Microtasking: Two hundred years later, the debate goes on

November 4th, 2010 by

microtask_debateRecently there has been a definite rumbling in the media and blogosphere around crowdsourced work. I’m not just mentioning this because Microtask was in the New York Times last week – oh go on then, if you insist, here’s a link.

Along with the praise for innovative companies and non-profit projects, commentators have expressed a fair amount of skepticism. We all know the arguments: distributed work will be unregulated; it will force workers into mundane, repetitive tasks; the rise of distributed work will put decent folks out of a job.

It is inevitable that as crowdsourcing (or widesourcing, if you like) grows, such criticism will get louder. In our view, this is a good thing. Healthy debate is crucial for the long term development of the industry.

Here at Microtask, we do our best to stay above the fray. Nothing, neither hype, nor detractors, nor even new episodes of House M.D (season finales excepted) can stop us delivering balanced reports about the latest developments in distributed work. (Cue stirring company anthem.)

Stitches in time
Amid all the talk about the future, it’s worth remembering that the idea of distributed work isn’t really all that new. In fact, the model has a long, and not always noble history. A glance backwards can help put a little perspective on some of the current concerns.

As every high school student knows, around two hundred years ago Europe and America went industrial. A massive demand for cheap labor saw millions of people move to cities and into jobs in mills, mines and factories.

While the men were at the coalface, many women worked from home. Paid per item, homeworkers did a huge range of small, repetitive tasks, from sowing gloves to gluing cigarette tubes. Work was often minutely subdivided. A French survey from 1872 lists hat stitcher, hat dyer, hat ironer and hat trimmer all as individual occupations. The workforce could be mobilized quickly in response to demand, and employers could operate with the minimum of cost.

Clearly this was a system with some fairly major issues. Homeworkers were often exploited as cheap labor (although, this being the 1800s, children, ponies – pretty much anything that had a pulse was exploited as cheap labor). Trade unionists were uneasy about women undercutting men’s wages. Governments got edgy, as work was unregulated and impossible to tax (homeworking was even banned in the USA during the 1930s).

A little bit of history repeating?
Arguments sound a little familiar? No doubt, digital labor is also going to cause governments headaches. It’s not easy keeping up with workers who get paid each week by dozens of different employers, based across as many countries.

While the parallels may be striking, there are clear advantages the 21st century distributed worker has over her 19th century sisters. For example, in the past, workers were often tied to one merchant, while now they can choose from thousands of tasks and many different companies. Our friends at Samasource are also doing a great job of ensuring digital workers receive a wage they can live on.

Only time will tell the true impact of this new form of distributed labor on the modern world of work. We happen to think that systems allowing ideas and work to spread around the world more efficiently will benefit everyone.

As always, we would love to hear from you, the individuals in the crowd. Only with your involvement will our industry reach its full potential.


  • jason

    Crowd sourcing has great potential to offer work to those who need it and with the rise in the number of sites workers will have have many options. At some point there will be and needs to be some government regulation of these sites. Currently many sites have a set payout amount that users often have a difficult time reaching. Often in the TOS it gives the company the option of simply deleting the account if it remains in active and under the payout amount. This is the first thing that needs to change. If website allows users to create an account with a dollar amount attached that money should be made available as a payout rather than folded back into the company account.

  • guest2

    yep it’s growing, and offers a work at home or in-between-jobs income for people.


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