Earning the Big Bucks (Not!) with Amazon's Mechanical Turk

by Erica Sadun

Last November, with relatively little fanfare, sales-giant Amazon introduced a new work-for-hire program called Mechanical Turk. Without having to submit a resume or application, anyone with an Internet connection and an Amazon account could sign up and start making money. Immediately.

Some tasked asked you to transcribe audio. Others matched pictures to business names. Some made you look up handwritten information on deeds. Others simply asked for your opinion. Simple tasks and easy to do, but they were tasks that machines just couldn't do.

Amazon recognizes that people still do some jobs better than machines--whether it's editing product descriptions or spotting street addresses in pictures. It calls these jobs "HIT"s, human intelligence tasks. And they know that businesses are willing to pay to get this repetitive but human-powered work done.

According to Amazon Vice President of Product Management and Developer Relations Adam Selipsky, Mechanical Turk offers a "marketplace for intellectual capital". It brings business tasks together with the labor needed to complete them. Its technology manages the job listings and captures the results of any work performed.

More after the break...


2006-04-17 10:14:26
I don't know where the author got the idea that there were lots of ~$0.75 tasks. There never were; the original tasks were all 1-3 cents. Some people have tested other tasks, but it's not like there were market forces driving the price down, it started low.
Erica Sadun
2006-04-17 10:16:07
The author got the idea from doing the 75cent tasks herself. These were the first tasks posted and involved doing product writeups for Amazon.
2006-04-17 12:49:10
Just because something is voluntary, that does not mean it isn't exploitative. It's also very misleading to leave the "labor union" question unanswered. There's no way a labor union would approve of this. This isn't a free market. The employers have more control over the system than the workers (that's why people believe in unions, because they help balance the power), giving the employers a greater capability to manipulate the market than the employees (you even point this out).

That said, I think it's an interesting idea. I doubt college students everywhere will now be buying that extra DVD or eating more than ramen noodles and going on vacations or anything, but... You know, try as I might, I can't really find an upside to this. This lowers the cost of labor, decreases the amount of work for the currently employed (if this takes off, expect people to be laid off as redundant). The only thing it does it make Amazon and their affiliates more efficient, which is good, but what good is it to me that Amazon is "efficient", if it means the average wages go down? An economy only works well when both capital and labor are healthy. I'm not sure the benefits to capital, in this case, justify the cost to labor, if this takes off. If it doesn't take off, if it remains a sort of niche where corporations can get a little extra work done, and people with not enough free time for part-time employment (like college students) can make a few extra bucks, then I think it's great (sort of like an ultra-efficient temp agency). We'll see. I don't mean to sound overly dour or preachy, just that this isn't some ultra-wonderful thing without potentially significant negative ramifications.

2006-04-17 17:45:44
do they have a pension plan?
Abe Burnett
2006-04-17 20:15:42
Excellent article. What would be interesting to examine is how much of the work is/will be done by those of other countries. Probably a lot of it will; if you live in a place where the average wage that you can make if you're one of the lucky employed ones is only a couple dollars a day then Mechanical Turk might raise your standard of living. Of course, some/many of the tasks will require some level of english speaking/writing capacity so that will limit it to some extent. Anyway, good article. Thanks!
2006-04-17 23:41:01
Of course, if you live someplace where a day's wage if a few bucks you're probably going to have a computer and network connection.
2006-04-20 23:58:50
re: alex,

Something can be exploitative only if choice is illusory. That is to say, if the choice is between A, B, and nothing, choice is illusory if A and B are equivalent. You can starve. You can work in a mine for $5 per week. Or you can work in a sweat shop for $5 per week... that's no choice at all.

In the case of MTurk, no one is going to quit their jobs to do that full time—they couldn't. But if MTurk is their ONLY option for employment, and they need it to live, their problems are not only severe, but also completely unrelated to whether amazon is "exploiting" them.

If something like this got unionized, like as not these jobs would get dumped on someone who's salaried and can be relied on to stay late to finish them—or they wouldn't get done at all. Union scale would strangle the whole field.

MTurk "workers" have the option simply not to do the work. If no one were willing to do it at these rates, the rates would go up. That makes it a free-market situation.

As for "If it doesn't take off," it can perfectly well take off and not exploit anyone. College students looking for a little extra cash, people with regular jobs who are bored with evening tv, senior citizens bored with golfing... how many of those are there sitting idle in this country tonight?

As for more complex tasks—things that you might pay someone a livable amount for—you might get them done this way, but at these rates, they won't be done well. Take the example japanese translation. You'll probably get an adequate translation if you put a proficiency test in. But you won't get a high quality translation. Nor will you get an elegant one. Imagine the results if you tried to contract graphic design work this way!

Unionizing something like this would be a bit like requiring crash helmets of people sitting in parked cars.

Alan Hatcher
2006-04-24 12:29:22
I have to agree with the first commenter Scott that you're not quite on target about the market forces driving the prices down on hits. Your article makes it sound like the original $0.75 hits moved down in price to $0.03 a hit, which is not what happened. The product writeup hits moved down in price some, but then disappeared for the most part, being replaced by enourmous quantities of Image Adjustment and Music hits, which took much less time to finish and paid a lot less.
2006-04-29 16:37:43
I understand the concerns about labor costs "racing to the bottom," but this system is likely to attract new types of piecework that simply can't be done economically. In any case, there will more that just a "yes or no" choice for workers. Some other company will step-up, implementing a similar system with a higher floor (say, 5 cents). The best workers will migrate to that, and then labor rates will stabilize at a level that everyone (US, web-enabled India, *everyone*) will find acceptable.
2006-05-03 19:54:05
In the case of MTurk, no one is going to quit their jobs to do that full time--they couldn't. But if MTurk is their ONLY option for employment, and they need it to live, their problems are not only severe, but also completely unrelated to whether amazon is "exploiting" them.

If someone has, say, spina bifida, and can't get to a job and work. They might want to take this MTurk job. This job pays very little. Just because it might be this person's only option doesn't mean one can't abuse their vulnerabilities.

Imagine that a man has skills as a computer programmer but made a mistake and has a federal arrest record. Would it not be exploitive to offer him a lesser salary than his skills should command because he is less capable of getting a different job? You aren't forcing him to take the job, you aren't forcing him not to take the job, but if the job is the only one available he might agree to it. That doesn't mean you haven't exploited his situation.

I expect, however, that "exploitation" may have some specific legal meaning that I don't quite grasp.

However, as a personal example, if I might. My wife has Cerebral Palsey and she doesn't drive. Because it is important for her self esteeme that she work, I get in the car and drive 30 minutes to take her to work after I get home from my own work. I then return home (30 minutes). I wait for an hour and a half. I drive half an hour to go get her. I bring her home.

I drive 2 hours so my wife can work 3. This is not exploitation. (Financially unwise, perhaps.) The employer doesn't get anything extra on account of my wife's special limitations. However, if the employer were to offer her a lower salary.. well, that would be wrong and.. in my eyes, "exploitative".

Essentially, this job is broadcasting a very low effective hourly wage and will be culling in people who accept this because of limiting life situations (whatever they may be). Because of their limited life situation, they are offered a job which pays less than the federal minimum wage. The people offering the job are, then, taking advantage of these limited life situations in order to get the job done for less than what would otherwise be a 'fair wage' for traditional jobs. I can certainly see how that could be percieved as exploitative.

Your mileage may vary and I respect that.

2006-07-29 06:42:56
does anyone know how much the hourly wage is to work in one of amazon's fulfillment centers? I would love to find out?

robert-- aplayfulmind@aol.com

2007-07-26 22:16:59
How many amazon managers are working for 15ยข an hour? Many, I'm sure.
2008-06-17 10:03:24
I notice many of the "rewards" are $0.00 Please address that. Why would anyone in their right mind sign up for that? Or does $0.00 mean something like "We'll figure out what to pay you later?"
John Can
2008-06-18 14:14:04
seems like straight up bullllshit