About a year ago, shortly after having a baby boy, Brittany set out to find ways that she could contribute financially as a stay-at-home mum. She soon discovered the crowdsourced work marketplace Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) – and after working her way through the platform, started landing jobs that pay up to $50 per hour.
At times, she laughs, she is even making more money than her husband.
That is not to say that the "good work" came easily. Some savvy Googling and a few Reddit channels got things moving, but she still remembers starting off with "crappy stuff".
"I compare it to a video game," says Brittany, who did not want her full name reported. "At first you have to do what's called grinding to get the good gear and stuff. When you first start Mechanical Turk, it's like that. Then it starts to get better."
"Mechanical Turk" is a reference to a fake chess-playing machine developed in the 18th century to fool human players into thinking they were competing against an automaton. In reality, the elaborate machine could hide a flesh-and-bone chess master, highly capable of beating their opponent, but leaving them dumbfounded in the face of what seemed like monumental technological progress.
In many ways, three centuries later, the work of Amazon's Mechanical Turk resembles that of the ostensibly magical chess-playing machine.
Within the online marketplace, posters – also called requesters – outsource paid tasks and processes via the platform, where they are made available to workers, or Turkers.
Turkers can pick, mix and click through the offers, called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs). Some HITs consist of simply responding to surveys as part of a research project; others will require more in-depth work, such as conducting data validation and research.
AMT has made a name for itself because of the platform's huge role in assisting artificial intelligence (AI) applications. The AI models that now prevail in every aspect of contemporary life, from moderating content on social media to assisting driverless cars, are effectively based on huge datasets that require manual labeling. Much of this labeling, as it turns out, is done by Turkers – the human knowledge inside the AI's decision-making box.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US last year, Sarah was working in retail and, like many others, it wasn't long before she found herself in a shaky situation.
She left her job out of fear for her health, only to find that she wouldn't be granted unemployment benefits. As the crisis worsened, Sarah (not her real name) moved states to look after an older relative; and after browsing for quick money-making options, she signed up, hoping for the best, to AMT.
Sarah says she read toxic social media posts to help with content moderation, or was shown unpleasant images as part of research projects recording her reactions. "I have a folder saved of all the weird things I've encountered doing this," she says.
Yet after one month of continuous work, she says she had made less than $500.
It's up to requesters to determine how much they pay Turkers, with no obligation to commit to a minimal wage – meaning that some Turkers, especially when they have nowhere else to turn to for financial help, end up accepting minute rewards for their work.
"Really gross" is how Sarah describes the requesters who jump on the opportunity to get work done for very little money. "I think they forget we are real people," she adds.
New ways of organizing and institutionalizing work
Whatever their experience of the work, in the age of the gig economy, workers on services like this are self-employed – meaning no sick leave, no minimum wage, and no employee rights.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic shapes into a global recession and national levels of unemployment reach new heights, workers are increasingly turning to platforms like AMT, despite the instability of the job, in search of paid gigs.
Although Amazon doesn't share precise numbers, early research seems to confirm this, with requesters on the platform reporting that they are seeing double the number of newly created accounts picking up their HITs, compared to pre-COVID-19 times.
Fabian Stephany, a researcher in computational social sciences at the University of Oxford, is trying to quantify the impact of the pandemic's economic repercussions on gig workers in general. His recent work highlighted a clear increase in the number of registered online freelancer profiles in the US since the start of the crisis, while at the same time, demand for workers unusually fluctuated, potentially as a result of companies facing restricted budgets.
In other words, ever-more precarious workers are joining the gig economy, and the competition for jobs is getting even stronger.
Services like these are new forms of work, and new ways of organizing and institutionalizing work. Stephany tells ZDNet: "With this change, you always have to ask the political questions: how fairly should you pay, what should the working conditions be, and so on."
Those questions are not new. For years, in fact, some Turkers have been vocal about the shortcomings of AMT, a platform that Jeff Bezos himself has labeled as "people as a service".
In a series of letters addressed to Amazon's CEO, Turkers elaborated on many aspects of AMT that they found problematic. There was, of course, the contentious issue of payment – since Amazon exerts no control whatsoever on the value of compensation imposed by requesters. Milland's later research showed that at an average $3.01 per hour, Turkers in the US earn significantly less than the minimum wage.
Another issue that was raised was that of mass rejection. Requesters can reject Turkers' work when they estimate that it is not up to their standards – and when their work is not approved, Turkers don't get paid. The "Dear Jeff Bezos" campaign, therefore, called for a formal grievance process against requesters who might be unfairly rejecting honest work.
There seems to be a persisting dynamic at the heart of many of the problems called out by Milland and her fellow Turkers: a striking imbalance of power between workers and requesters. "Turkers are human beings, not algorithms," said the campaign; "Turkers should not be sold as cheap labor"; and most importantly, "Turkers need to have a method of representing themselves to Requesters and the world via Amazon."
A growing interest in old-school rights
Turkers haven't stopped voicing demands for better working conditions since Milland's 2014 campaign. A name that most workers on the platform are familiar with, for example, is Turkopticon, a website that was founded, in its own terms, to help those "in the crowd of crowdsourcing" watch out for each other.
Turkopticon, which is now also a Facebook page and a blog, adopts at times a markedly confrontational tone. The platform provides a space for workers to vent their grievances against some aspects of AMT in an effort to bring more public attention to the issues. "We are bringing attention to the same issues that seem to have haunted us for 10 years: Mass rejections and account suspensions," reads the opener on Turkopticon's new blog.
The platform is even taking tangible action by speaking up to Amazon on behalf of Turkers whose accounts have been mistakenly shut down. According to the organizers, there have already been several successes in re-instating wrongfully suspended accounts following unfair mass rejections by requesters.
By blurring the usual definitions of employer and employee, the gig economy has transformed the nature of work. But among the estimated 50 million workers who currently make up the gig economy, there seems to be a growing interest in old-school rights-claiming actions.
Such organization is harder for purely online workers, but they are trying to improve their situation in other ways. Turkopticon, for example, has started setting up international discussions, bringing Turkers together to come up with "action plans" to make turking work better for the workers. And in a recent move that seems to reflect the desire to organize even more formally, the platform united with labor rights group Tech Workers Coalition to launch its first fundraiser.
It's still the case, of course, that the power that online communities of Turkers have when it comes to influencing the policies of a tech behemoth such as Amazon remains very limited. In other words, when negotiating working conditions, the terms of the debate are still very much out of the hands of the workers.
One Turker, who goes by the name Tjololo, spent years making "beer money" as a Turker on the platform, before he started liaising with requesters to help them make a better use of AMT – a side-hustle that he does for fun more than anything else, in parallel to working a nine-to-five job.
Tjololo regularly participates in online communities of Turkers like Turkopticon; in his opinion, however, going so far as to call those groups a new form of unionizing might be pushing it.
"I agree that the various communities are helpful but I don't think they're quite as powerful as a 'union 2.0' might imply," Tjololo tells ZDNet. "We have very little say when it comes to actually changing Amazon's policies."
Upgrading the wages recommended by default on AMT, for instance, or creating better channels to dispute rejections, are all actions that are out of Turkers' hands. Despite the tips, tricks, and tactics shared online, therefore, workers still have little bargaining power when it comes to generating real change.
"We are constantly advocating for higher wages, but the platform is still looked at as a place where you can get work done for less than the minimum wage," says Tjololo. "A union, I believe, would have direct access to the platform and would be able to make positive change."
Being part of a much bigger community
MTurkForum, TurkerNation, MTurkCrowd, Turkerhub, TurkerView: alongside Turkopticon, explains Tjololo, there is a huge number of online groups and forums where Turkers communicate on a daily basis, whether to exchange professional advice, complain about the job, or simply to hang out.
From Reddit to Slack channels through WhatsApp groups, Turkers have gathered all over the web and social media, in groups often marked by a strong sense of belonging to the same community.
To communicate, they use everything from Slack to Discord to Facebook to forums, says Tjololo, and even some IRC channels that are still floating around.
Michael (not his real name) who has been turking for a couple of years now, describes a similar experience.
He quickly turned to online forums and communities dedicated to AMT, initially hunting for advice about turking, but soon found that the groups were also about banding together and encouraging each other. Office-based small talk, it would seem, would pale in comparison to AMT's most popular discussion platforms.
"It's totally a way to socialize," Michael tells ZDNet. "If you go to the TurkerView forum, for example, you'll find people talking about fantasy football, discussing their medical conditions or personal relationships. Someone will disappear for a while and it'll be like: 'Hey, what happened to this guy, I hope they come back?'"
Ultimately, despite having another job where he associates with physical people, Michael still finds himself seeking social contact from the community of Turkers because of what he refers to as a sense of "camaraderie".
At their core, therefore, the Facebook groups, Slack channels, sub-Reddits and blogs dedicated to Amazon's Mechanical Turkers are all about a basic drive: that of communicating between "co-workers", for want of a word, better suited to the modern-day economy.
"Socializing at work is something that we all do in our professions. It's known to improve the quality of life at work," Paola Tubaro, economist turned sociologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, tells ZDNet.
For Mechanical Turks, however, socializing at work isn't a given. Just as the Mechanical Turk chess master hid behind the cover of an automated machine back in the 18th century, so AMT workers are often referred to as "invisible". With virtually all of the work occurring at home and behind a screen, online work leaves little room for casual chats at the coffee machine or after-work drinks.
This is why digital platforms and social media tools have come to prominence among Turkers – to respond to the plain and simple need to socialize at work.
For Tubaro, this is an important first step, in the context of a system that makes it difficult to come together as a traditional union: even by only talking to each other, Turkers open the door to creating a collective of workers, and potentially mobilizing to increase their negotiating power.
Outside of the US, turking comes with the particularity that workers don't get paid in dollars, but instead are granted credits to use on Amazon's website. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Brazilian Turkers have long been asking for a more adequate form of payment – and much of the groundwork for protesting is carried out through online discussion groups.
For example, the researchers found that Brazilian Turkers had mobilized via a WhatsApp group, to send daily emails to Amazon asking for payments to their bank accounts.
For Rafael Grohmann, a researcher specialized in digital labor from Unisinos University in Brazil, who has spent years investigating the behavior of Brazilian Turkers, it is evident that online communities and social media tools allow Turkers to communicate. This, in turn, is sowing the seeds of a new form of collective mobilization – one that is better suited to the digital age.
"Informal channels are the beginning of collective formation. Communication between workers is the primary form of organization, like the germ of radical possibilities for struggles," Grohmann tells ZDNet.
"New methods of control and organization of work by companies require new methods and strategies of resistance and alternatives on the part of workers," he continues. "It is through WhatsApp, Facebook, Discord, that Mechanical Turk workers communicate and try to organize themselves collectively."
Finding fresh ways to make turking pay
Some of the most popular platforms dedicated to turking have adopted another approach, to create the tools to improve their working conditions.
Chris runs a popular website called TurkerView, and he is a well-known figure among the most adept Turkers. Launched in 2016 as a forum, TurkerView now reaches over half of workers on the platform, he says – and the numbers are growing almost faster than he can manage.
"Find requesters worth working with": the welcoming banner on TurkerView's website sets the tone. The platform, in effect, promises to help Turkers reliably fast-forward their way to lucrative and rewarding HITs.
TurkerView gathers data from Turkers themselves, who can submit feedback about the HITs they have completed to provide fellow workers with insights on requesters that pay well and are safe to work with. Workers are encouraged to give their opinion on whether the pay was up to the task – the idea being that getting $8 to rate pictures of puppies isn't exactly the same deal as a similar pay for grim content moderation, for example.
The platform also keeps track of how well requesters communicate with Turkers and how long they take to approve a completed HIT. A wage aggregate tool calculates the average hourly rate for any given task, based on the completion time and the reward amount, with a red-orange-green color code indicating how the HIT compares to minimum wage standards in the US.
According to the statistics shared by the platform, TurkerView is used by over 20,000 workers, who have submitted around 750,000 reviews about more than 30,000 requesters.
Chris started as a Turker himself in 2015, and his experience of AMT has been unambiguously positive. "I fell in love with AMT," he tells ZDNet.
Of course, some HITs are worse than others, but the platform is all about adaptability, argues Chris. Turkers can be very successful, but it requires resourcefulness to understand AMT's workings and eventually succeed in beating the competition to tasks that are both interesting and highly paid.
Using a few coding skills he had picked up while turking, Chris found himself staying up until late at night to build some "random tools" that he thought might help Turkers find their way to success on AMT. The project morphed into TurkerView – and it didn't take long for the platform to start growing at pace.
And TurkerView is not the only worker-based platform that provides the means to make turking work better for those who are completing HITs.
Another service is provided by Turkopticon, with a focus on avoiding mass rejections and the ensuing account suspensions that can hit the work of Turkers. Turkopticon lets workers identify the requesters who have previously been given a review, providing reports about requesters at the click of a button, and this way letting workers avoid shady HITs to privilege those who will better reward their work.
"HITs worth turking for" on Reddit is dedicated to posting links to good-paying tasks; Our HIT Stop, meanwhile, describes itself as a community of Turkers who have come together to share tips to make work more profitable; the Turker Nation Slack channel includes groups named "daily HIT threads" and "rejection alerts". And those are only a few out of a long list of online groups dedicated to making AMT a platform that can benefit its workers.
All of these platforms seem to be built on the same premise: that in the age of the digital gig economy, the onus is on the workers to make the most of their jobs.
Advocating for better working conditions in the digital age
For some, the system works out well – even though it may take some time to learn how to crack the code to success. Michael, for example, remembers his early days on AMT: "It's a steep learning curve," he says. "You come on board, there's all these different jobs, they pay anything from a cent to 15 dollars, and you just don't know what's what.
"Over time, I managed to figure it out. I engrained myself into some of the social networks as I went looking for information on whether there were tools I could have to make this easier and more efficient."
All in all, Michael succeeded in making AMT a lucrative and pleasant job, largely thanks to the advice he found on online Turker groups. Despite the steep learning curve, he eventually figured out how to catch the good HITs that would let him grow some savings. He has just finished re-paying his car loan – with his turking revenue, rather than his teaching salary.
What's more: tinkering with some aspects of turking, for example by imposing a minimum wage, might bring in a host of changes to the platform, and not necessarily in people's best interests – and even if the move is prompted by the desire to improve working conditions.
This is why Brittany is wary of the possibility of unionizing. "I hope there won't be a union," she says. "As we start getting more rights, more will be expected of us, and I feel there would be more downsides. I don't want to trade off what I have."
As a self-employed worker, Brittany's current nine-to-five is punctuated by hours that she can spend looking after her newborn, reading to him and teaching him colors. The option of switching off from work at any point to do something else is a freedom that she doesn't believe she could ever find in a "normal" job.
In other words, the flexibility of the platform economy might be the root cause of extreme job insecurity for some workers, but for others, it is a high-risk, high-reward system – and one they are keen to embrace fully.
The debate about the future of online work is bound to be polarizing. On one end of the spectrum, some will always defend stricter regulations to protect the most vulnerable on platforms often described as akin to the "Wild West"; while others will remain staunch defenders of the flexibility of gig working.
And with workers coming to the platform with vastly different stories and backgrounds, stronger regulation will inevitably impact some in different ways to others.
In this context, one size will never fit all. But one thing is certain: as national employment rates lower in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital gig economy is growing at pace. More vulnerable workers are joining digital platforms – not exactly out of choice, but rather out of need.
For them, having a greater say over their working conditions might seem an appealing prospect.
Back in the US, after only a few months spent on AMT, Sarah has now managed to get a student loan to start a new master's degree. Keen to put her experience of the platform behind her, she won't be found fighting for greater turking conditions any time soon – and in any case, she has resolved herself to the fact that "they're not going to change their ways".
But if anything, AMT has given her a heightened sense of urgency when it comes to advocating for better working conditions in the modern economy. "I thought this was pretty bleak, and it got me interested in poverty as a whole," she says. "Now, I've got into school and I'm getting my master's in social work."