“Crowdsourced” Labor: Economic Efficiency or “Digital Sweatshop”?

September 4, 2012

CrowdsourcingA growing number of companies now make active use of “crowdsourcing” when undertaking projects that can be efficiently accomplished by assigning many small tasks to a great number of people.  Those companies have determined that crowdsourcing provides the most economically efficient method to accomplish certain tasks.  Critics argue, however, that crowdsourcing can create “digital sweatshops” in which the companies involved take advantage of vulnerable workers.

The process of crowdsourcing involves segmenting a big project into many small, independent tasks designed so that each such task can be accomplished by a different individual online.  A wide variety of projects are suitable for crowdsourcing, including database entry, verification of data, and digitizing of forms.

Many major companies now routinely use crowdsourced labor for important projects.  The interest in crowdsourcing is reflected by the fact that several companies, such as CrowdFlower and Mechanical Turk, have been established specifically to assist companies to create and manage crowdsourced projects.

Commercial users of crowdsourcing contend that it offers a highly efficient method to complete large projects.  They note that, for the proper projects, crowdsourcing is substantially less expensive and faster than use of temporary employees or outsourcing firms.

Crowdsourcing has long been an important tool used by non-profit organizations.  Generally short on financial resources, non-profit groups turned to crowdsourcing to reduce costs while tapping into their communities of interested and motivated members to execute important projects.

Commercial crowdsourcers are usually unable to rely on highly engaged volunteers to perform the work.  Instead, they must offer some type of compensation to the workers.  Because each task is generally simple and can be accomplished quickly, payment to workers is usually very small, often only a few cents.

In many instances, the tasks are structured as games.  Workers who participate in those projects receive no monetary compensation, choosing instead to take part in the work for its entertainment value.

Critics of use of crowdsourced labor suggest that the nature of the process makes it easier for employers to target and take advantage of particularly vulnerable groups, such as underage workers.  They also note that work which is structured as a game can be misleading and can obscure the commercial nature of the relationship between the companies involved and the workers.

There is little doubt that many of the projects using crowdsourced labor involve extremely tedious work and very low pay.  It seems, however, a big leap to compare that setting with the notorious sweatshops of the brick and mortar world.

At present, crowdsourcing seems to offer a useful and appropriate labor source for commercial projects.  As with all relationships between employers and their workers, however, crowdsourced labor relationships merit continuing attention to ensure that those relationships remain fair and reasonable.