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PucaTrade Launches IndieGoGo Campaign for New Features

2 Mar PucaTrade

If you remember I love Magic: the Gathering, you may remember the last time I wrote about PucaTrade, the crowdsourcing-powered website for trading Magic cards.

PucaTrade

I’m back today to announce the launch of PucaTrade’s second IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to add new features to the site. The campaign, which launches on March 2nd and runs for 30 days, will raise money for five upcoming features:

  • A mobile version of the PucaTrade website
  • The ability to trade non-English cards
  • The ability to trade digital Magic: the Gathering Online cards for real-life paper ones, and vice-versa
  • The ability to trade cards of any condition, not just mint/near-mint
  • Support for trading more than one of the same card at a time

Some of these features represent truly unique services, in particular the ability to trade between Magic Online and real-life Magic cards. Currently, a simple way to do this just does not exist. “The reality is that no one is really excited about how MTGO currently handles trading,” says Eric Freytag, PucaTrade’s founder. “We’re really offering something that nobody has seen before: the elegance you’ve come to expect from the PucaTrade experience combined with the MTGO ecosystem.” Personally, I think it could be a great way to help more players get their hands on older cards, many of whose digital versions are affordable but paper forms require a second mortgage.

The idea of support for foreign-language cards is also exciting. Freytag is very enthusiastic about it, calling the opportunity for PucaTrade to go global “a huge deal. In America, we tend to think of non-English cards as unique oddities that are fun to collect, but for a huge percentage of Magic players worldwide, ‘non-English cards’ are just ‘Magic cards.’” He’s absolutely right, and increasing PucaTrade’s potential user base by this much will be an enormous boon for the site’s popularity.

I was initially a little skeptical of the ability to trade cards of any condition. A staple of any good crowdsourcing system is its ability to compartmentalize a project into small tasks that are easily managed by an individual with little to no oversight. Asking your average Magic player to be able to accurately grade their cards’ quality seems like a tall order, but Freytag has confidence in his user base: “Mostly we plan on going really deep on our condition guide, to leave little question about what the card is worth.” He goes on to say that PucaTrade will also add features to upload photos of cards and transfer “PucaPoints” mid-trade, giving traders the tools needed to solve many disputes by themselves.

With Freytag behind the wheel, a user base more than 45,000 strong, and almost half a million dollars’ worth of trades completed each month, PucaTrade looks like it’s on track to knock this campaign out of the park. Adding these features will add a ton of flexibility in terms of how users dictate their trades and help cement PucaTrade as the #1 place to trade cards easily and profitably. If you’d like to donate to the campaign, swing on over to the IndieGoGo page and show your support!

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.

Hallelujah The Hills’ Ryan Walsh Releases His Crowd-Composed Song

18 Jan

Ryan Walsh of Halellujah The Hills

Some time ago, I interviewed Ryan Walsh, the lead singer and guitarist for the indie band Hallelujah The Hills. He had just begun a project, presented by Surviving The World, that asked fans to submit their own musical interpretation of the phrase “You can escape your fate, but it’s not considered polite.” Walsh would then mix all of the submissions into a single, cohesive track, essentially creating an entirely crowdsourced composition.

He finally released the finished track earlier this week, so I sat down to hear his thoughts about the creation process, what about the project surprised him, and how he thought the world would receive it.

  • I never thought this would garner me much press.  It’s an artistic experiment!
  • The bulk of the actual hands-on work was creating this massive sound collage using Audacity, and keeping track of which songs I had already used and which ones I still needed.
  • I ended up receiving about 100 tracks. That would explain the exorbitant amount of time it took me to finish.
  • I loaded the tracks onto my iPod and started playing them during car rides. I made notes about which ones were super melodic, or haunting, or ones that might make good background samples.
  • In truth, there was a lot of chin scratching.  Like, “What do I do with all these wildly different mini-songs?”
  • I originally thought this would be more of a song-song. I had dreams of changing them to all be in the same key and making it a more straightforward thing.
  • That plan quickly crumbled.
  • I went back to the drawing board and began to arrange the tracks in a more showcase style.  Like, “here is what people did with this.”
  • To put a phrase out there in the ether and have it come back at you like this is a particularly odd feeling. It feels like I put a message in a bottle out to sea and 100 bottles came back with strange reinterpretations of my original message.
  • When I finished the track, it was nothing at all like I imagined it would end up. I kind of chuckled and thought, “I’m not sure what this thing is but I’m attracted to it on some level.”
  • There was uncertainty. Will this be pleasing to the contributors or worrisome? Will people who didn’t contribute enjoy this? Will it be interesting to people who don’t know the back story? Those types of questions.
  • The worry was mixed with delight, though, which is always a good sign.
  • I think that SoundCloud and the internet is the final destination for this piece.  The internet is global and forever, so that’s not too shabby of a permanent address. Plus, it was a creation of the internet. It’s like a hall of mirrors up in this piece!
  • Here’s the thing: this piece might not be a toe tapper, but I did make it for people to enjoy! Some people have different definitions of enjoyment, and I would gladly give all the original files to anyone who wants to take their own shot at it!
  • If I were to try this again, I think it’d be interesting to have people do melodic “ahhhhs” and work with that.  Or spoken word sentences based on certain rules and cut that all up.  Or maybe even some kind of video collage.
  • Right now, though, I gotta focus on recording the fourth Hallelujah The Hills album. I’m using all my skills and spirit to make it! It will be nothing like this piece, but the phrase does appear in one of the new songs.
  • It’s not all about page views and hits! I just do what I love.  I loved making this thing, and that’s kind of all I need.

Here is the final arrangement, which Walsh describes as similar to a “hypnotic, off-brand meditation tape one might accidentally find at a thrift store.”

Peter LaMotte Clears The Air About GeniusRocket at TEDxWDC

10 Jul

Many of you may remember my less-than-kind critique of GeniusRocket a little while back. Peter LaMotte, the president of the company, was so kind as to comment on the article (amicably!) and invite me to their DC office to discuss the matters further.

Our meeting was an eye-opening experience, and I am much more at ease with how their model works now. If you’re still wondering how this story shook out, this speech, given by Mr. Lamotte at TEDxWDC, may shine some light on the GR process. The company is nowhere near as bad as I originally thought; they’re just geared towards a different type of audience than I expected.

The Music of Many: Interview With Ryan Walsh

24 May

Ryan WalshRyan Walsh is a singer and guitarist for the Boston band Hallelujah The Hills. In celebration of their new album out this week, Walsh has teamed up with web comic Surviving the World to present a crowdsourced project to his fans. He asks participants to record their own personal melody for the phrase, “You can escape your fate but it’s not considered polite.” He’ll then sew them together into a single, collaborative musical masterpiece.

  • What happened was, Dante Shepherd asked us to guest host his web comic Surviving The World for a week in honor of our album release. We had four lessons (posts) set to go but I needed to turn in one more. I thought, well Dante has all of these cool, interesting followers; what if we somehow all built a song together?
  • I was Googling the evolutionary reasons for music and I was surprised that no one agreed on one theory. But after I read different theories for a while, I kept seeing this idea that it binds people together as a group. It seemed so obvious, but then sort of profound at the same time.
  • So this is an experiment to make some new kind of song but it’s also an experiment to bring a group of strangers together to work on something as a team.
  • There’s a reason I’m in a band and not a solo performer. It’s a hive mind type of thing. The one-hundredth monkey. When you can effectively pull ideas from everywhere and work together it’s like putting rocket fuel in your engine.
  • Everything is an idea at first. That’s why spending time improving idea-gathering skills is so important.
  • I’ve gotten 22 submissions so far. If I get 25 that’ll be enough, and if I get 200 that’ll work too.
  • I’m going to put them all on my iPod and get familiar with them for a few days. Then I’m just going to have fun with the cutting and pasting, and we’ll overdub some additional instruments and vocals on top. It could end up a 3 minute song or an hour-long piece!
  • This is an open-ended experiment. No expectations, it’s more fun that way. Certainly I hope to see something new, some kind of insight.
  • We could do something with only two or three tracks, honestly. But I think it’ll make the composition more interesting, diverse, and fun with more people involved. An avalanche of melodies will only be a good thing! It’s definitely the “collage” spirit.
  • I would love our entire fan base to join in.
  • If you record one sentence spoken by anyone you encounter today and play it on repeat it’ll reveal itself as music in about two minutes. For me, there’s a fine line between art made by committee (bad) and a group-sourced creation (good).
  • Every stranger is a possible partner in a creation neither of you have thought of yet.

Walsh is accepting submissions until June 1st, so whip out that voice recorder, sing for five seconds, and email the MP3 or song file to ryan@hallelujahthehills.com. You could be a part of collaborative musical history, and/or win the entire HtH discography!

Finding Favors: Insightful Statements from Reddit’s Kleinbl00

6 Feb
Reddit user kleinbl00 created, organized, and moderated a subsection of the site dedicated to “favors”—small bits of expertise and/or material traded amongst the community for altruistic reasons. He offers his insights on crowdsourcing, Reddit, and some of the lessons he has learned.
  • Reddit’s strength is that it very efficiently organizes discussion hierarchically. It is often crushed under its own weight, but its ability to interlink and reinforce any discussion based on popular ranking tends to refine any discussion to the most popular points.
  • This is also its weakness, but if you want something to happen quickly, that’s what it does.
  • In the fracas over the “mystery missile” last year, I put forth the notion that it could have been a launch from San Nicolas Island—a notion I now consider discredited, by the way. It didn’t take a couple of hours before people stationed on San Nicolas Island—a closed military facility—added their opinion and fact-checking. This is not something that happens in the New York Times comments—and if it did, you’d never know.
  • Adrian Chen documented pretty succinctly the horrors inflicted on a girl who was simply trying to raise money on Reddit for cancer research. The Internet loves giving to a good cause. But if they have their trust betrayed, they unleash a torrent of unholy fury at the nameless, faceless individual on the other end of the computer who dared to make them feel human.
  • I think that people love being altruistic, but they hate having to judge who is worthy of their altruism.
  • One problem with crowdsourcing is that generally, there isn’t anyone willing to vouch for whether or not someone is trustworthy. But that doesn’t stop the “crowd” from expecting someone to do that job, and if no one does, the crowd will choose someone to be worthy of their wrath… and they’re seldom careful about it.
  • I don’t know that anyone is an expert on crowdsourcing. I think it’s new and I think everyone is sort of puzzling out what they can.
  • One good thing about crowdsourcing: you will be exposed to people you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, who will help you for motives you wouldn’t have expected, and who will provide assistance beyond what you would have imagined.
  • Someone was having a hard time paying their heating bill. /r/favors chipped in something like $500 and helped the guy keep from freezing, but this type of thing is technically in violation of our rules. We had to ask the community if they wanted more of this, because we knew if we allowed it regularly, it would be all we’d see. The community largely agreed not to allow it.
  • /r/assistance originally set itself up for just this sort of thing, but then found themselves inundated with requests from wishuponahero.org. It caused a great deal of turmoil and outrage, with people accusing the moderator there—who’s a genuinely nice and altruistic person—of favoritism for his friends.
  • By surrendering its judgement to an external force, the crowd also raises its personal stakes for failure. Those approaching the crowdsourcing model need to be aware that people will work for what they believe in, but if they decide that their beliefs have been messed with, they’re much less forgiving than if they weren’t part of a crowd.
  • In short, someone needs to be in charge, and they need to be aware that right or wrong, they will be held accountable by everyone working “for” them.
  • Wikipedia is a spectacular resource for base-level information; crowdsourcing that information is useful. But there’s a hell of a lot more information about Harry Potter than there is about, say, Shakespeare. And controversial topics, such as abortion, are mostly noteworthy for their protracted edit wars.
  • Seti@home and folding@home are excellent examples of how well crowdsourcing works for projects in which expertise is not required. Those doing the work don’t need to know a thing about what they’re doing—they just need a willingness to help.
  • Jane McGonigal has an example in her book “Reality is Broken” whereby one of the British papers put up a giant info dump from Parliament for people to weed through in search of auditing irregularities. They found heaps.
  • People on /r/favors generally object to favors the asker could do themselves if they spent 10 minutes with Google. They have no objections to things they can do in ten minutes in Quark or AfterFX, whereas it would take the asker six months to learn all the stuff they know.
  • At the same time, people also aren’t particularly fond of posts akin to, “I recognize that this is something that I can get done for a fee, but I want people to do it as a ‘favor’ because I’m poor/cheap/wish to devalue the professional marketplace.”
  • There is no industry or entity that would be better off replaced by crowdsourcing. None. Zero. Not a one. Crowdsourcing is, in many ways, an attempt to replace expertise, and it never works. Any crowdsourced project needs someone to organize it and separate the wheat from the chaff, which means that any successful crowdsourced entity quickly becomes hierarchical.
  • I get truly heartbreaking e-mails sometimes. People have told me that a rant against Diet Coke had them fundamentally changing their diet and now they have more energy than they’ve had in years.
  • Like fireflies around a lantern, the more of us there are the more of us we attract. Assuming nobody screws up anything major, Reddit is, for all intents and purposes, where the Western Internet gets its shit together.
If you already have an active Reddit account, or you’d simply like to help out your fellow internet user, head over to /r/favors to see who could use your exact type of service.

By Seth W

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