When workers turn into 'turkers'
Amazon.com's 'Mechanical Turk' Web service pays people to perform simple tasks computers cannot do.
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Since last December, Yahoo Answers (answers.yahoo.com) has provided some 100 million free answers provided by volunteers to questions from "What is a good first sewing project?" to "Where in Europe should we go on our honeymoon in October?" The quality of the answers is graded by the inquirer, and past answers are kept and can be found by searching an ever-growing database.Skip to next paragraph
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"We have shied away from a paid model [such as Mechanical Turk]," says Tomi Poutanen, product manager of Yahoo's social search businesses. Money is not the only motivator, he says.
"People want to share their knowledge, their opinion, and have a voice," he says. They can also use their answers to establish a reputation in an area of knowledge that they might later turn into a business. A person who has built a following as a Yahoo gardening expert, for example, might develop that into a gardening business.
But some think the paid Mechanical Turk-style model will prove more durable. "In my mind, there's going to be a real movement away from this Wikipedia, YouTube kind of social networking or crowdsourcing to actually paying people for the work," Heitler says. It'd be amazing, he says, if at any time anyone could log on and earn $5 or $10 in an hour. "If this really takes off, that's where it's going to go."
One challenge for Mechanical Turk is to provide enough work to keep a enough Turkers interested so that it has a ready labor pool available when companies come looking.
"It looks as though there are about 5,000 to 10,000 people registered" at Mechanical Turk and about 500 are online looking for assignments at any given time, says Sherwood Stranieri, a search engine marketing consultant who has posted work on the Turk and writes a Web log about Turking at www.paylancers.blogspot.com.
Though not huge, that's already a pretty useful number of Turkers to draw on, he says.
Mr. Stranieri posted an advertising copy-writing assignment on the Turk and was impressed by the quality of work returned.
"There obviously are some very educated people floating around in that system," he says. "The vocabulary they used was pretty impressive."
Though requesters aren't supposed to communicate directly with individual Turkers, they can devise online tests Turkers must pass before they can work on a request. That's especially important for jobs that require specialized skills, such as translating a document between two languages.
"It becomes a lot more intriguing because you no longer have this anonymous, unskilled workforce," Stranieri says. "You can start to build up ... almost a private workforce of qualified workers."
But much still has to be worked out. For one thing, Amazon requires Turkers to be paid with US dollars deposited into an American bank account. Though Amazon's Mr. Cohen says Turkers already come from 100 countries, the vast majority are in the US. The true impact on wages of large numbers of, say, Indians or Chinese becoming Turkers has yet to be felt. And though working for the Turk is completely voluntary, it's not clear how the concept would affect labor markets if it were adopted on a large scale.
The Turk's tasks previously would have been performed by an employee or a direct contractor, observes Jeff Howe, a writer at Wired magazine who helped coin the term "crowdsourcing" in an article earlier this year. He now tracks the trend at crowdsourcing.com, his Web log.
Mechanical Turk is a "rather depressing" aspect of crowdsourcing, he concedes, largely because the tasks often seem so monotonous.
A few more interesting uses of the Turk have begun to appear. Aaron Koblin at UCLA used it to pay 1,000 people two cents to draw a picture of a sheep, which he turned into an online art project called The Sheep Market (users.design.ucla.edu/~akoblin/work/ thesheepmarket/index.html).
Another project asked 1,000 people to answer the question "Why are you here right now?" for a penny. A month later, the answers have been collected into a book; part of the proceeds will be donated to children affected by hurricane Katrina (see YRUHRN.com).
But perhaps the Turk's best news is that even its simplest tasks show that human intelligence will be needed for a long time to come. Despite the Turk's drawbacks, "I think it's rather brilliant," Mr. Howe says.