cloud worker 2

As a society we have reached a point of social consciousness where the debate regarding the impacts of the Internet-based ‘gig’ or on-demand economy, commonly known as crowdsourcing (CS), is taking centre stage. One such debate concerns the need for new regulations and policies relating to the growing crowd worker population who engage in work on or through Internet-based platforms. As the drumbeats for regulating the on-demand workforce on these platforms grow louder, it is imperative that crowd workers’ voices are heard and not drowned. Our work gives voice to the crowd workers by conducting deep analysis of their values in an increasingly prevalent type of crowdsourcing known as microtask CS.

The demand for this type of work is one of the most rapidly growing trends. Compared to regular jobs in a ‘traditional’ organisation, these microtasks are simple (e.g., can be completed in a matter of minutes) and are compensated with tiny monetary rewards (between $0.25 and $1). While microtask crowdsourcing can afford worker autonomy and flexibility, it can also make workers vulnerable to exploitation. Our work provides a rich description of an emerging paradox of worker empowerment and marginalization in these environments. We advance theoretical understanding of the societal challenges of this emerging phenomenon and offer a novel, ethical design perspective for incorporating moral import into this socio-technical work environment to counter crowd worker exploitation.

In our study, we analysed the detailed narratives of 210 crowd workers to reveal their underlying values attained from their engagement in Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). We conceptualised crowd worker value as a multi-faceted construct of nine human values — access; autonomy; fairness; transparency; communication; security; accountability; making an impact, and dignity — all of which are implicated in the structures of microtask crowdsourcing. The work involves four structures relating to:

  • compensation (e.g., payment arrangements for crowdsourcing jobs),
  • task (e.g., the properties of crowdsourcing jobs),
  • governance (e.g., CS work practices, standards and policies), and
  • technology (e.g., IT infrastructure used to build the CS work environment).

As a medium of crowd workers’ conduct of work, these structures have both empowering and marginalising implications on crowd worker activities. The crowd workers feel empowered when the structures enable choice (e.g., where and when to work satisfying the value of autonomy); they feel marginalised when the same structures restrict action (e.g., lack of communication channels that limit their opportunities to voice concerns).

Empowerment is manifested in the form of four cognitions — meaning, self-determination, impact, and competence — when the desired values are adequately implicated on the crowdsourcing platform. Empowerment through meaning is a common experience resulting from valuing open access to work opportunities. Empowerment through self-determination stems from the value of autonomy, when workers can decide for themselves what, when, where, and how to work. Empowerment through impact, arising from the value of making an impact on others and on society more generally, and through competence, ensuing from the value of access to diverse kinds of micro tasks, are valued by a small proportion of the crowd workers in our sample, but are nonetheless important to them.

Marginalisation emerges in four different forms when the desired values are not sufficiently implicated on the crowdsourcing platform. Specifically, marginalisation manifested in: 1) economic marginalisation (feeling exploited); 2) institutional (policy) marginalisation (feeling helpless in relation to job requesters and the CS platform); 3) institutional (technical) marginalisation (feeling constrained by platform technical functionalities), and 4) competence marginalisation (feeling de-skilled from doing simple and repetitious work). While the feeling of being exploited (economic marginalization) was perceived by a considerable majority in our sample, the other three perceptions of marginalization were experienced by a smaller proportion.

In summary, our survey respondents revealed multiple values in relation to their engagement in microtask crowdsourcing on MTurk. Yet, the extent to which their expected values are fulfilled varies considerably. In instances when a value is fulfilled, crowd workers feel empowered; otherwise, they feel powerless and even exploited. Through this interplay between the values and dimensions of empowerment and marginalization emerges the duality implicit in microtask CS.

The duality is intrinsic to the lived experience of the crowd workers. The benefits of crowdsourcing are well understood by those organisations that seek the knowledge of ‘the crowd’, as is the flexibility provided to crowd workers by this new form of work opportunity. The dis-benefits have been less well known till now, and the duality we have uncovered needs, in our view, to be carefully considered in designing crowdsourcing platforms and policies so as to provide an even playing field. Thus, our study heightens awareness of worker marginalization in microtask CS, and offers guidelines for improving CS practice. Specifically, we offer recommendations regarding the ethical employment of crowd workers (including in academic research), and means of improving the MTurk platform design for greater worker empowerment.

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Nancy DengXuefei (Nancy) Deng is an Associate Professor of Information Systems (IS) at California State University, Dominguez Hills, USA. Previously, she was an Assistant Professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa. She received her Doctorate in Information Systems from Carnegie Mellon University. Her research on digital technologies, human value, IS design, IS workforce and knowledge management has been published in top IS and management journals and presented in international conferences. She is an Associate Editor of two journals, Information and Organization, and Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce, serves on the editorial review board of Knowledge Management Research & Practice, and co-chairs the “Digital and Social Media in Enterprise” mini-track at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

KD JoshiK.D. Joshi is the Philip L. Kays Distinguished Professor of Information Systems at Washington State University, where she also teaches at the MBA Online programme. She received her Master of Science in Engineering from the University of Michigan and received her Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration (Decision Sciences and Information Systems) from the University of Kentucky.  Her published research is cited over 3,700 times according to Google Scholar. She has been a Principle Investigator or Co-Principle Investigator on grants totaling over $5M from the National Science Foundation (NSF). She is currently a Senior Editor of the Information Systems Journal and Special Section Editor of Social Inclusion and IS at the DATABASE Journal. She is an Associate Editor of the Communications of the AIS and Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce.

Robert D. GalliersRobert D. Galliers is The University Distinguished Professor at Bentley University, Boston, USA, where he served as Provost for the period 2002-2009. He also holds a fractional appointment as Professor in the School of Business & Economics at Loughborough University, UK. Prior to joining Bentley, he was Research Director in the Department of Information Systems at the LSE, from which he received his Doctorate in 1987, and prior to that Dean of Warwick Business School. He is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Strategic Information Systems and received the prestigious Association for Information Systems LEO Award for outstanding life-time contributions to the field of Information Systems in 2012. His work has been published in 14 books and over 90 journal articles and has been cited approaching 9,000 times.