“Mechanical Turk” and the Etsy Economy

“Mechanical Turk” and the Etsy Economy January 5, 2016

This is new-to-me, though not new per se:  Amazon has a side business selling not just stuff, but online piecework.  It’s called Mechanical Turk, and I found it via a google search after reading a lament that “crowdworking” sites pay workers pitiful wages and ought to be regulated under minimum wage laws.  (It’s in a book which I’ll tell you more about later.) The concept is simple:  Amazon connects together workers and requesters, who offer small sums of money for quick tasks, called Human Intelligence Tasks, or HITs, routine computer-work that can’t be automated, such as viewing an image and typing something about that image and its contents.

How much to these tasks pay?  It’s hard to tell.  A reddit thread on that topic, from 2013, didn’t really come to any definitive answers.  One respondent reported earning $100/week, working 4 hours a day, which would work out to $5 per hour if they worked weekdays only.  Another said, “I do about $60-80 a week just doing it a few hours each day. I do this in addition to my normal job for spending cash. My best hours are from 9-12 during the weekdays” — which works out to between $4 – 5.33 per hour.  And a third said, “I think that’s entirely reasonable if you devote a little time. I average $14-15 a day and make about $100-$130 in a 7 day week.  I do it for 4-5 hrs a day, unless there are a lot of good hits then I’ll devote more time.”  Interestingly, none of the people replying here talked in terms of an hourly rate — as if it didn’t occur to them to think in those terms.

There are forums for “turkers” to discuss the best ways of working efficiently, and especially how to find and assess the best-paying HITs, listed elsewhere on reddit.  And on one of those forums, on a similar “how much do you earn per hour” thread, a reply from 2012 said,

Whenever I see job that I can work on regular (not one time survey- I don’t count that) like Oscar Smith type of work I calculate how much time I need to finish one HIT and how much $$$ that would give me per hour. And I always find the same – most jobs pay from 1$-2$ per hour of focused work.

If you can do, lets say 40 Oscar Smith’s HIT’s her hour (I can do one per minute and a half, maybe you can do more I dunno?) that can’t make you more than 0.8 cents per hour or 1.5 dollars if you are trusted worker (5c x 40).

Other jobs, like Claritrans transcriptions (that I likely do), Castingwords and others also give average 1,5 $ per hour as I noticed.

I can’t say that’s always true. In the period of 4-9 July I did many NetMsi porn description HIT’s and I made 10$-14$ per hour on them which I found amazing.

I would be very pleased if you could tell me any job that I you can work on regular that pays 2.5$ + per hour. I’m not saying 1.5$ per hour is bad since for 8hours of daily work I could earn 12$ (which is average daily earning in my country). It’s just that I lost motivation for these low paid jobs when NetMsi went dry.

How many Mechanical Turk workers are actually American, and how many, like this individual, work elsewhere, and are happy with $2.50/hr?  According to the Amazon FAQ, workers are paid in USD, Indian Rupees, or in the form of Amazon gift cards — which means that this “job” is global, and a worker’s competition is global, in the same way as etsy crafters face global competition.  American crafters must price their products with an eye towards the purchase price that their competition sets, or hope that a “made in America” logo will find them enough customers willing to pay a premium.  American “Turkers” must be willing to accept low wages or else hope that with a higher level of skill and English fluency comes higher pay.  (What proportion of workers are American?  I can’t figure this out in by google search.)

Incidentally, one heavy user of Mechanical Turk are researchers at universities, who ask “Turkers” to take surveys, of the sort that undergraduates might have done in years past, according to this skeptical PBS article.

So what do you think?  Is it good?  Is it fair?  Is it a violation of minimum wage laws?

UPDATE:  according to @Rochelle, on twitter, 80% of “Turkers” are actually American, which surprises me, as I would have thought this would have been exactly the sort of thing that would be a draw for educated non-Americans.  But (further update from @Rochelle) Amazon stopped letting non-US workers register in 2012, though prior registrants can continue.

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