Web Informant #417, 14 December 2005: Turking Around




Amazon.com last month released a beta of its Mechanical Turk Web Services. In the past month, this has created a very interesting ecosystem of developers, users, and contract workers. And let's not forget about the bloggers and commentators. The whole thing is a case study in how a simple but sophisticated programming interface can quickly grow into a life force. And BTW, empower some shut-in folks to earn a few bucks.


The idea is a simple but powerful one. Think what SETI @ home (which recently changed its own programming interfaces, but we'll leave that aside for the moment) does. It takes a very complex task, searching for radio signal patterns in the hope of finding extra-terrestrial life, and distributes the computing and processing to complete this task amongst millions of PCs that otherwise would be idle. The software runs as a screensaver and sends the compute jobs back to the mother ship when done.


Now replace the PCs with people, yes actual real carbon life forms sitting in front of their PCs. Stir in a Web Services API that allows the people to do tiny, very tiny, bits of programming jobs when they are otherwise idle, and also compensates them with tiny, very tiny, bits of actual money when they accurately complete the task. That is what Turking is all about.


Amazon is using the idea to process photo records of its A9 block-by-block mapping service, as well as for transcribing and translating podcasts. They call it the artificial AI, and it is a cute idea that has a lot of merit. But being Amazon, this is also a real business: Amazon collects a small commission from every bit of turking, just like they do when you sell a book or a toy or anything else through their site. (Note: I have been an Amazon Associate for many years.)


The service was put into beta last month, and so far has had mixed results. But I almost don't care whether people are making lots or no money, whether users are excited or damning about turking. What fascinates me is how this entire ecosystem has grown up around the service in a matter of a few days. Some examples:


n      There are GreaseMonkey browser extensions to improve your turking processing, because Amazon has put in place feedback mechanisms to make sure that the turkers don't just click away randomly in the hopes of generating cash. You have to be accurate, and multiple turkers have to agree with your results. Otherwise we would get chaos.

n      There are photo blogs that post the more bizarre photos that the turkers have seen, including pictures of striking workers, tag sales in progress, racy CD covers and other oddities of the American landscape. The new Robert Frank, Diane Arbus or Walker Evans? Forget Flickr, this is much more interesting for the voyeur in me.

n      There are code samples on Amazon's site, of course, to help developers take advantage of the turking. But these are dwarfed by lots of other sites that offer helpful tips and tools for developers who want to provide the micro-units of work.

n      And of course there are blogs galore about turkers-in-training, complete with their own experiences and meta-experiences to keep you occupied when you aren't turking away. If you thought blogs were the province of the self-absorbed micro-universe before, these are even more so.


When I first heard about this, I thought:  21st C. sweatshop. True, but no one is really working under adverse conditions, and some college students and others with plenty of time are making a decent wage turking away. Turker addiction? Carpal turker syndrome? It could happen, and there are some posts on the turking blogs that mention how addictive this could be. Better living through turkistry? Beats the chemical alternatives and keeps kids off the streets and from wasting hours playing WoW.


But suspend all of this judgment for a moment. What is really going on here is how Amazon has created this entire cottage industry overnight, with no mainstream media attention, using their lackluster internal PR, and with an assortment of casual developers and other hangers-on. It turns the whole notion of peddling influence on its head. It is an entire subculture, industry, partner program, and developer community that is roaring along, all with just a few devoted souls and a beta collection of tools. Think about that for a moment. What could really be accomplished if more resources were put in place, and people really were serious? What if a real software vendor with a bona-fide developer/partner network like Symantec or Microsoft or Adobe got behind something like this?


So who is keeping track of all of the turking? Any mainstream or trade tech media? A couple of stories in the local Seattle paper, one entry on News.com, and an aside Katt column on an eWeek podcast. Any citizen journalist? Not that I could find, other than the turkilicious bloggers mentioned earlier. And that is precisely the point: the best people to talk about turking are the ones actually doing it, working with the Amazon dev team to improve the thing and tweak the API to make it all work. It is an intense feedback loop the likes of which we haven't seen before.


And what is very telling about all of this is that the best place to read about turking is this Wikipedia entry, which as far as I know is accurate and up to date.



Once you get a feel for it, head on over to mturk.amazon.com and sign up if you want to try it out. The pay isn't great, but you will get to see what the next generation of Web/human interfaces will look like. And also get a feel of how to create the next generation of buzz.


David Strom

+1 (516) 554 6290



Web Informant is (r) registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress

If you'd like to subscribe (issues are sent via email), please send an email to:


Entire contents copyright 2005 by David Strom, Inc.