Digital Sweatshops?

One of the things I think is fascinating is how our perspective on an economic issue is defined by the issue’s effects on either buyers or sellers. Consider our perspective on falling media prices, whether it be the declining price of music to the availability of free content on the Internet. Most of us, as consumers but not producers of this content, would view it as an unalloyed positive development. But what about the producers?

I used to use a service called Mechanical Turk. It was a “work at home” job that had employers put job offers on the websites and producers (like myself) accept jobs for pay. What always amazed me was the low wage paid by these jobs. For instance, the average pay for a “service writer” in the United States is currently $35K. I just went on Mechanical Turk and found a job to write a 400 word article on a health insurance companies for $2.50. You would have to write 14,000 articles per year in order to make the average pay for a low-level writer in the United States. And the example I gave is one of the more generous ones — I’ve seen other jobs offer $.25 to write about topics.

My first reaction was to think about the implications of these low-paying jobs on labor laws and ethical issues. If you think it’s unethical to buy clothes made in a sweatshop, how ethical is it to read an article written by someone making less than US minimum wage? The analogy to outsourcing is more apt than one might initially realize, since Amazon Turk offers pay in Indian rupees as well as US dollars. Similarly, should companies be able to contract work out and avoid labor laws simply by having people work at home as “contractors?” I worked for a text answering company called kgb_ that paid individuals $.10 per text and required “contractors” to work certain hours a month. From personal experience, I can tell you that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to make minimum wage working that job. Should it be legal to hire workers and DESIGN the job to violate labor requirements? If we exempt online jobs from these laws, what’s the point of having those laws for non-online jobs?

The broader question that Internet users have to encounter is: Do you get what you pay for? Here is an answer from Google Answers concerning the sale of “International Editions” of certain textbooks. You don’t have to read it, but I am always amazed at the detail and precision with which the question was answered. Let’s take a sample of what you give up by refusing to pay for content. Or this one, which I found to be even more appalling. Now, there are several problems with this answer, and I would ordinarily be willing to give the writer of this answer the benefit of the doubt.  However, a Google search for “Amazon international edition” brings up Yahoo! Answers as its first result.

I read another article here about a company called Demand Media, which pays users to create content that is ad-supported. On the one hand, this content is made free by the Internet obviously benefits those who would not want to pay for the content provided.  On the other hand, the low pay provided by many of these services   That text messaging service I mentioned earlier had a database of all of the questions they had previously answered.  What amazed me was how TERRIBLE most of theseanswers were; they were often irrelevant or, worse, wrong.

If I am looking for an answer to a question like “How do I donate my bike?” I can deal with a 1:15 clip that tells me to a) choose charities out of the phone book, b) make sure they are legitimate, and then c) call them and offer to donate your bike.  All in all, this advice is not the “best” advice, but I’m probably not TOO concerned about making sure that I have chosen the “best” way to donate my bike.  But does the same logic apply for philosophy? literature? economics? politics?  I’m especially concerned that websites will figure out how to “game” Google’s rankings by choosing keywords carefully or by simply producing enough content that it will inevitably dominate the Internet.  If that happens, all content on the Internet will truly be “free” but we will lose quality in the process.

6 responses to “Digital Sweatshops?

  1. It seems like that one is dealing with the same issue when it comes to online content that one would with material content: most of the things available for consumption are produced outside the United States at a cost much lower than it would have been had it been produced here. This is essentially just one more example of globalization, being able to find the cheapest price regardless of national boundaries. An economist would probably say this is the most rational choice and a normal person would say this is what’s bound to happen. In the case of the Internet, it seems like the direction we are heading is the everything (entertainment, news, sports, etc.) will be covered an opposite way that it is now. That is to say, right now we are mostly used to having mass conglomerates like international media companies produce our content. They pay a high price for big names and expensive sets and plenty of other costs. But in an age where friends are willing to sit around the computer (or iPad one day) and watch YouTube videos rather than going to the movies, we are going to see a radical shift that will likely result in the end of giant media companies as people realize that they could watch the stuff that others produce for free. This extends to news and analysis which is already being produced by people who report because they enjoy doing so. What we will move towards is a media landscape in which there is little centralization because of the collapse of major media companies, but an endless repository of free and entertaining content provided by people who simply enjoy producing it.

  2. Someone made a post along these same lines last week with the same concerns. Big media companies aren’t going to go out of business and fade out into the dust if they learn to adapt to new technologies and new customer demands. This “radical shift” really isn’t all that radical, its more like companies are hesitant to go with the flow — they want to stick to their old ways of doing things, and eventually the difference between the swimmers and the sinkers will be who chooses to adapt to the new technology (i.e. YouTube videos, etc.) and who doesn’t. In either case, I wouldn’t worry about it — as a consumer, I think you should keep pushing the media and the big name companies to their limits by challenging the standards of entertainment. Use YouTube, download music, and trust me — if you keep doing that, the entertainment industry will (have to) learn to adapt. Think of it as… helping the companies find motivation to do so, heh!

  3. By the way, that was in reply to gabriel — sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  4. I love Turking. Let me explain why. This summer I worked as a barista at a tennis court coffee shop at an elitist country club. The customers were rude, I worked 11 hour days, and to top it off it rained half of the days in June and July (This is not an exaggeration, it rained ~40in over those two months) so I was stuck doing nothing. When I was bored Turking came to the rescue. I learned some pretty cool things doing those menial tasks, and when the summer was over, I had made some pretty good money too. Is Turking by itself a good job? I’d have to say no, but it’s a lot better than playing flash games or staring off into space.

  5. I agree with MrsAforcer in that I don’t think that the big media companies will have to shut down if they learn to adapt to the new technological climate. Though this is not always true, generally in order for people to put in the effort to produce truly quality entertainment and information they must be able to support themselves financially through their writing, art etc. The other day I was having a conversation with friends about how a lot of bands are “selling out,” usually by having their songs featured on car commercials and the like. We ultimately concluded that this criticism is really unfair. Today people download music off the internet for free. Unsurprisingly, bands have turned to alternate means of revenue and formerly indie bands are now featured in advertisements and sitcoms. So, while technology makes it difficult to for big media companies and artists to make a living using traditional method, old media companies can evolve with the current technology and remain successful.

  6. @Starki09: Love your story! I actually have a soft spot for Amazon Turk, since I really enjoyed the satisfaction of finding Amazon products or rewriting sentences (I know that sounds sarcastic, but it isn’t). I would be interested in seeing how many jobs like Amazon Turk are done to supplement income from another job and how many online jobs are a primary source of income. If individuals are just turning to online work as supplementary income, I can see why companies wouldn’t feel compelled to offer higher wages on this type of work.

    @3sam: You raise an interesting point about bands turning to alternative revenue streams like advertising to deal with the falling price of traditional media. Music is probably one of the best equipped media to survive the transition, because of the value given to music as a supplement to other media forms (think music in movies and advertising) and the power of “live entertainment” (concerts, performances, etc.)
    Going back to text, however, I don’t see many complements to writing. Going to the Associated Content website, I see numerous “testimonials” provided by users satisfied with the Associated Content experience. All of these threads have one common theme: writing online is great because it increases exposure to my work. What happens when the alternative media channels come under pressure? What happens when online writers cannot get jobs for newspapers or for technical writing anymore? It will be interesting to see what writers do to find a new revenue stream when even top writers say that “they I can’t make a living off of using Associated Content alone.” Will producers have to pay more or will writers have to accept less?