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My life as a micro-laborer: Exploring Mechanical Turk, Skyword, TaskRabbit, GrabCAD and more

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 1, 2012 10:15 AM

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Here's today's column from the Boston Globe, about sites that enable small jobs to be distributed to a global network of freelancers. I'm publishing it here in its entirety because the Globe's website seems to be down this morning.

Plus, I'm sharing a bit of additional perspective from MIT Sloan School of Management professor Ofer Sharone and Diane Hohen of Milford, NH, who runs errands for TaskRabbit. I'm also publishing my e-mail exchanges with TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque; Tom Gerace, the founder and CEO of Skyword; and Stephen Reed, an attorney at the Boston firm Beck Riden Reed.

(Update: This column led to an episode of NPR's "On Point" that aired April 3rd, 2012.)

Here's the column...

The "micro-labor" trend seems great for businesses and consumers, but a tough way to make a living for micro-laborers

A few weeks ago, tired of the niggling questions of editors and the constant press of deadlines, I decided to chuck it all and become a Turker.

What is a Turker? It’s someone who performs small tasks that can’t be automated. Once you sign up on the Mechanical Turk website, operated by Amazon.com, you can choose from an array of jobs that might take a few seconds or a few hours: you can translate documents from Tibetan to English, fill out surveys for academic researchers, or transcribe a 71-minute lecture about gastroenterology. How’s the pay? That last task offered $2.85 for work that would likely take several hours.

I was curious about Mechanical Turk because it is just one of many websites cropping up that allow work to be farmed out globally, often to the lowest bidder. The phenomenon is sometimes called “micro-labor.” Looked at collectively, the sites — some with links to Boston — seem harbingers of a new wave of outsourcing that will allow companies and individuals to get things done more cheaply and efficiently than before. The flip side, however, is that they seem destined to delete some number of full-time jobs, while creating more freelancers forced to scramble for income while paying for their own health insurance and trying to save for retirement.

Launching my career as a micro-laborer involved no interviews or drug tests, and it took all of 10 minutes. I signed up for Amazon’s payments service, so the money I earned could be funneled into my bank account. Then, I began sorting through jobs posted on the site. Two bucks to write an “interesting and well-written” 1,000-word article on an assigned topic? Too much like my job as a newspaper columnist, at radically reduced pay.

I quickly earned 4 cents for looking at five images and deciding whether some descriptive terms that had been applied to them were accurate. The images were fun to peruse: pictures of Fiats being shipped from Italy, and photos of Johnny Weismuller, who starred in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s. I earned 7 cents by looking at some people’s LinkedIn profiles and determining which job category the person best fit, then earned a whopping $4 for filling out a survey about leisure activities I enjoy. But I also had to give my micro-employer, Hammerhead Labs, access to my Facebook and Foursquare accounts, which made me a little nervous.

At the end of my first two hours as a Turker, I had earned $4.37. But I also completed several jobs that hadn’t been approved by the people who posted them; assigners get to decide whether a task has been completed satisfactorily before releasing payment. (My LinkedIn categorization project was rejected, with an admonishment to “work more carefully in the future.”)

Mechanical Turk is just one example of the new wave of outsourcing. If you are a cosmetics company that would like to set up a blog with a constant stream of beauty tips, you can use Boston-based Skyword to hire writers. Skyword chief executive Tom Gerace says that over the last month, 1,200 writers produced 13,500 articles and blog posts for clients. The per-article payment ranges from $13 on the low end to $200 on the high end. But Skyword sometimes asks writers to produce an article for free, and pays them based on how often it is viewed — for instance, $3.50 for every 500 views.

GrabCAD, a start-up with operations in Cambridge and Estonia, allows mechanical engineers to create online profiles that help companies find them, and potentially supply them with projects. The site also runs “challenges” where engineers can show off their best design solution for a given product or part, and potentially win anywhere from $50 to $5,000, as well as a contract for future work

TaskRabbit got its start in Cambridge, but is now headquartered in San Francisco. The company has assembled a network of errand-runners in nine cities to do things like pick up a desk at IKEA and assemble it in a company’s office. Founder Leah Busque prefers to call what they do “micro-entrepreneurship,” not “micro-labor.” “With nearly 13 million Americans looking for work, we are providing an alternative to the traditional 9 to 5 job,” she says. “Our TaskRabbits can make money and build their own business on their own terms.”

I spoke with one Cambridge TaskRabbit last week, just after he finished a job in Wellesley, installing a sink drain. Marc Hedges said he could earn $500 in a “pretty good week” doing handyman jobs through TaskRabbit. “This gives me flexibility, and I like dealing one-on-one with customers,” Hedges says. But he previously worked as a union mason until the 2008 recession and says his freelance lifestyle “is not at all comparable to working union construction. There, you had an annuity and health insurance.”

For companies and individuals, getting more work done while spending less is always good. But I do think these services will inevitably erode full-time jobs.

Ofer Sharone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says the sites can be beneficial “for a small percent of workers with rare skills who now have access to a global pool of employers,” or workers living in very low cost places. But the overall impact, he predicts, will create “a global race for the bottom, in which companies can have a global labor pool of professionals competing against each other on the basis of wages.”

So far, I’ve earned $8.06 for almost four hours of Turking. That would explain why I’m back writing this column. I’m holding tight to this gig — at least until my editor figures out how to use Mechanical Turk to assign it to someone who’ll do it better and cheaper.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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