Digital Labor

Florian Schmidt


Florian Alexander Schmidt, born 1979, is a researcher, journalist and designer from Berlin. He is currently finishing his PhD at the Royal College of Art in London. His thesis is an investigation into the methods of crowdsourcing in the design industry and a critique of how crowdsourcing platforms are designed. Schmidt holds a diploma in communication design from the Berlin School of Arts Weissensee and has worked as a freelance designer for many years. Parallel to his practical design work, he has written for magazines such as eye, form, design report and bauhaus. He is the author of the award winning book Parallel Realitäten (Niggli 2006), on the design of virtual worlds, co-author of the book Kritische Masse (form+zweck 2010), on amateurism in design and co-author as well as translator of the book Crowd Work (Bund Verlag 2014), published by the IGM, Germany’s largest trade union.

Crowd Design
Crowdsourcing is a core method of digital labor, and probably the most contested one. The positions differ about what it actually entails and how it is to be evaluated. In management literature it is often propagated as an ingenious approach to harvest the otherwise wasted ‘cognitive surplus’, solve the world’s problems, foster innovation and create some neat revenues along the way – but it has also been criticized as an exploitative business model, based on tricking the public into doing work for free. Crowdsourcing has evolved into such a vast and heterogeneous landscape that it has become crucial for a meaningful debate to separate it from related fields and to differentiate its subcategories. Most importantly, crowdsourcing must not be conflated with commons-based peer production. It is furthermore clarifying to speak crowdwork, where applicable, to create a distinction to concepts such as crowdfunding and data mining. Cognitive piecework, as exemplified by Amazon Mechanical Turk, is a subcategory of crowdwork that is now getting a lot of attention by researchers and journalists, not at least because of its dehumanizing attitude of treating people just like processors in a distributed calculating machine. 

But also the crowd-sourcing of design work is mushrooming and it is organised in a characteristically different way: its ‘creativity contests’ instead of micropayment for microtasks. For graphic design, there are now dozens of so called ‘logo mills’ such as 99designs, with hundreds of thousands of contributing designers. The often criticised characteristics of cognitive piecework, alienating tasks and invisible workers, are turned upside down in crowd design – but not to the workers’ advantage. Design tasks can’t be reasonably cut in micro-pieces, they leave more room for personal, creative expression, and are therefore more intrinsically rewarding — but because of that, more people are willing to work for free. In the typical design contests, only one in a hundred eventually gets paid for work that has been done speculatively beforehand by everyone — remuneration becomes a lottery and the waste, not of ‘cognitive surplus’ but of actual labor is extraordinary. What’s more: the fruits of their creative labor are very visible on the workers’ portfolio pages, which induces the designers to put in far more hours than would be economically reasonable. A bad design would reflect negatively on the designers online persona and on future chances to win a contest. So, while the work is less alienating, it is still exploitative, with an average wage of only a few dollars per finished logo for the worker, while the platform provider makes substantial profits with hardly any risks at all. 

With my contribution to ‘Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines and Barricades’, I want to give insight into this particular form of crowdsourcing and situate it in the larger digital labor landscape. The focus of attention will be a juxtaposition of different crowd design platforms (99design, Lego Cuusoo, Quirky, Jovoto and Open Ideo) and the mechanisms that they employ to get creative work done almost for free, for example through the use of gamifcation and by borrowing of the language from commons-based peer production, framing the commercial work as open and communal. In contrast to MTurk and 99designs, these other platforms are not geared so unambiguously against the workers. A comparison of them allows to better understand what it is special about the crowdsourcing of creative labor and what parameters can be tweaked to improve fairness for the workers. The larger question remains: Can this tweaking be sufficient or is crowdwork inherently exploitative?

Crowd Work: The Future of Design
Fri, November 14
05:15 PM - 06:00 PM

Freelancers & Unions in the Creative Industries
Sat, November 15
01:30 PM - 04:00 PM