Crowdsourcing won?t catch on unless workers can be sure they?re getting a fair deal
APPLE fans are a dedicated lot, queueing for hours or even days to snap up new iProducts. But in among the aficionados you will usually find hired hands, paid to wait in line on behalf of others with more money than time.
That kind of work might seem trivial. It is certainly casual: paid queuers at the Apple store have often struck ad hoc deals without any of the trappings of employment. Why does that matter? Because soon many more people may work like them.
Amazon's Mechanical Turk got the "crowd-working" ball rolling, allowing anyone to recruit an army of helpers to perform online tasks on their behalf. Now it's being emulated in the physical world, as companies like TaskRabbit help their customers to outsource chores like laundry, shopping - or even assembling flat-pack furniture - to a legion of temporary personal assistants.
Reputation is as critical in these marketplaces as in any other. Workers are rated on their performance, with higher scores likely to attract more and better work. But that usually cuts only one way. For example, Mechanical Turk's workers have no vehicle for expressing discontent with their taskmasters. It's been left to third parties to create a feedback system that provides some transparency (see "Crowdsourcing grows up as online workers unite").
Such transparency is much-needed. Crowd-working still feels like an informal occupation: a way for people with a bit of spare time to earn pin money. But it is increasingly becoming embedded in the mainstream economy: a fifth of the people who fulfil Mechanical Turk requests say they need their earnings to make ends meet. And tomorrow's platforms may offer more complex tasks to more specialist workers. There is excited talk of a "reputational economy", in which your ratings will determine your ability to offer and attract work.
Marketplaces that efficiently match those with time (or skills) to those with money are to be welcomed. If workers are not to be exploited, and bosses are not to be smeared, however, we will need to think harder about how such exchanges can be made fair and transparent. Time to take a keener interest in the welfare of those who work for us - no matter how trivial their work may seem.
If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.
Have your say
Only subscribers may leave comments on this article. Please log in.
Only personal subscribers may leave comments on this article
Subscribe now to comment.
All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.
If you are having a technical problem posting a comment, please contact technical support.