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The ethics of using paid crowdworking for creative works

It was a long way home and the bus was gone. Priya Silverstein stood on the curb, nose filled with exhaust fumes, and dug through the pockets of her coat. Change jingled under the worn blue fabric as her fingers groped for her phone. After a few moments she touched the familiar rubbery case and pulled the phone from her pocket. Lint clung to it, like it always did. Priya shook her head and swore to herself that she’d get a new case tomorrow. She clicked to wake it up and checked where she was on battery. For once it wasn’t about to die, which was a relief. A few taps later and the soft purr of the ringer sounded in her ears.

Priya came into this world in January 2014. Her name, her story, her emotions and her entire worldly universe are the creation of work produced by anonymous, online crowdworkers.

There are several echelons of this new force of digital crowdworking labor. At the top, the most common are the traditional freelancers, who often have a personal relationship with the project manager they are hired to provide a service for. Freelancers typically charge or negotiate a standard market rate for their services, may call or visit the company they work for, and many have a fully fledged business operation. They obtain work through personal networking and also through internet sites such as Elance or Guru.com. The next level of talent takes on smaller, incremental assignments in a less traditional fashion. These individuals have an expertise to offer, but many don’t consider the endeavour as their main source of income. Popular sites like Fiverr.com have a pool of workers who can clean up website coding, sketch a logo, or do simple voiceover work for the price of, well, as the site name suggests, five dollars a gig. “Fiverrs” have a personal brand, tout their expertise in a specific area, will interact with clients and many will provide revisions of their work product without an additional fee. Like freelancers, a client is free to select the best person for the job.

The next tier is built upon a platform of almost total automation. Here we find crowdworkers who perform micro-tasks, often for micro-payments ranging from five cents up to a dollar. They are anonymous. They accept the offered compensation without negotiation. They even risk not even being paid at all (the employer has the option to disapprove the work and not provide payment). But the concept is viable because it is mutually beneficial to both parties despite the risk. The worker leverages their computer and internet connection they already have to earn various amounts of income. The company, well it obtains services with little to no administrative costs.

The popularity of micro-tasks fills a demand for services where the fine line exists between what the human brain can perform versus what functions computers still are unable to handle. The jobs span a wide array disciplines and degrees of complication. Responsibilities for micro-workers range from captioning a photo or determining the overall colour of an image. They are asked to provide a sentiment analysis of a passage of text. Requesters sometimes provide chaotic strings of data for workers to tame the information into the more comfortable rows and columns of spreadsheets. There is even paid work for participating in academic studies such as surveys and mental exercise experiments.

Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk platform is one of the largest

Like the others, micro-work also has plenty of online platforms to choose from. Cloudcrowd and Clickworker are popular, but Amazon.com’s “Mechanical Turk” platform is one of the largest. Like most traditional labour relationships, Mechanical Turk is made up of three components: the requester, the worker and the end product, otherwise known as the Human Intelligence Task (HIT). These HITs are delegated day and night to one of more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries, according to Amazon data.

“Priya?” Lucas’s voice was another relief from her nervousness. Earlier that morning she had run down to the library to grab another book for her dissertation and stood in line too long waiting to check it out.

“Hey Lucas,” Priya said. “Do you still live on Jefferson?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“I missed my bus,” Priya sighed.

Amazon took the name Mechanical Turk from an automated chess device constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Turk was billed as a fully autonomous chess player whose skill came from artificial intelligence. It defeated recognised chess masters throughout Europe and the Americas during the years it was in operation. Eventually it was exposed as a hoax: an anonymous human chess master was secretly hidden away in the cabinet of the device.

I theorised that perhaps the creative potential of the micro-crowdworking Turks, who were anonymously tucked away behind their keyboards, was being underused. This prompted the idea to use the technology to create a short, flash fiction story. The creative writing project would be entirely piecemeal, with all of the elements being created incrementally through HITs. On Amazon, I started out simply and posted a task: to develop the protagonist’s name. Seven minutes after listing the request I had a list of six potential names - some were good, some downright horrible. Brandice Odule: original but a bit complicated. Kyla Rose: seems a bit of a cliché. Abigail Rivers: now I was getting much warmer. But Priya Silverstein immediately caught my attention. I loved the cadence of it.

Priya Silverstein.

And she cost only a nickel.

“Shouldn’t there be another one soon?” Lucas asked.

“No, it’s the last one of the day. It’s New Year, so they’re only running this morning.”

“So, do you need a lift? I could come get you,” Lucas offered.

Priya bounced on her heels a little. “That would be great! Just, please don’t judge me when you get here.”

Lucas’s laugh echoed down the line. “Stuck in your comfy clothes, eh? That sounds about right.”

She looked down at her battered grey sweats and sockless ankles. Lucas had seen her in worse when they were dating and she had hoped this wouldn’t surprise him. She giggled a little. “I just threw on what was around and put my hair up. It’s the bus, so I didn’t think anyone would care. Does this mean you’re ashamed to have me get in your car?”

“Nope.”

The text you’ve been reading in italics has been streaming in from Turks. I have no idea who they are, where they live, or their background. What I did realise is that what I was reading was good. Really good.

I trod as lightly as I could on the narrative of the story. The first HIT was to simply provide three female names for a book character. Once I had Priya, I decided the opening of the story would be based on a single photograph. I created two HITs, so I could have more material to choose from, and uploaded a photo of a young woman sitting on the street kerb outside the entrance to a building. The HIT required the Turks to provide a 200-word narrative describing the girl, her surroundings and her emotional state. I posted it for 40 cents just to test how aggressive I could get with the pricing, not expecting any takers. However, 10 minutes later Priya had missed her bus and rekindled a crush on someone I’ve never met. His name was Lucas.

She could hear him smiling still. “I’ve got my coat on already and I’ll be there in twenty.” There was a long pause, and he sounded hesitant. “Maybe we could grab a movie, since you’re already in your pyjamas.”

“I’d like that,” Priya said with a smile. “I’m gonna go grab a sandwich and coffee from across the street. I’ll wait for you on the steps.” She hung up and stared at the phone for a second, then stuck it back in her pocket and headed across the street.

Maybe today wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

The narrative I received from my worker was intriguing. For the 40 cent investment, I was looking at copy that could rival many young adult fiction novels. Of course, there were some spelling and grammar errors, but they were minimal and wouldn’t require much more of an editing session than a typical first draft. To keep the story moving forward, I found a creative commons licensed photo of a young woman at a coffee shop. I uploaded it to the Amazon platform and offered 80 cents each to three workers. Their task was to narratively move Priya across the street and have her worry about why Lucas was late.

Priya waited for the cars to pass before walking into the crossing. There weren’t many: a white van, a green Honda and grey Toyota. They were casually cruising the street. It was a perfect day; the sun was beaming down warmly and there was a slight breeze. She had plenty of time to cross, but she waited. She was in no rush. Feeling incredibly peaceful and hopeful about their date, she walked into the shop. She took off her sunglasses. The door closed on her long grey coat. She looked around. No one seemed to notice. She ordered her turkey sandwich and hazelnut coffee.

I based my choice on this next segment of the story because the prose best fit the existing narrative and had the least amount of grammatical errors. It was a bit Cinquainesque and infused with choppy sentences, but it fit and moved the story along. One contribution was perfectly acceptable, but was focused more on the restaurant instead of Priya. The third, and least playful, felt much like a forced restaurant review than it did 200 words of fiction. I decided on this text you’ve read above. I opted to approve and pay all three writers. Again, none of the Turks were aware of the others and just as incognisant that their words would end up being read here.

The story was coming together. The writers were providing all the basic elements: action; dialogue; cliffhangers. It was being built at about an average of 0.003 cents per word. In the freelance writers market, the opening paragraph could have fetched the Turk a minimum of three cents per word. It was a rather substantial variance. It could be argued that the micro-workers are being exploited for their services along the lines of Ricardian socialist thinking. The Ricardians held the belief that exploitation was an inherent trait in a capitalist system.

The law of supply and demand

But the economic argument is outside the scope of this project. It can be boiled down to the basic economic law of supply and demand: A Turk accepted the writing assignment based on the wages offered, which means that at that moment in time the wage was appropriately priced.

Even with the low cost per word, attempting to wrangle multiple Turks with enough talent to create a long-form of fiction would become too costly. Mostly in the requester’s time. There would be too much waste in the form of unused narrative that needed to be paid for (in an ethical environment), which would be received yet not used. Plus, the system was not designed to be bent to such a far degree to meet the demands I was placing on it. On the other hand, as Priya has demonstrated, the Turks could provide efficient writing services. They can provide ideas to counter writer’s block, provide writing prompts, and provide basic research that would go into a story.

The story was concluding and I decided to contact one of the Turks who worked on this project. I asked a bit of basic information on their background, but not enough to violate Amazon’s terms of service regarding the prohibition of seeking personally identifying details. The response came from a stay-at-home father in his mid-30s living on the east coast. He’s won writing awards. He has been a member of numerous writing groups and developed his storytelling talents from family traditions and tabletop role-play.

Wolfgang von Kempelen would have been proud to have him operate his wonderful machine.

Priya went outside, sat on the sidewalk and enjoyed her meal. Lucas had not yet arrived. It was 11:52, the time stamp of their call was 11:31. Hmm, he should have been here by now. Scenarios of possible delays went through her head. She ran her fingers through her bleached blonde hair. More time passed. 12:00. She texted him. Where are you? No answer. 12:17. She started to become anxious. Something bad must have happened. She texted him again. 12:34. No answer.

Her heart raced. Was he in an accident?

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