Journalist vs. microworker: a fair fight?August 24th, 2011 by Ville Miettinen
I’m about to share a shocking revelation. Seriously, sit down and hold on to something. Ready? Here goes: astonishingly, it turns out that a professional journalist who has worked for the New York Times and charges hundreds of dollars per article, can write better than freelance microworkers who charge $0.1 to $14 per task.
The man behind this “newsflash” is distinguished reporter Adam Penenberg. Here’s the story. Last year, microwork startup Serv.io contacted Penenberg hoping for some free publicity (they got that all right). Instead of writing a regular piece, Penenberg decided to put Serv.io’s microworkers to the test by “crowdsourcing the writing of a profile about the company” using only “the Servio 120,000-member crowd”.
Crowd on crowd reporting
To kick start the process, Penenberg wrote 20 questions for the Serv.io workers to research and answer. The workers took up the challenge and eventually produced a 1000 word crowdsourced company profile. That’s when the trouble started. As Penenberg eagerly points out, the crowdsourced article is seriously flawed. It’s too long, badly edited and unbelievably biased towards Serv.io (try scrolling down to the part about CEO Alex Edelstein’s “Project Runway” good-looks).
Adam Penenberg is a great writer and he does a brilliant job of ripping the microworkers’ article to shreds. But what exactly is his point? He obviously wanted the Serv.io workers to fail. The whole exercise looks suspiciously like a setup. Few “real” journalists would be comfortable criticizing their bosses (how many News Corps reporters dare to bad-mouth Rupert Murdoch?). Penenberg demanded answers to 20 questions in a 400 word article – hardly surprising the writers blew the limit.
Penenberg apparently believes that microworkers are a serious threat to journalism: an evil cyber army out to undercut hard-working hacks. But take a quick look at Serv.io’s website. The company never claims to employ or compete with journalists. Instead, Serv.io offers a pretty standard mix of crowdsourcing services: SEO content, product descriptions for retailers, proof-reading. Does Adam Penenberg want those jobs? I doubt it.
It’s time journalists stopped treating crowdsourcing as the enemy. Crowdsourced content is not meant to rival the New York Times. It’s a high volume, low cost writing model: a fast-growing business that already employs thousands of people. Instead of ridiculing microworkers, reporters should investigate the real issues: worker wages, spam requestors, cutting edge applications. Instead of cheap tricks, how about experiments that push boundaries and test the crowd fairly. Crowdsourcing and journalism are both here to stay. Let’s stop sniping and get to the real story.