Crowdsourcing for small tasks started ten years ago with the advent of Amazon Mechanical Turk. Today this new way of working seems to appeal to both companies and individual requesters and service providers. So can we expect to see traditional employment structures based on regular wages disappear?

Will crowdsourcing put an end to wage-based employment?

Crowdsourcing refers to the system whereby companies, organisations or individual customers call on the skills and labour of a wide range of providers – hence ‘crowd’ – to carry out tasks on a piece-rate basis. Crowdsourcing is today found in all sectors – retail, automotive, the arts, as well as for myriad small jobs and personal services that require little in the way of qualifications but need a fast turnaround.

Crowdsourcing online for small tasks arrived on the scene in 2005 when the Amazon Mechanical Turk (the name is a reference to a late 18th century hoax whereby an ‘automaton’ – in reality a hidden master player – defeated all comers at chess) website was launched. Now that lots of people are going through difficult times money-wise, while many companies are looking to farm out multiple tasks for fast turnaround, this supplementary work system has been growing in popularity. Might it in fact herald a completely new way approach to work and remuneration?

Amazon Mechanical Turk, initié en 2005, a lancé le crowdsourcing pour les micro-travaux
                                                                 Amazon Mechanical Turk interface


Low-paid small jobs that require people, not machines

The kind of jobs that suit the crowdsourcing approach include transcribing or sifting information from audio recordings, translating short texts, classifying data, identifying/tagging pictures, eliminating duplicate data from databases, extracting and digitising information from physical materials – when building a shopping website, for instance –  and simple search and checking of web data such as shop opening hours.

To take a typical example: on Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), as a ‘worker’ you could be asked to find the URL of an image corresponding to a description of an alcoholic drink. For this task, for which the ‘requester’ allows five minutes, the person working on the ‘Human Intelligence Task’ or ‘HIT’ –  i.e. a task which Amazon has decided requires human intelligence to fulfil properly – will be paid $0.04. However, the task is not pressure-free: if the job is not completed in the time allotted, the job will automatically be put back on the market.

Since the rise of AMT and its million users worldwide, quite a number of other companies offering a crowdsourcing platform for micro-tasks have appeared on the market, although the individual positioning of each varies somewhat from that of the US web giant. German firm Clickworker, up and running since 2007, has a similar approach, i.e. putting a community of workers in touch with companies looking to farm out small jobs. However, the Clickworker interface is more sophisticated, highlighting the quality of the services provided by the sub-contractors, perhaps in the hope of attracting larger clients. In any case they look set for success. Today Clickworker boasts 700,000 members in 136 countries, among them such prestigious clients as Groupon, Honda and Paypal.

In France the main player is Foule Factory (‘Crowd Factory’). This startup works exclusively on tasks in French and makes it a point of honour to remind people that its ‘crowdworkers’ earn a minimum of €10 an hour, ‟depending on the complexity and the urgency” of the projects taken on, states the website. This remuneration rate compares favourably with what is on offer on Amazon Mechanical Turk – consequently you now have to put your name on a waiting list if you want to join the Foule Factory community. ‟We differentiate ourselves as regards our prices; we’re in line with what’s being done in France in terms of low-value-added outsourcing,” explained Daniel Benoilid, Foule Factory co-founder and CEO, in an interview with the ‘Regards sur le Numérique’ (in French) news site.

The payment model of these websites is based on commission. AMT, which had since the site’s launch been taking a 10% agency commission, recently raised its charge to 20% of the amount paid to the worker.  Foule Factory also takes a 20% cut. The sites provide their client-companies with a ‘self-service’ system for basic tasks. Requesters are responsible for posting the details of the farmed-out tasks on the site themselves and specifying the rate they are willing to pay. On Clickworker, there is a fixed price for certain tasks. This is the case for website content production: remuneration depends on the number of words and keywords to be displayed on the site. For more complex or larger scale jobs, requestors are asked to get in touch with the commercial team so as to obtain an estimate of the fee they will need to pay.


Jobs versus piece-work: the line is blurring

The advantage of the crowdsourcing system for the members of the ‘crowdworker’ communities lies in the freedom and flexibility these platforms offer. As AMT points out on its front page, a person can work from home, enjoying all the flexibility s/he needs. Moreover, claims AMT, doing a good job pays off: ‘workers’ who consistently compete tasks rapidly and successfully will earn recognition, eventually graduating to become designated ‘masters’.

In promoting its Mechanical Turk, Amazon certainly seems to be contrasting this approach with the potential drawbacks of traditional office work – restrictive working hours, fixed workplace, etc, But is the ‘crowdworker’ status really able to compete with traditional wage-earning employment?

In fact the line between the two forms of work is becoming blurred. This modern approach, which in some way recalls the human calculators of past centuries, makes many of us feel a little uneasy, not because it is something very novel and outside our traditional notions of work, but because the ‘crowdworkers’, who on the one hand have no long-term obligations to the platform or the requesting clients, also have very little in the way of rights. The members of the communities on these sites have no work contract whatsoever and on many such sites the expressions ‘contribution’, ‘rewards’ and ‘expenses’ are often preferred to such terms as ‘work’ and ‘wages’. Faced with growing criticism that this approach is a hidden form of employment that unfairly exploits people, the crowdsourcing intermediaries point out that their ‘contributors’ are free to provide their services or not, as they choose, and are in no way forced to work a minimum number of hours or on a set number of tasks. Moreover they are clearly not able to earn an income comparable to a proper wage. The Foule France workers, for example, cannot earn more than €250 a month, or €3000 a year. The crowdsourcing providers argue therefore that their platforms are a way for their community members to bring in some additional income but nothing more than that.

Farming out micro-tasks to ‘the crowd’: a new opportunity for companies, a new source of income for the task workers

It is interesting to view this new approach to work through the eyes of tomorrow’s workforce. It must be said that Generation Z, i.e. young people aged 15-20, are a cause for concern because they tend to be negative about companies and the image they convey: too four-square, too rigid. This is of course all grist to the mill for the proponents of using crowdsourcing for small tasks. However, nowadays not only small jobs are being farmed out via crowdsourcing; projects that are far more demanding in terms of time and the skills required are also often subcontracted out this way. The success of players such as Paris-based Creads, which creates graphic materials, and Berlin-based online translation agency Keego are proof of this. Why would a company have its own translation department or rely on a single service provider if it can call on a large number of people, and enjoy a high quality service with fast delivery at ultra-competitive prices? Not to mention all the red tape and bureaucracy that they can thus avoid.

Taking the freelance concept a stage further, ride-sharing firm Heetch, short-term accommodation platform Airbnb, person-to-person car-hire company Drivy and many others have given the members of their various communities the opportunity to become entrepreneurs in their own right. They are free to use their resources and skills as they wish. Pierre Calmard, CEO of digital agency iProspect, argues: ‟Salaried employment in the traditional sense of the word is a notion that is gradually dying and we need to prepare ourselves for the change that’s coming. Tomorrow I should easily be able earn enough to live on, doing real work but without drawing a fixed salary. Instead, I could be an Uber driver, rent my house out through Airbnb, provide my work skills on community platforms. And why not think about becoming a teacher or lecturer via these same platforms?”*.

But before we bury salaried employment for good and turn our attention to arguing about the rights – or lack of rights, perhaps – of crowdsourcing workers, what we can probably conclude is that crowdsourcing is something which nowadays provides free rein to those who are looking for a flexible way to top up their monthly income and make ends meet.

*Statements gathered by Guillaume Scifo