece would be cut into single sentences. The entire pile appears online. Thousands of workers at different computers grab as many as they can. The workers complete their sentences at the same time, so the whole translation takes a few minutes. Each sentence pays only a penny or two. Amazon facilitates the entire process.
Cheap, easy, fast: No surprise that businesses and academics use MTurk frequently. MTurk likes to emphasize worker perks, too. You can work when you want, where you want. Most tasks do not require advanced skills. People who struggle to find a job offline can make money Turking. And supposedly, you can be choosy about work you do.
But that wasn’t my experience. I started at MTurk when it opened in November of 2005. At first I didn’t see it as work — more an experiment. Then, in April of 2010, my husband lost his job. We had just bought our first home; when we moved I’d closed the day care I ran. MTurk would have to be my family’s income. I worked seven days a week, sometimes 17 hours a day, to make enough to feed us and pay our mortgage.
There were physical consequences — problems with my wrist, elbow and shoulder — and a psychological toll. “Content moderation” work on MTurk can mean exposure to some of the worst imagery available online. Technically, I could have refused those tasks, although there is no way to definitively know the content before you accept. But you cannot be picky when you have a daily income goal. You don’t know if another task will pop up, and most HITs pay less than a dime. One study found the median hourly wage for all MTurk tasks is only $1.38. The worker flexibility and choice that Amazon touts, therefore, was to me mostly a mirage.
During a typical long day at the keyboard, teeth might not be brushed, showers not taken, doctor’s appointments missed. Since tasks are posted randomly throughout the day and night, I had to stay glued to the screen. When I found HITs, I would rush to get them done. I might be designing a logo, then watching a video of a man immolated by ISIS, then translating business documents. The grind was wearing.
So was worry about rejection. Requesters on MTurk can download work you’ve done before approving payment. If they want to keep the work for free, all they have to do is reject payment. The more rejections you get, the less projects you can access. Too many rejections may get you suspended completely.
What did improve my experience is the organization of workers themselves. Hundreds gathered on TurkerNation.com, a forum for MTurkers, to share tips and warnings. I work as a community manager. If not for that group of people, I do not think I would have been able to make enough to live in the last decade or keep my sanity through the process.
So MTurk has changed for me from an experiment to a job that makes me miserable to a community of people. After my husband found a new job in 2013, I went back to school and finished my degree. I hope never to work on MTurk again.
I continue to stay a part of the forum, however. I’ve grown to see MTurkers as my family, and I fight to try to help all of them earn as much as they deserve.
Turkers are asked to be journalists, programmers, graphic designers, legal assistants, etc. for pennies a piece. Thousands are willing to take the offer. In the future, thousands more may have to. Based on my experience, this scares me.
Kristy Milland (Twitter: @TurkerNational) is community manager of TurkerNation.com. She researches and speaks about the ethics of crowd work. She wrote this essay for Zocalo Public Square.