RISE UP

Amazon’s Turkers Kick Off the First Crowdsourced Labor Guild

Crowd labor platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk operate with few rules and little protection for workers. But a new movement might change the landscape.

12.03.14 10:45 AM ET

The task is dreary, but straightforward: Comb through Jon B.’s Walmart receipt and transcribe his purchases into a spreadsheet. Pay is modest—just nine cents—but there’s a bonus for entering more than 20 items.

It’s an assignment on Amazon Mechanical Turk, the quirky platform that brought crowdsourced labor into the mainstream and spawned a new industry populated by remote workers. Dubbed “Turkers,” participants are diverse: Some work full time and make upward of $30 an hour; others dabble less frequently, to pay down debt or finance a vacation. Turkers are highly educated office workers with downtime, disabled persons or caretakers who are housebound, or felons passed over by more traditional employers.

Despite their variety, Turkers have something in common—a lack of power. They operate in a realm largely untouched by legislation, unions, and guilds. As a result, the inexperienced can find themselves earning well below minimum wage, or abused by underhanded employers. But a project out of Stanford University is hoping to grant Turkers agency—and might begin to revolutionize the industry.

Dynamo is a platform that gives Turkers a collective voice and, consequently, the chance to drive change. The site was launched by Niloufar Salehi, a Ph.D. student at Stanford studying crowd labor; Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford; and Lilly Irani, an assistant professor in communication at University of California, San Diego.

“[On Mechanical Turk], there’s no way to take coordinated action, because there’s no core,” Bernstein told The Daily Beast. “The set of employees on Mechanical Turk changes day to day,” he explained, and so strikes and protests—which may work for other crowd labor platforms like Uber—fail.

Nor do Turkers necessarily want a traditional union, Salehi noted. “They want to be the master of their own fate,” she said.

And so Dynamo takes a democratic approach, allowing members to vote on suggested causes Reddit-style, with popular ideas rising to the top.

“Small groups of like-minded Turkers [can] come together and start taking productive action,” Bernstein said. While Turker communities already exist—TurkerNation as a forum, and Turkopticon, a type of Yelp-for-Turkers—Dynamo is the first step toward granting Turkers a collective voice.

When launched this past summer, Turkers on Dynamo first targeted a much-maligned demographic: graduate students who pay pennies for survey participation, or manipulate Turkers for research. The result was a comprehensive treatise on how academics should—and shouldn’t—use Mechanical Turk.

On that campaign’s heels came a letter-writing initiative to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Here, Turkers call on Bezos and others to shed the notion of users as college kids seeking liquor money, or unskilled workers from developing countries. About half of Turkers live in the United States, a percentage that is increasing. One of the letter writers is Kristy Milland, a 35-year-old from Ontario, Canada, who worked as a Turker full-time for several years, and also serves as admin and owner of TurkerNation. “This is a way for some of us to feed our children,” Milland told The Daily Beast. “We are not an algorithm.”

Milland says Dynamo succeeds where other sites can’t because of its neutrality. “The Internet is a place full of drama,” she said. “Dynamo, because it is a neutral platform not run by Turkers… it allows it to be a place where we can all get together and put aside our differences.” Elsewhere on the Internet, and often, Turkers butt heads over which tools work best, or what nation they hail from.

“We can try to improve things that are beneficial to Turkers,” Milland added. “It allows us to bat around ideas, to brainstorm.”

Still, Dynamo exists in largely uncharted territory. “This is a new world we’re dashing headlong into,” Bernstein said. But Salehi is confident positive change will come swiftly.

“The good news is everything is really fast paced on the Internet,” she said.