The Tragedy of the Digital Commons

  • 2016-01-25
  • The Atlantic

When her husband lost his job in 2010, Kristy Milland realized how important the Internet had become to her family's survival. For several years, the 30-something Canadian high-school graduate had a hobby of completing paid micro-tasks on Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that sells crowdsourced labor. She answered surveys, tagged images, and trained artificial intelligences for a few cents or dollars a task. In time, Milland became community manager of TurkerNation, one of several major forums for worker discussion and peer support.

With bills looming, Milland realized, "I had to turn this into a real gig." Now that her digital work was her family's primary income, she felt for the first time how hard it was to make ends meet. Mechanical Turk, which has no minimum wage, is a free market for digital labor. Only the collective decisions of workers and requesters determine wages and working conditions. Since Amazon provides no way for workers to rate employers, workers can’t always anticipate if they will be treated well or paid fairly. As a result, making a living on Mechanical Turk is a precarious venture, with few company policies and a mostly hands-off attitude from Amazon.

Milland and other regular Turkers navigate this precariously free market withTurkopticon, a DIY technology for rating employers created in 2008. To use it, workers install a browser plugin that extends Amazon's website with special rating features. Before accepting a new task, workers check how others have rated the employer. After finishing, they can also leave their own rating of how well they were treated.

Image Credit: Balajimuthazhagan