Monday, July 24, 2006

The distributed sweatshop?

Katharine Mieszkowski’s Salon story, “I Make $1.45 a Week and I Love It,” provides a complication for Yochai Benkler’s theory of distributed peer production of information goods. On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, people compete to provide answers, write blog posts, and even draw sheep for a few cents per job (paid only if the hiring party is satisfied with the work). There’s fierce competition for the available jobs. The Mechanical Turks don’t seem demotivated by the payments of a few cents. If anything, the small rewards seem to increase their ardor, at least as long as there are occasional big payoffs.

The article quotes critics who find this outsourcing of labor disturbing for workers. It also has implications for the robustness of peer production. Benkler posited that it’s difficult to get people to produce for micropayments. Money also crowds out nonmonetary incentives, as people start to feel less intrinsically motivated. As a result, social provisioning (Wikipedia, Folding@Home, etc.) works best if it’s done free. Mechanical Turk may prove a flash in the pan – the article includes complaints that there aren’t enough jobs for the takers there – but if it succeeds, commercialization will have invaded what I’d thought of as the core of internet social production, people’s desire to answer each other’s questions. Henry Farrell’s contribution to the seminar on Benkler’s recent book raises similar questions about the role and malleability of informal norms; the seminar as a whole is good reading.

1 comment:

iocaste said...

Knowing little beyond your blog post, I can say that I don't fear nominal payments will sap the internet of its current energy/norms. See Leon Festinger:

Great effort expended for nominal payment only convinces the actor that he/she is not working for the payment at all, but for love of the task.