Lost in the Virtual Economy? Here’s a map

April 7th, 2011 by

microtask_virtual_economiesEvery day we hear more about goldfarming, crowdsourcing, distributed work and other areas of the so-called “virtual economy”.

As with any industry in its infancy, exactly what is meant by these terms is unclear, and rapidly evolving. (If you find it slightly confusing, don’t worry: it probably just shows you have been paying attention.)

This is why we are so excited about the new study Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy by Vili Lehdonvirta (researcher at the University of Tokyo and occasional guest writer on this blog) and his colleague Mirko Ernkvist.

Along with giving us something to blog about, the aim of the study is to provide an updated picture of the scale and development of the virtual economy. It focuses on its economic impact, business models and value chains. The two major areas of the virtual economy identified in the report are third party gaming services and, more interesting for us, the role of microwork in virtual worlds.

The bottleneck: translating problems into microtasks
The report explains that, although microwork itself requires no technological expertise, converting computational and business problems into microtasks requires a great deal. This is well known to our tech-experts: Digitalkoot, the first Microtask-powered service, combines advanced OCR techniques, human recognition skills and game mechanics to seamlessly distribute work to end users. What we are really proud of is that the crowd does the work by playing games. (Let’s call it “gamesourcing”, just to confuse everyone even more.)

Thankfully, the report also considers what some of these new terms actually mean. Usually the word “crowdsourcing” is used interchangeably with “microwork”. According to Lehdonvirta and Ernkvist, they are in fact distinct: Crowdsourcing entails outsourcing tasks traditionally performed by employees or contractors to a large group of people through the internet. Microwork on the other hand tends to involve breaking the work down to suitably sized microtasks, integrating quality assurance into the process, and recombining the completed microtasks into a final deliverable. This is a view that we certainly share, and a good reminder of how powerful words are: expect more Microtask’s tweets with the “microwork” hashtag from now on.

Back to the future: appetite for disruption
The report goes on to argue that “Microwork is today emerging as a separate concept from crowdsourcing, rather than a subset of it [...] The innovation in microwork is the transformation of information work into microsized units, similarly to how Taylorism and scientific management transformed manufacturing work in the late 19th century.” (Again, it is a point we agree with: for further discussion of the historical roots of distributed work see our earlier post).

Although it may be tempting to question whether this is a step forward or a step back, it is important to consider the new opportunities. Tasks that are not economically feasible using traditional work practices will soon (if not already) be possible using microwork. Imagine a long-time professional photographer wanting to sell his pictures online. He would have to tag thousands of shots, consuming weeks if not months of his precious time. Soon he will be able to submit his pictures to a microwork service and let the crowd work its magic, shrinking weeks and months into mere hours.

The report goes on to discuss some of the key problems the industry must overcome. These include payment channels (especially when using workforce from other countries) and legislation relating to worker protection (are microworkers employees or independent contractors? How to ensure there is no child labor involved?). Despite these issues, the report considers the potential of the mechanism self-evident.

A final message to take from the report is a call to action: if the upgrading strategies mentioned in the study (coordination of workers, and building capacities to supply and grow microwork in developing countries) are tackled quickly, it suggests that the whole market could be worth several billion dollars within the next five years, as the technology matures. Not bad for tasks that you can complete in just a couple of seconds (whatever they end up being called).


  • http://www.microtask.fi/ Ville Miettinen

    You can download the full report from the bottom of the page here: http://www.infodev.org/en/Article.696.html

  • http://www.embroiderydigitizing.co.in digitizing services

    Last year, the World Bank’s InfoDev programme asked me to write a reportn on the “development potential of the virtual economy”. The report, ntitled nKnowledge Map of the Virtual Economyn n

  • http://www.embroiderydigitizing.co.in digitizing services

    This sounds familiar. Here’s an interesting exercise: let’s compare EU carbon credits with the virtual gold of the online game nWorld of Warcraftn. See if we can find a difference.n

  • https://www.freelancer.com/users/2964575.html Elizabeth Sleigh

    Excellent article. A great believer in relatively green; eco-friendly virtual work, and recently initiating an innovative, virtual Job-Lead Finder service for job-seeking U.S. citizens. (See: https://www.freelancer.com/users/2964575.html). I believe that many more companies could create (paid)  micro (or mini-) tasks, of varying descriptions, for independent (possibly unemployed) virtual contractors, and in this way help to alleviate the widespread unemployment problem that presently exists.


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