Thoughts on Wikipedia Editing and Digital Labor by Dorothy Howard raises some compelling points about the nature of working in the so-called digital economy. When is digital labor a voluntary, altruistic, creative way to spend free time and when is it an exploitative dead end for people with few other choices? It is inspiring to think about Wikipedia as a collaborative gift to human knowledge constructed by high-minded volunteers who have steady incomes and a bit of time to spare. It is depressing to think about Wikipedia as “hope labor” for people who otherwise earn a little cash delivering pizzas or as a “honey-trap for people on the autism spectrum.” Wikipedia encompasses both the inspiring and depressing aspects of digital labor, but it is free labor for a free resource.
What happens when digital labor is paid? A new market is emerging for “human intelligence tasks” in which humans are employed on a piecework basis to do small tasks which computers cannot do. For example, Amazon Mechanical Turk offers workers pennies per job to do “HITs”or human intelligence tasks such as tagging photos, selecting correct spelling for search terms or choosing the appropriate category for products. HITs might seem like a convenient way to use spare time on the computer to earn some extra money, but the average hourly rate falls well below minimum wage (see Tips for Making Money with Amazon Mechanical Turk). In addition, Amazon Mechanical Turk acts only as a liability-free payment processor (see their conditions of use) in a marketplace which offers workers about as much protection as a street corner meetup for day laborers (see The Unregulated Work of Mechanical Turk by Nancy Folbre). In contrast, employers have access to a global, on-demand, 24 x 7 workforce and they “pay only when satisfied with the results.”
Another entry into the digital piecework business is a new app called Spare5. Spare5 has an upfront business plan: “We’re very much trying to harness the attention deficit generation” (see New York Times article). It distinguishes itself from Amazon Mechanical Turk by filtering workers for relevant skills (users of the app complete a questionnaire and provide links to their social media pages) and offering employers a more targeted labor pool. Spare5 not only appeals to workers’ desire to make money, but also makes a rather nervy pitch to their desire to join a community of like-minded experts: “Hello, Providers of Insights! We aspire to build a great community of people who enjoy exercising their hobbies, passions and interests in snippets of their free time. Since you are seeking to join this community, we thought we’d lay out the fine print that our lawyers assure us is vital…” (From Spare5 terms of service).
Non-profit organizations including universities, libraries and museums also need workers to perform HITs to create metadata for digitized collections or to assist in filtering big data for research projects. While some have used paid workers through Amazon Mechanical Turk, others have focused on creating gaming platforms such as Metadata Games, an open source software project developed by Dartmouth College or Building Inspector, a game based on New York City historical maps developed by the New York Public Library. These projects don’t offer the digital workers any money, so instead they offer the fun of playing games plus a strangely nuanced appeal for volunteer help. NYPL encourages “citizen cartographers” to “kill time and make history” by identifying buildings and other details on historical maps of New York City. The slightly mixed message is that you are going to waste your time online in any event, so you should make the most of it and do some volunteer work. Metadata Games makes a more straightforward appeal to workers (“Museums and libraries have digital collections of images, audio, and video files, but there aren’t any descriptions! Through playing our games, players make it possible for these media artifacts to be found and used.”), but the appeal to employers is nearly identical to the pitch from Spare5 (“Metadata Games allows you to harness the power of players to easily enhance information about your collections.”)
Both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations need to access extremely cheap digital labor. They both seek to “harness” masses of workers to do human intelligence tasks by paying them pennies or by appealing to their desire to have fun and contribute to a community. What does it mean for an individual to decide to provide this cheap labor? The distinction between paid work on exploitative terms and volunteer work for personal enrichment or a social good should be an obvious one, but it seems increasingly hazy. To use Maurizio Lazzarato’s terms, when and how does an individual performing immaterial labor become an “intellectual proletarian”?