I've long held an ambivalent view toward Amazon's Mechanical Turk, but this week the site launched new features that will make it easier to use. My hope is that this will invigorate the site, bringing much needed variety and imagination to what has been, to my mind, the most mundane application of crowdsourcing to date.
For the uninitiated, Mechanical Turk allows clients to farm out the kinds of menial clickwork* that we all wish computers could do, but can't. (A more in-depth description of how it works can be found here.) It works like this: A company—the "requester" posts these HITs (or, Human Intelligence Tasks) on the site, offering to pay a certain amount (generally a few cents) to any "Turker" willing to perform the labor. As of today the HITs ranged from filling out marketing surveys to Digging the requester's blog post to submitting Coca-Cola reward codes. Which is to say, Mechanical Turk is where spam and crowdsourcing consummate their unholy union.
Okay, I'm being unfair. MT has some neat applications. For one, it enabled me to crowdsource the transcription for almost all the interviews in my book. (I estimate I paid about 10 percent what I would have if I'd used a professional transcriber.) And it's become an unlikely venue for both academics (a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business uses MT for research) and artists, which have used it to create collaborative artworks to great effect (the brilliant Aaron Koblin chief among them).
But these are exceptional cases. My conflict with MT is that it embodies the raw power of crowdsourcing (thousands of strangers coming together to make short work of an otherwise overwhelming job), but also encourages a sort of lowest-common denominator variety of crowdsourcing. Perhaps this will change now that Sharon Chiarella and her team at MT have rejiggered the service to allow all businesses to tap the clickworkforce, not just those that have a coder at the ready.
According to an article by ZDNet editor Larry Dignan, on Wednesday Amazon "rolled out new features to its Mechanical Turk web service designed to expand its appeal to a broader set of businesses." This is good news for small business owners as well as the Turkers, who are surely ready to devote their idle hours to something more rewarding than writing fake product reviews. The fact is, Amazon has assembled an enormous, energetic and highly effective workforce. The challenge lies in finding them something worthwhile to do.
*Clickwork defined: Any number of dull, brainless, low-paid tasks that keep the Internet economy, for better or worse, firing on all pistons. Examples: Tagging images, transcribing podcasts, or clicking through pop-up ads.