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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.


Amazon Announces Kindle Worlds, Pays For Fanfiction

24 May
Image © 1996-2013,, Inc.

Image © 1996-2013,, 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 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.

Casey Armstrong: Saving The World, Going Open-Source, Turning People Into Robots

23 Jan

Casey Armstrong, VineStove founderCasey Armstrong has been a busy man. Formerly the content director at Daily Crowdsource, Armstrong has recently founded his own company, VineStove. A crowd labor/ microtasking site at heart, VineStove’s general essence is similar to that of Amazon Mechanical Turk, ShortTask, or Fiverr. People post jobs or tasks for others to carry out, and pay them a small amount for doing so. These are tasks that can typically be completed in the ballpark of five minutes; example tasks on VineStove’s homepage include photoshopping an image or researching payment plans.

The thing that sets VineStove apart from those sites, however, is the fact that all the work is done on a strictly volunteer basis. Payment is still rendered, but instead of going to the person doing the work, it’s donated to a charity or nonprofit organization of the worker’s choice. And according to Armstrong, the companies are “doing some pretty cool things. I just added the SENS Foundation, for example; they work on longevity research. Channeling money to them means we all get to live a little longer!”

Casey’s Gift To The World

There’s another layer to Armstrong’s world-saving scheme. In addition to providing labor and funding for these foundations, he intends to eventually make VineStove open-source, allowing anyone with adequate interest to have access to the entirety of code he uses to run his site.

“The end game for me is really the open-source project,” Armstrong affirms. “I want to see microtasking get big and mature faster. I am addicted to sites like mTurk and Quora,  and microvolunteering sites like Sparked; I want microtasking to become a part of everything, really.”

He sees the open-source release of VineStove to be an important step in the process. “It might seem like a gutsy move, but I firmly believe that a crowdsourcing platform is about what you put into it, and not its clever construction or web development. I had struggled to build a microtasking site for years. It took me a lot of effort to learn web development, research my options, and plan it all out… I wish VineStove could have gone up in three clicks years ago.”

By releasing VineStove’s source code to the public, Armstrong’s intention is that anyone with a reasonable amount of dedication will be able to build a platform to serve their purposes, with minimal technical knowledge required. Like a true altruist, he hopes to render the hardships that he himself encountered in building his platform obsolete.

Right, But What’s This About Turning Folks Into Robots?

Getting a site ready to go open-source isn’t an easy task. It takes money, and for a small team like Armstrong’s, a certain amount of extra hands. And oddly enough, the solution to those problems can be found in the form of a crowdfunded robotic intern.VineStove campaign

I discussed crowdfunding a little bit last week; it’s the process of soliciting funding for a project from good-hearted denizens of the Internet instead of trying to get a big corporation or fatcat to bankroll the whole thing. Armstrong’s current project on RocketHub intends to do just that, providing the capital to make VineStove open-source through donations by people like you and me.

The robotic intern is the reward. Donate at least $5, and you’ll earn the ability to join Armstrong in his team on the project by piloting the robot as a proxy. You’ll be able to freely move around the VineStove office, interact with the staff, help out with the website, or even just drive the thing into Casey’s foot for half an hour (if that’s your thing).

While the ability for VineStove to get a different intern with a different skill set each day is one that will undoubtedly add some flexibility to Armstrong’s team, he also states that the project has an aspect of novelty as well. “The robot idea is mostly just fun. I don’t know where it will lead. However, I’m a believer in the internet spilling out into the real world, and I think we’re going to see more internet controlled robots in the future,” Armstrong says. He went on to reference similar projects in the past, particularly one in which mTurk allowed people to remotely control a robotic arm to perform common household tasks.

Become a Member of Team Armstrong

If any bit of this sounds appealing to you, know that there is more than ample opportunity for you to join in and help Casey save the world. With a little more than two weeks left in the funding campaign, there’s plenty of time to donate and help bring microtasking to the masses. If you’ve got a unique set of skills, you can put them to work by signing up to be one of the robotic interns, or just using VineStove itself to do some good-old charity work; all you need is a Facebook registration.

Whether you want to live forever, build your own thriving online community, or just mess around with a robot for a few hours, Casey Armstrong has you covered, and the world is better off because of it.

CrowdsUnite Is Your One-Stop Shop for Crowdfunding

16 Jan


Attention entrepreneurs! CrowdsUnite has emerged as a deadly useful new service, making its way onto the scene with the intention of connecting you with the perfect platform for crowdfunding your dream business, product or artistic endeavor.

What is crowdfunding, you may ask? A fair question; it’s a topic I’ve only addressed a couple times on this blog. Crowdfunding is a specific type of crowdsourcing that aims to change the way that large projects receive funding. Instead of the people behind these projects appealing to an official board or a wealthy corporation for their startup money, they turn the challenge to the “crowd”.

Crowdfunding sites typically consist of a large collection of project plans, and allow individuals browsing the site to donate money to projects they wish to see carried out. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are two of the most popular of these brand of sites; Kickstarter users alone pledged over $319 million in 2012.

In addition, users typically receive some sort of compensation in exchange for their donation to up-and-coming projects. Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects offer prizes to donors depending on how much money they chip in; the looser your purse-strings, the greater the reward. Other sites offer a return on your investment once the project takes off, and still others even offer equity, allowing you to share in your project’s success.

CrowdsUnite aims to become the main compendium of crowdfunding sites. “What Amazon did for retail, we want to do for the crowdfunding industry,” says Alex Feldman, the CEO and founder of CrowdsUnite. Since many crowdfunding platforms are specifically geared towards certain types of projects, and since more of them keep popping up every day, a single place where they are all collected, sorted, and categorized is extremely useful. In the future, Feldman says he hopes that CrowdsUnite will be the first stop for any individual who wants to find the perfect platform to start their crowdfunding campaign.

The site’s features, while constantly improving, are already quite robust. All of the most popular and successful platforms have detailed profile pages on CrowdsUnite, where potential campaign managers can view information such as fee structure, the nature of how the platform handles compensation, and if the platform is specific to certain countries. Additionally, CrowdUnite’s visitors can view reviews, comments, and articles  for each platform, submitted by their fellow users. Possibly the most useful feature is the ability to compare two or more platforms side-by-side to see how they stack up against each other.

If you’d like to help CrowdUnite on its way to becoming the go-to Wikipedia for crowdfunding, the best thing to do it hop over to the site and register an account. Fleshing out the information on various platforms by submitting content is a great way to get your favorite platform noticed and discover new ones. Feldman also adds that he is looking for business partners; if you are an industry professional or consultant that wants to explore the crowdfunding space, the relationship that CrowdsUnite holds with these platform administrators would be useful to you.

5 Oct

My first article for Ziptask’s blog, Work 3.0! I won’t make a habit of posting my Ziptask stuff here, but this is an exception.

Work 3.0

Don’t get ahead of me.

Freelancers, for many industries, are a fact of life. Media outlets hire them constantly to get fresh perspectives on newsworthy events. Programming development firms often include a revolving door of freelance or third-party programming and QA teams. And many artists subside entirely on freelancing, taking different jobs every few weeks or even every few days. According to this survey from, one in three companies will turn to staffing/recruitment firms and freelancers this year.

But the process of employing freelancers? Sucks. No denying.

At your basest level is the initial act of simply finding a worker you want on your team. You spend money on job ads and spend time posting and responding to offers on Craigslist or LinkedIn or Freelancer or oDesk, hoping against hope to find the one useful name in a pile of thousands. And we haven’t even gotten to the interview…

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Dominos Call For The Ultimate Delivery Vehicle Illustrates Importance of a Solid Platform

27 Aug

Dominos Ultimate Delivery Vehicle

I had to do a double-take. How is it that of all the companies pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into their crowdsourcing efforts, the one to finally get it is Dominos? I am referring, of course, to their Ultimate Delivery Vehicle Project, currently in phase 1 of 5.

The plan was simple, but one that had nonetheless tripped up countless entities in the past. Dominos would solicit project designs from the crowd, one would rise to the top, and that designer would be rewarded handsomely with oodles of cash ($10,000) and worldwide fame. Oh, right, and their design becomes reality.

So what makes Dominos so unique in their approach? Just a bit of classic crowdsourcing wisdom, applied creatively. When you need a large group of people, in one place, to carry out a singular goal, don’t attempt to cultivate the group yourself; just go where the crowd already exists.

UDV EntriesThis was handled beautifully by hosting the contest with Local Motors’  The Forge, a site specifically dedicate to designers who want to create vehicles. In one move, Dominos weeded out every person who was not interested in both vehicles and designing, and the site’s sign-up verification features took away just enough user anonymity to prevent disaster. So when you browse through the contest entries, you don’t see the normal mix of 90% crap and 10% usable. It’s quite the opposite; almost every entry has an extremely high level of professionalism, complete with detailed sketches, 3D mockups, and other explanatory content.

There was one more masterstroke by Dominos, and it wasn’t even that complicated; they just posted a really, really, stunningly detailed design brief. That’s it. They simply listed every possible thing a user would need to know about the company, the drivers, the product, the things the car needs to have, and the contest details. It seems like a minor step, but again, it’s unfortunately not something you see most companies do when they host a contest like this. It’s a small gesture that shows Dominos is serious, and that they expect their users’ entries to be as well.

I applaud Dominos, for taking a bold step forward and in the process demonstrating to any other company interested in crowdsourcing that, really, all you need is to treat it like a legitimate-ass business transaction. It’s the tiniest bit of effort that really shines through, and I sincerely hope that when all is said and done, Dominos finds themselves with a really great fleet of community-designed vehicles.

ThinkGeek Opens Its Doors To Your Weird Product Ideas

9 Aug


ThinkGeek :: Idea Factory

Like Steam before it, the geek-culture retail powerhouse ThinkGeek has finally announced that they will allow their customers to have a greater role in the product development process. It comes in the form of IdeaFactory, where users can send their ideas to ThinkGeek though their online submission form. ThinkGeek reviews the idea, decides whether or not to produce it, and pays the user if they decide to go ahead with it.

On the surface, this is pretty similar to Quirky, but with some major key differences:

  • ThinkGeek is big. It has the advantage, like Steam, of already being a well-loved and established retail platform with profits well into the millions. They have the money to spend to make a project like this great, and a huge army of ravenous supporters ready to submit their ideas. Quirky has neither of these advantages.
  • The process is so, so easy. All the online submission form asks for is a product name and as much description or image as you’re willing to give. The rest is contact info; your name, address, phone number, and agreement to the Terms and Conditions. In the time it took me to type this, you could have submitted five ideas already. After that, ThinkGeek takes care of the whole thing; no garnering votes, no contacting manufacturers, no raising money. They just make your idea into a product, simple as that.
  • The rewards are huge. Just from ThinkGeek green-lighting your concept, you net a cool thousand dollars. After that comes the real stuff. A 10% cut of the product’s profits until it hits $1 million in sales (5% after that, still not bad). A very heavy discount if you want to buy your own product. And perhaps most importantly, the ability to sell the product on your own website, make trade show appearances, and generally keep all bragging rights and fame from your idea.

So if you have an idea for a cool computer accessory, geeky article of clothing, or inventive toy, now’s the time. Submit your idea now, before everyone catches wind of this and floods the system with “human-to-Wookie translator”-caliber ideas.


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