Mary L. Gray studied anthropology before receiving her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California at San Diego in 2004. She draws on this interdisciplinary background to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Mary’s most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press), examined how young people negotiate and express their lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender identities in rural parts of the United States and the role that media, particularly the internet, play in their lives and political work. She served on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association from 2008 until 2010, recently held a seat on that Association’s Committee on Public Policy, and will chair the Executive Program Committee for the 2014 AAA Annual Meetings in Washington D.C. Mary is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, New England Lab. She maintains an appointment as Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, with adjunct positions in American Studies, Anthropology, and Gender Studies.
Monopsony Online: Crowdworking and Market Power
We analyze crowdsourcing as a labor market through the example of Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), a popular, commercial site that allows anyone to post and complete small, paid tasks online. We consider how power dynamics between requesters (“employers”) and crowdworkers (“employees”) set the terms for and expectations of employment. In theory, crowdsourcing could circulate work fairly and directly to individuals seeking microtasks. However, as practiced, commercial crowdsourcing services, like AMT, 1) systematically occlude the information workers need to choose appropriate employment opportunities and 2) implicitly make individuals bear the high costs of finding viable tasks to do. We frame the AMT labor market in terms of monopsony to diagnose this dynamic. Monopsony typically describes a situation where an employer has a greater degree of wage-setting power because of the limited employment opportunities available to a pool of workers. For this reason, evaluating monopsony online has important implications for how we think about digital work.
Our project therefore draws on ethnographic research and quantitative analysis of survey data to argue that market frictions give rise to the inequitable distribution of power among requesters and crowdworkers. We hypothesize market distortions on AMT are a result of 1) inadequate information about what we call the “goodness of tasks”; 2) high search costs imposed on workers; and, 2) reputation bias, which makes market entry prohibitive to new entrants. We conclude with insights from crowdworkers about how to reform online labor platforms to serve the needs and interests of all people dedicating their time and energy to crowdwork.