CrowdFlower Lawsuit Could Change Crowd Labor Industry Forever

29 Jul

Should crowd laborers be paid as contractors or employees? According to Christopher Otey, who has launched a lawsuit against crowd labor platform CrowdFlower, the answer is the latter. The results of this suit could carve a huge gash in the face of crowd labor providers, and forever change how the industry functions.

The Rundown

I’ve reported on this case before, back when I was writing for Ziptask, and you can see the full article there. The gist is that CrowdFlower, much like Amazon Mechanical Turk, is a labor platform where workers perform “tasks” for employers and receive payment according to how many they complete. It’s typically not a substantial amount of money;  CrowdFlower’s own CEO has allegedly claimed that its workers are paid far below minimum wage, sometimes as low as $2 an hour.

This does not sit well with Otey, who submits that CrowdFlower’s workers should be classified as employees and receive all the monetary benefits that go with that status. He has launched a lawsuit against the crowd labor provider, and intends to obtain collective and class-action status for it, which would allow other people to join in if they also feel that CrowdFlower has treated them unfairly.

Deciding Factors

I’ve personally spoken to representatives from both sides of this case. On the CrowdFlower side, we have Rich Arnold, the Chief Financial Officer of the company, who claims that Otey’s contributions and relationship with the company are nowhere near the level that would qualify him as an employee. Otey had contributed less than twenty hours of work to CrowdFlower in the two years he worked for the site, and had also done work for many other sites like CrowdFlower. As such, he was not solely dependent on their compensation as his primary source of income. He had also failed to develop the worker/employee relationship that typically defines these arrangements; prior to this suit, Otey had not met and could not name a single person working for CrowdFlower, and no one from the site had ever heard of him, either.

Otey’s representative, labor law attorney Mark Potashnick, approaches the issue with a more big-picture perspective, viewing Otey as a stand-in for the millions of individuals contributing to CrowdFlower. These individuals, he states, do the bulk of CrowdFlower’s work, making the site completely reliant on them. Their contributions are essential to CrowdFlower’s business model, and as such, they are as crucial as any traditional employee would be. He also cites a number of other Ninth Circuit and Fair Labor Standards Act factors that would place Otey and those like him squarely in the “employee” category.

It seems like the primary deciding factor, however, will be the amount of control CrowdFlower has over its contributors while they complete tasks for the site. One of the main sticking points may be how each side defines “control”. Arnold reminds us that by the nature of crowd labor, much of the control is in the hands of the contractor in that they have the ability to decide where and when they work, and on what projects. Whether they’re passing the time completing tasks at Starbucks on their lunch breaks, or completing them at home in their underwear while watching Pulp Fiction, the power is ultimately in the workers’ hands.

Potashnick would rather direct our attention to the rigorous methods CrowdFlower has of vetting their contributors, grading their labor, and assigning high-level tasks. Through the sophisticated infrastructure CrowdFlower has set up, they have all sorts of powers, Potashnick claims, that are not dissimilar to those one would find in a traditional employer. They can track success rates of individual workers to provide feedback, or exclude them from certain jobs altogether if their skills prove unworthy. Again, since the two sides are approaching this topic from very different perspectives, it is difficult to tell which side has more heft to their arguments.

Further complicating matters are recent discovery rulings passed down to CrowdFlower, barring them from further investigating the work history of Otey. The court has ruled that such knowledge is irrelevant to the case, and that the only thing that matters is the relationship between CrowdFlower and Otey.

Endgame: The Fate of an Industry

No matter who wins the suit, crowd labor’s role in the workforce could be forever altered. There are multitudes of sites that operate under a similar structure as CrowdFlower. If it’s found that Otey, and by extension those like him, are employees rather than contractors, the ramifications would be far-reaching.  This ruling would force CrowdFlower to bar its contributors in the U.S. from taking on low-paying tasks. Other companies similar to CrowdFlower may find themselves forced to close up shop rather than face the dramatic restructuring this verdict would require.

On the flip side, if it’s found that Otey and his ilk are indeed contractors, the exact opposite would occur. The precedent set by this case would protect companies similar to CrowdFlower, instead of undermining the very concepts that helped them flourish in the first place.

I found myself at a difficult crossroads when considering which side of this case has more leverage. The fact that the industry will be forever altered, regardless of the verdict, put me in a position where I really had to consider what either side’s victory would represent. A win for the plaintiffs would force some crowd labor sites to restructure and others to cease existing, but would also bring them in line with modern-day U.S. labor laws and perhaps even cement those remaining as a legitimate way to earn a living.

A victory for the defendants, on the other hand, would establish that there is a place in America for this type of labor. I like to think of crowd labor as akin to a snack vending machine; the work is convenient and there when you need it, and anyone can access it, but it’s not really substantial. It’s best used to supplement a main source of income, or as filler when you don’t have one, and I think such a service is unique and useful. Were there a defendant victory, I would love to then see U.S. labor laws restructured to allow such companies to continue comfortably existing.

Either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this case as it continues developing. I just hope I don’t have to watch the industry that I love die a slow, red-tape-swaddled death.

“Crowdsourcing For Dummies” Released

29 May

Image © 2013 Daily Crowdsource

The title says it all. With the release of “Crowdsourcing For Dummies”, crowdsourcing now has its own entry in the popular “for dummies” series. Add this to the fact that crowdfunding is now enough of “a thing” to be parodied, and I’d say that crowdsourcing has officially and finally landed in the public eye. About time!

Daily Crowdsource is on the scene with details about the instructional book:

Over the past year, Daily Crowdsource writer, Crowd Leader, author, Professor, Crowdopolis speaker, & IEEE Computer Society President, David Alan Grier, has been compiling his knowledge in his latest publication, Crowdsourcing For Dummies. It’s a plain-English guide to help you understand crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, & open innovation.

I’m excited about this release because I’ve been communicating with Grier throughout the writing cycle & know he’s put a lot of time into it. Here’s what his latest book will teach you:

  • Plan and launch your crowdsourcing project
  • Find the right platform for your needs
  • Promote your project and attract the right audience
  • Manage and motivate your crowd to get the best results

David Allen Grier is a leader in the field and highly influential when it comes to the topic of crowdsourcing, so the fact that he’s the driving force behind this book makes me very confident about the accuracy of the information contained within. I’m undoubtedly going to pick up a copy as soon as I get my next paycheck. If you’re a fan of this blog, consider the same.

Amazon Announces Kindle Worlds, Pays For Fanfiction

24 May Image © 1996-2013, Amazon.com, Inc.
Image © 1996-2013, Amazon.com, Inc.

Image © 1996-2013, Amazon.com, Inc.

Amazon announced on Wednesday that they would soon be launching a new service called Kindle Worlds, which would allow fanfiction authors to publish their works on the Kindle store and receive royalties from sales. They’ve made deals with the owners of the original content (“World Licensors”) to allow independent authors to create their own stories and characters within that world and share the profit from their creations. Depending on the word count, authors can earn between 20 to 35% of all base net revenue.

A Great Leap Forward

This is an incredible, game-changing, home run of an idea, and it’s stories like this that make me appreciate how great crowdsourcing is. As I’ve mentioned before, crowdsourcing is often at its best when the controlling company taps into a crowd that is feverishly zealous about their passion, but has no official platform to share those creations.

Amazon recognizes that there is a huge base of authors who are wildly passionate about their fanfiction, and an even bigger base of readers who tear through the world-expanding content at a voracious rate. Kindle Worlds will be a great way for the World Licensors to expand their worlds, make further profit, and gain new ideas for official releases. Meanwhile, the fanfiction authors gain notoriety and actually receive compensation for their writing. And of course, the readers are thrilled to get new stories about their favorite worlds and characters, and their buying power will provide popular authors the incentive to crank out even more content. And thanks to the robust ratings system the Kindle store already has in place, the users can also contribute their ratings to ensure that quality stories get pushed to the top and poorly-written ones are buried.

Minor Roadblocks

There are, however, a few potential downsides. Amazon has rigid content rules in place that disallow pornographic or “crossover” stories. These are unfortunately both tools that fanfiction authors utilize with extremely high frequency. Crossover stories allow different fictional worlds to collide and interact, and erotic literature is often a staple for source content that doesn’t openly display the more intimate details of characters’ relationships. These restrictions aren’t deal-breaking though; the “no porn” rule simply relegates stories to the equivalent of R ratings, which is more than enough to provide sufficiently steamy content. And we may see the crossover ban lifted as Amazon gains the rights to more and more creative properties.

The major worrying features are that the World Licensors gain the creative rights to any new narrative elements that the authors create, and can then use them in official releases without compensating their original creator. I can see why they’d do this; the aim of Kindle Worlds is to collaboratively expand the Worlds and allow anyone the use of newly-created narrative elements. It still feels kind of shitty to not compensate the authors, though.

There is the additional issue that people already create, share, and read fanfiction for no charge on highly popular websites like Fanfiction.net. I see this is being a minor speedbump, though. People have proven through services like Netflix and iTunes that they are more than willing to pay for TV, movies, and music that they could have gotten for free if it’s the right price and the right level of accessibility. I don’t see a reason to believe that books will be any different.

Power to the People

Ultimately, this is a great idea that mines an underutilized resource to accomplish what is essentially a noble goal: paying people for their efforts. In this economy, where jobs are hard to come by and people make money where they can, I’d be willing to bet that some fanfiction authors are currently jumping up and down in excitement at the prospect of finally getting paid for their work. Plus, bringing fanfiction into the public eye might change the general opinion that it’s all poorly-written schlock with no entertainment value.

Well done, Amazon, and please do hurry up on obtaining the licenses to as many intellectual properties as you can. The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl are cool, but they don’t exactly make me want to rush out to buy a Kindle.

Nintendo Pokes Fun At Crowdfunding With Wario’s “Crowdfarter”

22 May
Image © 2013 Nintendo

Image © 2013 Nintendo

Ask any musician that’s been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, and they’ll tell you: you’ve only truly made it when someone parodies you. Which is why I’m thrilled to death that crowdfunding is such a big deal that videogame giant Nintendo has lampooned it to sell their new Wii U game, Game & Wario.

Crowdfunding was popularized by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that present underfunded projects for people to throw money at if they want to see them completed. Nintendo’s parody, the maturely-named “Crowdfarter”, copies elements from the source material in a manner that shows that Nintendo isn’t just trying to cash in on a buzzword. They’ve made a conscious effort here to find the funniest and most ripe-for-parody elements of crowdfunding sites, and to represent them through their “lazy greedy corporate slob” character, Mario’s unscrupulous brother Wario.

Wario is a great fit for this parody; he wants to cash in on the new Wii U system, so he needs a game to do it. But of course, he doesn’t want to pay his own money to make the game, and that’s where we come in. Through Facebook “Likes” and Twitter shares, Wario will “fund” his game and spread awareness at the same time.

Nintendo went to notable lengths to rip on crowdfunding as lovingly as possible. All the elements that make crowdfunding unique are here: we’ve got the poorly-produced introduction video, the lofty and over-hyped funding goal rewards, the updates from Wario where he professes that his project will be “the best Wii U game ever”, and the less-than-subtle indication that the entire thing is less about the final product and more of a huge cash grab.

This parody would feel disingenuous if done poorly, but Wario’s characterization is absolutely perfect for this campaign. He’s unarguably the type of character who would see a system like crowdfunding and immediately attempt to game it for his own self-interested and lazy purposes. Wario might have even inadvertently touched on a deeper crowdsourcing issue with one off-the-cuff line: “Why should I pay for everything when other people will do it for me?” The best parodies always contain a kernel of truth.

Well done, Nintendo. I don’t own a Wii U so I probably won’t buy Game & Wario, but this is a marketing home run.  Check out the parody site here, and throw Wario a Tweet or a Like if you’re so inclined. Goodness knows his lazy ass could use the help.

Haverhill Mayor: Report Potholes, Win Prizes, Improve Your Community

30 Apr
Image © 2013 David Joles, Star Tribune

Image © 2013 David Joles, Star Tribune

Sometimes it’s good to remember that crowdsourcing efforts don’t always have to be huge, world-sweeping events that change the very nature of how our society functions. Sometimes, crowdsourcing just provides us with a neat way to improve the immediate world around us, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now in a town in Massachusetts.

James Fiorentini, the mayor of Haverhill, MA, has recently put out the call to the residents of his town: find potholes for us to fix, and get a chance to win one of three $25 gift certificates from local businesses. It’s a win/win/win proposition; the contest winners get free services and merchandise, the residents of the town get better roads, and the mayor can spend resources on fixing potholes instead of locating them. In his announcement, the mayor stated that he intends to fix all of the reported potholes within two business days of when they are discovered.

I personally think this is just swell. Potholes are a huge annoyance to anyone who uses a wheeled vehicle to navigate roads, and there is no shortage of people who are angry enough about them to report them. While some residents have correctly identified this to be the job of the Department of Public Works, I would image that it is difficult for that group to be prolific enough to locate every pothole by themselves. By recruiting regular citizens, they essentially get watchdogs on every street in every neighborhood. The added bonus of a specific phone number and email address to send these reports means they can all be grouped together instead of potentially getting lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy.

This project is also three-for-three on successful crowdsourcing tenets. There is a joint incentive for those participating; they get the guaranteed improvement of their neighborhoods and a change at some free local swag. Like successful campaigns before them, this one gives an outlet to those who were desperately trying to have their concerns heard and met. The barrier of entry is appropriately low, and the inclusion of both a dedicated phone number and email address for reports means that even technologically-impaired residents can participate. And the compartmentalization is about as straightforward as you can get; it doesn’t get much clearer than “tell us where the potholes are.”

Interestingly, some citizens are less-than-pleased at this announcement. The comments section for the initial announcement contains many who would like to see the DPW be a little more dedicated to their jobs, eliminating the need for citizen reports in the first place. I addressed this concern above, but the local commentariat has additional complaints that I think are a little more well-founded. Mainly, they think that the prizes offered are either insufficient or downright insulting. Some would rather see the money go towards repairing vehicles that have already been damaged by potholes, and others feel that the combined $75 total of prize value is a mere distraction from the fact that citizens are being asked to cover the perceived failures of their local government.

As an outsider to the intricacies of Haverhill political intrigue, my opinion of this story as a whole is generally positive. I would jump at the opportunity to similarly improve my own residential area, and seeing public officials at least attempt to connect with their constituents is heartwarming even if the execution is less than over-the-top. I hope this story gets some traction and other cities offer similar services in the future. It would make all of our rides a little smoother.

Reflections on Boston: People Screwed Up, Not Crowdsourcing

23 Apr
Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Ohh, these have been a maddening last few days. The U.S. sort of went to hell last week, and at the center of it all we had the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent panic, finger-pointing, racism, media incompetence, armchair investigation, death threats, and basic reminders that we, as a species, are not that great.

But of course, you’re here because you want to read about crowdsourcing. Throughout this story unfolding, internet denizens gathered on social media outlets, mainly Reddit, to collect information, speculate on as-yet-uncovered details, and attempt to reduce confusion. Which is fine! That’s what Reddit is for; collecting all of the Internet into one place where just the good stuff rises to the surface. The problem arises when certain people decide to take this information and, because they are obviously smarter than the FBI, CIA, and Boston PD combined, attempt to find the perpetrators of the bombings before the authorities do.

Alright, let’s do a rundown of who in this narrative is making me angry (hint: everyone):

  • Redditors. Not as a whole. Reddit is everyone; that is its beauty. I’m mad at the Redditors who had the gall to think they were smarter than the tens of thousands of investigating officials. What leads a person to believe that just because they have a few blurry citizen photographs and some other Internet Detectives on their side, they are better at solving crimes than entities with sophisticated investigation techniques, access to innumerable surveillance sources, a network of collaborators, and the support of the U.S. Government? Glory, maybe. The idea that they can achieve Internet fame for cracking the case. But, that’s The Internet. Some people on it are idiots. I know that, and you know that, but do you know who apparently didn’t know that?
  • Mass Media. The Internet will wildly speculate on anything and everything, but that doesn’t make it fact. What makes a fact is confirmation, proof, and sources. You know, things major news outlets are supposed to get before they report that some random student is probably the bomber. But, of course, as soon as Reddit came up with the name of a dark-skinned male who was possibly a little suspicious, news outlets unfortunately ran with it. With the help of Reddit itself, this poor individual’s family was harassed with countless accusations that their relative was the Boston Bomber. All false, of course. No one knew the identity of the suspects until (surprise!) their names were released by the FBI. Not Reddit, not NBC, not Twitter: the real, honest-to-God government agents who were investigating the case. Turns out they can do their jobs after all!
  • Internet Journalists. Specifically the ones who are liberal with their use of the word “crowdsourcing”. After the events of this story shook out, many were quick to blame crowdsourcing for the colossal amount of incompetence that went down. I’ve got a news flash for all of them: what happened here wasn’t an example of “crowdsourcing” by any definition of the word. What many forget is that aside from the presence of a crowd, the equally important component of crowdsourcing is the controlling entity, the person or people directing the crowd. It’s what separates this story from the time that crowdsourcing actually did solve a murder mystery. What we have here is crowdsourcing with a complete lack of compartmentalization; without a leader steering them towards a common goal, the crowd governs themselves. I should hope I don’t have to tell you how well that sort of thing typically works out.
  • Media Consumers. Yeah, I’m in this boat and so are all of you. We’re the reason for the 24-hour news cycle, we’re the reason that fact-checking is passé and editorialized headlines are the norm. We’re the reason the media will jump on the opportunity to place the blame on any brown kid they can find. And we’re the reason that Reddit posts saying “hey guys, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and let the authorities do their jobs” got downvoted straight to hell. We demand answers more than we demand correct answers, and our constant yearning for entertainment has turned the news into what at times feels like a constant stream of barely-relevant information. I know this is well-trodden ground at this point, and that I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said fifty times before by people much smarter than me. I don’t care. I’m angry anyway.

I think if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that the Internet has made many people forget their places. The fact that information can travel so quickly from brain to fingers to keyboard to THE WHOLE WORLD and onto a new brain makes people think that they can solve mysteries better than the pros. These are people who dedicate their lives to these things, and chances are they’re better at it than the random Internet denizen. Let them do their jobs.

People on Reddit are supposed to gather and share information; they don’t investigate crimes, finger suspects, or make Facebook raids. The media reports what is happening in the world, once they’re absolutely sure that it is indeed happening. If they see something worth reporting on Reddit, they are perfectly within their rights to do so, but they are obligated to make sure it’s true first. And the viewers of the news are supposed to watch it, not demand it. Demand for news leads to fabrication of news.

Everyone, please take a breather, recoup, and kindly go about your business.

PucaTrade is a Collaborative Way To Trade Magic Cards

15 Apr

Image © 2013 PucaTrade

It’s been well-established by this point that I am a fan of Magic: The Gathering. There’s just something about shuffling up your deck and launching a barrage of monsters, weapons, and sorcery at an opponent’s tender, innocent face. The only downside is that the cards themselves, the fundamental building blocks of the entire game, are not cheap. It’s not uncommon to see highly-played cards for some formats valued at $100 each.

PucaTrade.com aims to change the game by making the process of trading cards between players crazy simple, and it’s doing it through crowdsourcing. The driving concept is that of Collaborative Consumption, where people share things they own instead of maintaining permanent ownership. Zipcar has used this concept to great success with their car-sharing service, and PucaTrade extends the concept to Magic cards.

With PucaTrade, users mail out cards they own that other users also happen to want. In return, they receive some amount of “PucaPoints”, which in turn can be spent on cards the user wants. It’s dead simple, and PucaTrade plays fair by keeping a constant eye on card values and making sure no users are getting ripped off by uneven trades. In another act of crowdsourcing, the site developers have teamed up with the users to create PucaBot. The site-owned “user” identifies and buys surplus cards in order to even out the economy and make a little money to keep the site running.

It’s a solid concept. People who play Magic often have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unplayed and unwanted cards in their collections that would be better off in the hands of someone who’d actually appreciate them. PucaTrade also circumvents the entire economy of online card shopping, where prices can vary drastically and shipping snafus can prevent cards from arriving for days. With PucaTrade, the grassroots approach means its users can send and receive a steady stream of cards to each other at no cost except postage. Brilliant.

PucaTrade is growing quickly, and has already traded over $80,000 worth of cards between its users. They are currently doing an Indiegogo project to get out of beta and add some really great features to the site, including a redesigned interface and more tools for user interaction. If you’re as into Magic as I am, or if you just think these cards are getting crazy stupid expensive, donate to the campaign and/or register on the website and start trading. You get free PucaPoints if you share the campaign on Facebook or Twitter, too!

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