I recently had a pilot version of a crowdsourcing task fail pretty spectactularly, but after discussing the failure with Mako I’ve concluded that my experience helps illustrate some interesting comparisons between labor relations in a distributed online market and more traditional sorts of employment and jobs.

The failure in this case started early: I did a mediocre job designing the task. It’s not really worth going into any details except to say that (out of laziness) I made it really easy for workers to either (a) purposefully respond with spammy results; (b) slack off and not provide responses; (c) try to complete the task but unintentionally do a bad job and therefore provide poor quality results; or (d) try to complete the task and do so successfully. I also did not do a good job incorporating any effective means of differentiating between whether the workers who did not provide accurate results were spamming, shirking, or simply failing

So why does this experience have anything to do with the nature of employment relations?

First, think about it from the employer’s (or the work “requester’s”) point of view. A major part of creating an effective crowdsourcing job consists in minimizing the likelihood or impact of (a)-(c) either by means of algorithmic estimation and/or clever task design. It’s not necessary that every worker provide you with perfect results or even perfect effort, but ideally you find some way to identify and/or remove work and workers that introduce unpredictable sources of bias into your results. Once you know what kind of results you’ve got, it’s possible to make appropriate corrections in the event that some worker has been feeding you terrible data or maybe just unintentionally sabotaging your task by doing a bad job.

In other words, low quality results can provide employer-requesters with useful information if (and only if) the employer-requester finds a way to identify it and use it to their advantage. This means that a poorly designed task is not just one that doesn’t elicit optimal performance from workers, but also one that doesn’t help an employer-requester differentiate between spammers, slackers, passive saboteurs, and those workers who really are trying and (at least most of the time) completing a given task successfully.

When I design a job I always assume that a relatively high proportion of the workers are trying to complete the task in good faith (sure, there are some spammers and slackers out there, but somehow they don’t seem to make up the majority of the labor pool when there’s a clear, well-designed, reasonably compensated task to be done). As a result, if I get predominantly crap responses back from the workers, I assume that they are (maybe somewhat less directly than I might like) providing me with negative feedback on my task design.

Now from the workers’ point of view, I suspect the situation looks a bit different. They have fewer options for dealing with employer-requesters who are trying to scam them. Most distributed labor markets lack features that would support anything resembling collective bargaining or collective action on the part of workers. Communications by workers to employer-requesters are limited and, consequently, there usually aren’t robust mechanisms for offering or coordinating feedback or complaints.

As a result, the most effective communications tool the workers possess is their work itself. Not surprisingly, some of them seem to use their work to engage acts of casual slacking and sabotage that resemble online versions of the “weapons of the weak” described by James C. Scott in his book on everyday resistance tactics among rural peasants.

The ease with which crowdsourcing workers can pursue these relatively passive forms of resistance and tacit feedback relates to a broader, more theoretically important point: in most situations, a member of an online crowd should have a much easier time quitting or resisting than workers in (for example) a factory when they decide they’re unhappy with an employment relationship for any reason. Why?  First off, crowdsourcing workers usually don’t have personal ties to a company, brand, co-workers, managers, etc. Second of all, the structure of online labor markets makes the cost of leaving any one job extraordinarily low. An office worker who (upon being confronted by, e.g., an unpleasant or unethical task) leaves her position risks giving up not only valuable resources like future wages or benefits, but also loses physical stability in her life, contact with friends and colleagues, and the respect or professional support of her superiors. In contrast, a worker in an online crowd who decides to leave her job loses almost nothing. While there is some risk associated with actively spamming or slacking (in some crowdsourcing markets, workers with low quality ratings can be banned or prevented from working on certain jobs), it’s still substantially easier to just walk away and find another task to do.

These are just some of the reasons why theoretical predictions from classical wage and employment economics – for example, that a $0.01 decrease in wages will result in some proportion of employees leaving their jobs – don’t hold up in traditional or crowdsourcing labor markets. The interesting point is that the reasons why these classical theories don’t hold up in crowdsourcing systems don’t have much to do with the complications introduced by social relations since social relations (between workers and employers as well as between workers and workers) are severely constrained in most online labor markets.


(Note: The first version of this post was written pretty late at night, so I didn’t include many links to sources. I’ll be trying to add them over the next few days.)

Illegally reproduced DVD\'s (photo by Huong-Lan via flickr CC-BY)

William Patry had an engaging (albeit esoteric) post a couple of days ago in which he examines a recent federal appeals court ruling about pirated DVD sales.

From what I understand, it looks like the court (circuitously) ruled against the idea that the “relevant retail value” of an unlicensed copy corresponds to the value on any market – including a black market. Patry argues that the logic of the decision is kind of tortured and long-winded given that the court eventually agreed with the earlier decision that had penalized the defendant on the basis of the manufacturer’s retail value of the goods (not the black market wholesale price he actually sold them for).

All the legalese aside, the text of the decision raises a really interesting question that usually flies under the radar of policy debates on unlicensed reproductions of copyrighted works.

In light of the fact that copyright grants licensors the ability to hold a temporary monopoly over informational goods, what constitutes a reasonable price for non-rival goods?

I suspect that courts and politicians accept manufacturer’s suggested retail prices for a whole host of reasons (simplicity, kickbacks, convenience, etc.), but it seems like there’s a case to be made for an alternative calculation based on aggregate market prices (including informal, or “black” markets).

In my experience, informal market prices (especially for things like software and DVD’s) often provide a more accurate picture of what people can and are actually willing to pay for informational goods.

An article over at Science Progress examines how state and local government in Virginia has stepped up to the problem of broadband market failures. I loved this story because it’s a great example of what a little public sector creativity can do to in the face of the current broadband duopoly in the US. According to the story, the money for these projects have been cobbled together from federal funds, a large Tobacco industry settlement with the state, city improvement projects, and even a few small time start-ups. It sounds like there’s still a ways to go in terms of integrating the network across the state as a whole, but that’s a wonderful problem to have when you’re looking at places that relied on dial up until recently. Here’s hoping the current state government can step in a fill that gap too.Perhaps more importantly from a national perspective, Virginia has provided a perfect test case for the sort of reforms the Democratic congress ought to implement in the next two years. Such initiatives would almost certainly  help the Dems reclaim/hold culturally conservative, rural, economically depressed regions of the country.  (H/T to Manon Ress of KEI for passing this story along the A2K grapevine)