Arise, Mechanical Turks, Arise


Years ago, I heard a story of an American barred from crossing into Canada because the Canadian customs agent interpreted the American’s intentions not as recreation, but as work. The American didn’t see it that way, nor did he have employment papers, and he reversed course.

“Q: Is there going to be legislation or IRB regs to prevent paying people under the minimum wage?”

The above question is in reference to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. But I think the question can be asked to a number of things we regularly do for others gratis. Here’s 7 quick, off-the-top-of-my-head items that could be considered ‘work’ yet millions of people perform gratis daily.

  • Updating Facebook, Twitter, watching TV, reading the newspaper, etc (doing work for advertisers)
  • Editing a Wikipedia entry (doing the work of editors)
  • Tagging a photo in Flickr or Delicious (doing work of librarians)
  • Checking in on Foursquare, Gowalla (doing the work of the US intelligence community)
  • Linking to websites (doing work for Google)
  • Assembling flat pack furniture, etc (doing work for retailers & manufacturers)
  • Separating our trash (doing work for the waste sorting machines)

If any of these tasks were re-characterized as work – in the regulatory sense – I suspect these companies’ value propositions and the corresponding ecosystem of marginally legitimate co-horts would also crumble.

Perhaps it’s time we trade information privacy, sketchy secondary use, and non-paying nano-jobs for a smaller internet.

Or perhaps the joke is on all of us for expecting that working for free – even a little bit – can create significant lasting value. For if it did – would Twitter, Facebook, and the like need to resort to advertising to keep the servers running?

Sure, I can understand and appreciate their need to reduce transaction costs, but without the option of turning users into either customers or vendors – it smells like something more distasteful than share-cropping.

Update 11 Nov 2010:
I’ve been asked for clarification on my point (much needed, yes, I know). Here it is:

Technology makes it easy to divide large chunks of creative, organizational, and knowledge work into extraordinarily thin slices. Thinner than can effectively be performed by a computer. Thinner than can be reasonably charged a market wage for. Taking on this work is detrimental in two ways; it diffuses the innate desire to create larger more significant creative work and it serves someone else far more – but not significantly enough to compensate in any meaningful way. Unless you count distracting you from yourself meaningful.


“When they say you get to use their social network for free, look for the hidden price. It’s there.” – Dave Winer