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A Penny for your thoughts: New Year wishes from mechanical turkers

I wanted to learn more about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service (wikipedia), and perhaps also figure out how I feel about it.

Named after a historical faked chess-playing machine, it uses the Web to allow people around the world to work on short low-pay ‘micro-tasks’. It’s a disturbing capitalist fantasy come true, echoing Frederick Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management‘ of the 1880s. Workers can be assigned tasks at the touch of the button (or through software automation); and rewarded or punished at the touch of other buttons.

Mechanical Turk has become popular for outsourcing large scale data cleanup tasks, image annotation, and other topics where human judgement outperforms brainless software. It’s also popular with spammers. For more background see ‘try a week as a turker‘ or this Salon article from 2006. Turk is not alone, other sites either build on it, or offer similar facilities. See for example crowdflower, txteagle, or Panos Ipeirotis’ list of micro-crowdsourcing services.

Crowdflower describe themselves as offering “multiple labor channels…  [using] crowdsourcing to harness a round-the-clock workforce that spans more than 70 countries, multiple languages, and can access up to half-a-million workers to dispatch diverse tasks and provide near-real time answers.”

Txteagle focuses on the explosion of mobile access in the developing world, claiming that “txteagle’s GroundSwell mobile engagement platform provides clients with the ability to communicate and incentivize over 2.1 billion people“.

Something is clearly happening here. As someone who works with data and the Web, it’s hard to ignore the potential. As someone who doesn’t like treating others as interchangeable, replaceable and disposable software components, it’s hard to feel very comfortable. Classic liberal guilt territory. So I made an account, both as a worker and as a ‘requester’ (an awkward term, but it’s clear why ‘employer’ is not being used).

I tried a few tasks. I wrote 25-30 words for a blog on some medieval prophecies. I wrote 50 words as fast as I could on “things I would change in my apartment”. I tagged some images with keywords. I failed to pass a ‘qualification’ test sorting scanned photos into scratched, blurred and OK. I ‘like’d some hopeless Web site on Facebook for 2 cents. In all I made 18 US cents. As a way of passing the time, I can see the appeal. This can compete with daytime TV or Farmville or playing Solitaire or Sudoko. I quite enjoyed the mini creative-writing tasks. As a source of income, it’s quite another story, and the awful word ‘incentivize‘ doesn’t do justice to the human reality.

Then I tried the other role: requester. After a little more liberal-guilt navelgazing (“would it be inappropriate to offer to buy people’s immortal souls? etc.”), I decided to offer a penny (well, 2 cents) for up to 100 people’s new year wish thoughts, or whatever of those they felt like sharing for the price.

I copy the results below, stripped of what little detail (eg. time in seconds taken) each result came with. I don’t present this as any deep insight or sociological analysis or arty meditation. It’s just what 100 people somewhere else in the Web responded with, when asked what they wish for 2011. If you want arty, check out the sheep market. If you want more from ‘turkers’ in their own voice, do visit the ‘Turker Nation’ forum. Also Turkopticon is essential reading,  “watching out for the crowd in crowdsourcing because nobody else seems to be.”

The exact text used was “Make a wish for 2011. Anything you like, just describe it briefly. Answers will be made public.”, and the question was asked with a simple Web form, “Make a wish for 2011, … any thought you care to share”.


Here’s what they said:

When you’re lonely, I wish you Love! When you’re down, I wish you Joy! When you’re troubled, I wish you Peace! When things seem empty, I wish you Hope! Have a Happy New Year!

wish u a happy new year…………

happy new year 2011. may this year bring joy and peace in your life

My wish for 2011 is i want to mary my Girlfriend this year.

I wish I will get pregnant in 2011!

i wish juhi becomes close to me

wish you a wonderful happy new year

wish you happy new year

for new year 2011 I wish Love of God must fill each human heart
Food inflation must be wiped off quickly
corruption must be rooted out smartly
Terrorism must be curtailed quickly
All People must get love, care, clothes, shelter & food
Love of God must fill each human heart…

Happy life.All desires to be fulfilled.

wish to be best entrepreneur of the year 2011

dont work hard if it is possible to do the same smarter way..
Be happy!

New year is the time to unfold new horizons,realise new dreams,rejoice in simple pleasures and gear up for new challenges.wishing a fulfilling 2011.

Remember that the best relationship is one where your love for each other is greater than your need for each other. Happy New Year

To get a newer car, and have less car problems. and have more income

I wish that my son’s health problems will be answered

Be it Success & Prosperity, Be it Fun and Frolic…

A new year is waiting for you. Go and enjoy the New Year on New Thought,”Rebirth of My Life”.

Let us wish for a world as one family, then we can overcome all the problems man made and otherwise.

My wish is to gain/learn more knowledge than in 2010

My new years wish for 2011 is to be happier and healthier.

I wish that I would be cured of heartache.

I am really very happy to wish you all very happy new year…..I wish you all the things to be success in your life and career…….. Just try to quit any bad habit within you. Just forgot all the bad incidents happen within your friends and try to enjoy this new year with pleasant……

Wish you a happy and prosperous new year.

I wish for a job.

I would hope that people will end the wars in the world.

Discontinue smoking and restrict intake of alcohol

I wish that my retail store would get a bigger client base so I can expand.

I Wish a wish for You Dear.Sending you Big bunch of Wishes from the Heart close to where.Wish you a Very Very Happy New Year

I wish for 2011 to be filled with more love and happiness than 2010.

Everything has the solution Even IMPOSSIBLE Makes I aM POSSIBLE. Happy Journey for New Year.

May each day of the coming year be vibrant and new bringing along many reasons for celebrations & rejoices. Happy New year

I have just moved and want to make some great new friends! Would love to meet a special senior (man!!) to share some wonderful times with!!!

My wish is that i wanna to live with my “Pretty girl” forever and also wanna to meet her as well,please god please, finish my this wish, no more aspire from me only once.

that people treat each other more nicely and with greater civility, in both their private and public lives.

that we would get our financial house in order

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us. Wish u very happy new year and take care

Wish you a very happy And prosperous new year 2011

Tom Cruise
Angelina Jolie
Aishwarya Rai
Arnold
Jennifer Lopez
Amitabh Bachhan
& me..
All the Stars wish u a Very Happy New Year.

Oh my Dear, Forget ur Fear,
Let all ur Dreams be Clear,
Never put Tear, Please Hear,
I want to tell one thing in ur Ear
Wishing u a very Happy “NEW YEAR”!

May The Year 2011 Bring for You…. Happiness,Success and filled with Peace,Hope n Togetherness of your Family n Friends….

i want to be happy

Good health for my family and friends

I wish my husband’s children would stop being so mean and violent and act like normal children. I want to love my husband just as much as before we got full custody.

to get wonderful loving girl for me.. :))

Keep some good try. Wish u happy new year

happy new year to all

My wish is to find a good job.

i wish i get a big outsourcing contract this year that i can re-set up my business and get back on track.

I wish that I be firm in whatever I do. That I can do justice to all my endeavors. That I give my 100%, my wholehearted efforts to each and every minutest work I do.

My wish for 2011, is a little patience and understanding for everyone, empathy always helps.

To be able to afford a new house

“NEW YEAR 2011″
+NEW AIM + NEW ACHIEVEMENT + NEW DREAM +NEW IDEA + NEW THINKING +NEW AMBITION =NEW LIFE+SUCCESS HAPPY NEW YEAR!

let this year be terrorist free world

Wish the world walk forward in time with all its innocence and beauty where prevails only love, and hatred no longer found in the dictionary.

no

Wish u a very happy New Year Friends and make this year as a pleasant days…

I wish the economy would get better, so people can afford to pay their bills and live more comfortably again.

i wish, god makes life beautiful and very simple to all of us. and happy new year to world.

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man and I wish a very very prosperous new year.

i wish i would buy a house and car for my mom

I wish to have a new car.
This new year will be full of expectation in the field of investment.We concerned about US dollar. Hope this year will be a good for US dollar.

this year is very enjoyment life

Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right

to get married

Wishing all a meaningful,purposeful,healthier and prosperous New Year 2011.

WISH YOU A HAPPY NEW YEAR 2011 MAY BRING ALL HAPPINESS TO YOU

RAKKIMUTHU

In 2011 I wish for my family to get in a better spot financially and world peace.

Wish that economic conditions improve to the extent that the whole spectrum of society can benefit and improve themselves.

I want my divorce to be final and for my children to be happy.

This 2011 year is very good year for All with Health & Wealth.

I wish that things for my family would get better. We have had a terrible year and I am wishing that we can look forward to a better and brighter 2011.

This year bring peace and prosperity to all. Everyone attain the greatest goal of life. May god gives us meaning of life to all.

This new year will bring happy in everyone’s life and peace among countries.

I hope for bipartisanship and for people to realize blowing up other people isn’t the best way to get their point across. It just makes everyone else angry.

A better economy would be nice too

I wish that in 2011 the government will work together as a TEAM for the betterment of all. Peace in the world.

i wish you all happy new year. may god bless all……

no i wish for you

I wish that my family will move into our own house and we can be successful in getting good jobs for our future.

I wish my girl comes back to me

Wish You Happy New Year for All, especially to the workers and requester’s of Mturk.

Greetings!!!

Wishing you and your family a very happy and prosperous NEW YEAR – 2011

May this New Year bring many opportunities your way, to explore every joy of life and may your resolutions for the days ahead stay firm, turning all your dreams into reality and all your efforts into great achievements.

Wish u a Happy and Prosperous New Year 2011….

Wishing u lots of happiness..Success..and Love

and Good Health…….

Wish you a very very happy new year

WISHING YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY & PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR…….

I wish in this 2011 is to be happy,have a good health and also my family.

I pray that the coming year should bring peace, happiness and good health.

I wish for my family to continue to be healthy, for my cars to continue running, and for no 10th Anniversary attacks this upcoming September.

be a good and help full for my family .

Happy and Prosperous New Year

New day new morning new hope new efforts new success and new feeling,a new year a new begening, but old friends are never forgotten, i think all who touched my life and made life meaningful with their support, i pray god to give u a verry “HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YEAR”.

Be a good person,as good as no one

wish this new year brings cheers and happiness to one and all.

For the year 2011 I simply wish for the ability to support my family properly and have a healthier year.

I wish I have luck with getting a better job.

Greater awareness of climate change, and a recovering US economy.

this new year 2011 brings you all prosperous and happiness in your life…….

happy newyear wishes to all the beautiful hearts in the world in the world.god bless you all.

wishing every happy new year to all my pals and relatives and to all my lovely countrymen

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  1. .. can’t quite put in to words how that list of wishes makes me feel, but it’s not a good feeling, and it’s rather unsettling.

    So, does one use mechanical turk just so that these poor fellows can make a few cents, or does one steer well clear with so as not to condone it – moral dilemma indeed.

  2. @webr3, do you feel the same way when you buy or use cheap imported mass-produced goods? Quite likely the workers who served your needs were similarly “incentivised”. Ignorance isn’t exactly bliss, but a lot of people’s ordinary daily lives are connected to daily misery elsewhere. The trick perhaps is to figure out what can be done to improve things, without becoming overwhelmed by ‘compassion fatigue’, regardless of whether the workers are stitching shoes in china or mapping strings to URIs from somewhere in the US mid-west.

    From reading around Turk, I think there may be things to explore around portable documentation of skills and qualifications, even informal Web site ‘badges’. Without that, the work platforms tend towards assuming and paying the worst. If I set a task for someone and they demonstrate to me -for example- some fluency in French, it’s reasonable to expect the platform to provide a privacy-respecting way to express that capability, so the worker has more evidence for better treatment, pay or more engaging work in the future. Otherwise they’ll be asked to prove themselves, again and again. As far as I can see (but I’m new to this – may have missed something) the custom Turk qualifications are private to each requester. They’re certainly local to the platform, for now at least.

    If MTurk supported something around OAuth, OpenID or WebID, plus some FOAF++ for skill descriptions, it could be possible for workers to migrate (with their skills portfolio) between platforms. Without that, hours and hours of hard boring work is tied up with a single provider’s account. Balancing the need to respect privacy, with the need for mobility, and for users to understand the tradeoffs, won’t be easy though.

  3. Some classic comments Dan.

    Our lives are connected to daily misery and there isn’t a lot that can be done.
    And if you look around, the same culprits are trying to turn the middle tier into the lower tier… And history repeats itself…

    >> ‘compassion fatigue’<>Otherwise they’ll be asked to prove themselves, again and again. As far as I can see (but I’m new to this – may have missed something) the custom Turk qualifications are private to each requester. They’re certainly local to the platform, for now at least.<>If MTurk supported something around OAuth, OpenID or WebID, plus some FOAF++ for skill descriptions, it could be possible for workers to migrate (with their skills portfolio) between platforms. Without that, hours and hours of hard boring work is tied up with a single provider’s account. Balancing the need to respect privacy, with the need for mobility, and for users to understand the tradeoffs, won’t be easy though.<<

    I doubt Amazon will ever do this… But I do know they're working on improving the system.. I get the feeling some resources were just added to the MT team..

    Others might like to take a different approach to this. WAIT…Actually I wrote this whole comment and forgot that I actually blogged about it on MySQLTalk…it's the post about Zuck's mom wanting him to take Facebook to the cloud :)

    Basically, leveraging their social graph to let requesters hire people within x degrees of separation…. I'm sure people would feel bad about paying too little if there was a closer connection to them… also feel better about the quality….

    Maybe the idea is far fetched…but perhaps someone will figure out a good formula be it Amazon or someone else…

    Anyway, sorry for rambling…gotta go back to code…