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Should You Work For The Turk?
Member Name: collingwood21
Date: 14/07/09, updated on 08/01/10 (1243 review reads)
Advantages: Varied tasks to chose from, Quick and reliable tracking of work and payments
Disadvantages: US-centric, Can only cash out via Amazon.com
Amazon.com is now more than just a place to buy cheap books from, it seems. One of a suite of extra web services now offered by the internet giant, the Amazon Mechanical Turk was first launched in 2005 as a crowdsourcing marketplace - or to put it more bluntly, a place for people to post jobs they wanted doing, and for other people to do them in return for payment, a bit like a virtual job centre. In case you are wondering where the slightly unusual name of this service comes from, the Mechanical Turk is named after a famous 18th century hoax. The original Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing machine made up of a wooden cabinet at which an automaton dressed in Turkish costume sat, with the mechanism appearing to be able to play a strong game of chess against human opponents (which it usually won) and solve challenging chess puzzles that baffled many players. Publicly promoted as an automatic machine by its owner, the Turk was in fact a clever illusion, where a human "director" was hidden in the cabinet and controlled the moves of the automaton (if you have time, you can read more about this ingenious device here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk). Similarly, Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a device that harnesses the work of hidden humans to perform small pieces of work that are unsuitable for machines.
Like many members on this site, I would consider myself to have a good awareness of the many ways of making a bit of extra money on the internet, yet when I first came across the Mechanical Turk (generally abbreviated to Mturk) a few months ago, it was entirely new to me; that there are no other reviews about it and indeed no category already listed suggests that this will be new to many of you reading this as well (as less than 4% of Mturkers are from the UK, this is perhaps hardly surprising). Despite being around for four years, the Mechanical Turk has taken a while to really get any momentum going, and well into 2007 it was still only offering a very limited range of work to a small number of registered users, and was widely predicted to be a big flop. Since then, however, the Mturk site seems to be steadily growing and the marketplace now generally offers a wide selection of different tasks to those with some time on their hands and the desire to earn a little something from their internet use. I liked the sound of working on a varied range of tasks - as an alternative from review writing, and the limited daily routine of cashback sites - and decided to sign myself up for it. On paper at least it is an excellent idea; Amazon have created a marketplace where a readily available, diverse, flexible, scalable and on-demand workforce is available to business, researchers and individuals, and a wide range of paid tasks are available for workers to complete whenever it is convenient for them to do so.
What Work is Available on the Mturk?
Work is made available on the site in discrete tasks called HITs, and anyone with a computer and internet access can sign up to become some of the human intelligence that carries out these tasks. Put simply, a HIT (or human intelligence task) is a question that needs an answer that cannot be performed automatically by a computer and would be better completed by a person (such as identifying an object in an image for example) and there are thousands of HITs available on the site at any one time. HITs are designed and uploaded onto the site by requesters, and accepted, completed and submitted by workers - once submitted, the requester reviews your work and either approves it (and therefore pays you) or rejects it (so you get nothing). The type and range of tasks varies depending on what work requesters need doing on a particular day, and what sort of task you qualify for. Some HITs have qualifications attached to them, which specifically restrict the availability of the work to a certain group of workers, such as the country the worker is based in, or require the worker to complete a qualification test to confirm that they are able to do a certain type of work (such as testing your transcription skills before allowing you access to transcription HITs). Non-payment is not the only incentive to complete your HITS well, as your percentage of approved work counts as one of your qualifications, and some requestors won't allow you to work on their HITS if your approval rate is below a certain value (which can be as high as 98% approval from what I have seen).
To give you an idea of what the site is like, the sort of HITS available at the time of writing include:
· Testing a website
· Audio transcription
· Completing a survey for university researchers
· Providing answers to short trivia questions
· Adding comments to a requester's blog
· Sharing your experiences about home schooling
· Translating short sections of text
· Rewriting sections of text
· Categorising websites
What is the Site Like to Use?
The Mturk site is pretty straightforward to use; it has the same colour scheme, uncluttered design and user-friendly layout that you would expect from any other Amazon website. The homepage has a simple overview of the purpose of the site, login, FAQs, and tabs across the top of the screen that will take you to your account, current HITs and your qualifications. The account page shows you what you have earned and your current approval rates, with options to delve deeper into lists of HITs submitted, showing how many are approved, how many pending review and how many are rejected, along with what you submitted and when. It is all very easy to keep an eye on your work and your money and to request payments, and I have never experienced problems with submitted work not appearing in my account, so in my experience it is a reliable system too (anyone who has tried chasing untracked cashback from certain sites will doubtless appreciate this). The HITs section simply lists HITs showing key information - requester, summary of work, payment amount, expiry date of the HIT - for you to browse through, and you can click on any to read through the work involved before deciding to accept it. I should note here that the time allotted to a HIT is the total amount of time you have to complete it, not how long they expect the work to take - so don't automatically reject something just because it has 6 hours marked next to it! Although it is fairly easy to search through the listings - by what is available to you, by payment amount, by keyword - it can often be slow and a bit fiddly to sort through and find what you want. The third main section of the site, qualifications, lists those automatically assigned to you (e.g. your country, you approval rate), those you have earned, and a list of all qualification used on the site in case you want to browse them and take qualifications tests to boost the number of HITs available to you. Generally a pretty good site in terms of navigation, ease of use and design overall.
How Much Can I Earn?
I'm sure you will not be shocked to learn that becoming an Mturker is not going to make you a millionaire overnight. The level of reward available for completing tasks varies wildly, generally ranging from small HITS worth 1c each, to more complex tasks that are worth $3 - $5 each (occasionally there are higher paying tasks, but these understandably get snapped up pretty quickly). The range is inevitably skewed towards the lower end of the pay scale, and while in some cases this is quite reasonable (e.g. a single click-through HIT for 1c) in other cases HITs are offering a couple of cents for what amounts to several minutes work, so you need to be quite selective in choosing which HITs to work on before accepting them. In addition to the standard payment for completing a HIT (which is listed in the HIT information you are presented with when deciding whether to accept the work on offer), some tasks also offer bonus payments for meeting certain criteria, but I have found I don't really get much in the way of bonuses (a couple of dollars a month, maybe). The amount you earn of course depends on how many HITs you are able to (and want to) complete, but I find that with fairly casual use of the site I can earn $20 a month without too much difficulty.
How Do I Get My Hands on My Money?
You are credited with funds from your requester's account as soon as they approve your work. The length of the approval process varies quite considerably depending on the requester; I have had some submitted HITs approved within the hour, while others have taken up to 10 days to be approved. The maximum time that Mturk allow for submitted HITS to be reviewed is 30 days, and if the requester has not reviewed your work within that time, you will get an automatic approval and credit for that task. Once credited, the money is available for you to take out of your Mturk account after 24 hours in either cash (the minimum transaction level being $10) or gift certificate (minimum of $1). Whenever I have cashed out with a gift certificate, the credit has shown up in my Amazon account within minutes, and I have received an email confirming the credit, so this is a quick and reliable system.
As a US-based site where two thirds of workers are from the US, however, the payment system inevitably has a strong bias towards serving American workers (not to mention requesters - you can only request work to be completed on the site if you can provide a US billing address). You can only choose to have your money paid out to you in cash as long as you have a US bank account and Social Security number (for tax purposes), so that means if you are based in the UK the only option you have is to cash out your money via Amazon gift certificates. While that may sound fine, please remember that you can only cash out through Amazon.com, not through Amazon.co.uk. Why is this important? Simple. Delivery charges. Say you want to spend your Mturk earnings on a CD, for example. The cheapest delivery option to the UK is the standard international shipping, where you would pay $2.49 per CD shipped, plus an additional $3.99 per parcel, and then you would expect to wait 18 to 26 business days for it to arrive. Should you want your CD with the priority option of 2 to 4 business days, you would then pay $2.99 per item and a whopping $29.99 per package. Clearly if you don't mind spending your gift vouchers in bulk orders using standard shipping to minimise costs then that is fairly acceptable, but it is worth bearing in mind as a negative point if you are impatient to get your hands on the fruits of your labours or don't plan to use the site on a regular basis.
I have mixed feeling about the Mechanical Turk. On the plus side it is another source of free Amazon stuff for me, and the work is a lot more varied that the tasks I do for remuneration on other websites (and however much I do enjoy writing reviews, there are times when I want to do something different or that just takes up a spare few minutes of my time). Many of the tasks I have completed on the Mturk have been genuinely enjoyable for me, particularly those linked to research projects and a series of HITs I did recently in writing trivia questions to be used in a quiz. Most requestors I have dealt with have approved my work (I currently have an approval rate of 98.5%) and within 3 days of me submitting it, so I have been able to cash out quickly and easily - and I do appreciate the almost instant credit to my Amazon.com account. The downsides to using this site are fairly significant, however. The small number of UK and European workers mean we have to cash out through the American Amazon at considerable delivery expense and wait a long time for our items to turn up, so although we can technically get our hands on our earnings quickly, we don't see the physical manifestations of them for quite some time. Quite a lot of HITs are available to US workers only as well, which does put some limits on the tasks you can complete, and other tasks are boring, repetitive, very poorly paid or have badly written instructions that make understanding the job in hand harder than it probably should be. You also have to remember that submitting a HIT doesn't necessarily mean you will get paid for it - that is in the lap of the requester. I have had a small number of jobs rejected for no apparent reason and with no feedback provided, so I never did know if I did something incorrectly or whether I was just dealing with an unscrupulous business.
In the end it is probably a good site to join if you are reading this in the US, but a distinctly average one if you aren't. For anyone in the UK I would recommend it only to those who really like surveys and earning "pocket money" online, and to students (who would probably have the time to invest in this site and should be more interested than most in earning free books!).
Summary: Earn Amazon.com credit for completing online work