Digital labor force swells

Catherine Fraser transcribed a phone call of an insurance claim on a crowd-sourced labor site, Amazon Mechanical Turk, at her home in Mountain View, Calif.
Catherine Fraser transcribed a phone call of an insurance claim on a crowd-sourced labor site, Amazon Mechanical Turk, at her home in Mountain View, Calif. MCT

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The job didn't pay much: $4 an hour if you really hustled. But for Catherine Fraser, a recent California community college grad looking to pick up a little extra spending cash, the work was a hoot.

"I told a friend, 'I'm now working in the porn industry,' because I had to watch little clips of adult movies for a minute or two and then give them titles," says Fraser, 35, part of a growing global army of people making pennies in their spare time doing piecemeal — and often quirky — online micro-tasks. "We were limited to a small number of characters and encouraged to get creative."

So Fraser would come up with, well, creative euphemisms "just to spice things up."

She soon graduated to more savory micro-gigs — taking little surveys, transcribing insurance claims, penning product descriptions for $2 a shot — dipping her toes into a sprawling and little-known global subculture of digital grunt-workers.

Whether it's rating the relevance of a search engine's results to help train its algorithms, grading the sentiment of customer tweets (angry? irritated? happy?) for Fortune 500 companies or screening dating-site photos for inappropriate content, this cadre of anonymous workers is supporting huge swaths of the social-networking empire.

"Crowd-sourced labor started off as this weird thing with people doing these funny little jobs in their spare time, but now it's really catching on," said Bill Quinn of Trada, a company based in Boulder, Colo., that hires people to help advertisers beef up online search campaigns. "I think 2013 will be the break-out year because the concept's not so strange to companies anymore."

The numbers back that up. A study by industry group said crowd-labor revenue was up 75 percent in 2011, to $375 million. And the number of crowd-workers is growing even faster, climbing more than 100 percent last year, with about 40 percent of the work force of 6 million living in developing countries.

While some workers can make six-figure annual salaries on more sophisticated tasks, one of the fastest-growing job segments, up 133 percent last year, is micro-tasks like the ones Amy Ellis of Alpine, Texas, does.

"I've done things like 100-word product descriptions that pay $2.25 each, like why you should buy this brand of fluffy towels," she said. She gets her work, like many of her fellow micro-taskers, from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online labor market that pairs businesses, or "requesters," with "Turkers" who compete for HITS, or "human intelligence tasks," for a specific price and time-frame. One recent job listing on Turk, for example, offered to pay two cents to "copy text from business cards."

While Ellis' husband works full-time, she uses her average weekly take of $70 to buy groceries. "It's not a lot of money," she says, "but I love the ability to log in and do a few minutes of work whenever I feel like it."

A primary question is whether the crowd-labor pool could essentially become one big worldwide digital sweatshop. While industry studies show average hourly earnings across all categories range from about $7 in India to $16 in Western Europe, the fast-growing segment of micro-taskers earns half that on average, and some make only $1.50 an hour.

Lilly Irani, a doctoral candidate in informatics at the University of California at Irvine who has studied crowd-labor, says these unrepresented workers remain ripe for exploitation.

"We need to make sure that workers are part of the conversation about how these systems are designed," Irani said. "And we must never forget that these are real people out there doing real work, sometimes making an extra $120 a week that literally helps them keep a roof over their heads."