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Making (Cheap, Monotonous) Online Work More Meaningful

• April 29, 2013 • 7:50 AM

(PHOTO: GAJUS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests people doing piecemeal work online keep at it longer if the task is seen as significant.

If you’re looking for low-cost labor on the Internet, you would be wise to frame the assignment as something significant.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which takes the truism that man craves meaning—postulated by psychologist Viktor Frankl in the 1940s, and preached by behavioral economist Dan Ariely today—and applies it to the contemporary practice of online piecemeal work.

The more a monotonous Internet project is perceived as meaningful, “the more likely a subject is to participate, the more output they produce, the higher-quality output they produce, and the less compensation they require for their time,” write Dana Chandler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Adam Kapelner of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. What’s more, they add in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, this truism apparently applies across cultures, equally impacting workers in India and the United States.

“As the world begins to outsource more of its work to anonymous pools of labor, it is vital to understand the dynamics of this labor market.”

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, Chandler and Kapelner hired 2,471 workers (1,318 from the United States and 1,153 from India) to label medical images. The workers in one group were given no context for the assignment; they were simply instructed to look for certain “objects of interest” and point them out. In addition to that lack of context, those in a second group were warned that “their labeling will not be recorded,” which presumably made it seem even less significant.

In contrast, those in the “meaningful” group were told that “researchers were inundated with more medical images than they could possibly label, and that they needed the help of ordinary people.” In addition, they were informed that they were searching for something of life-and-death importance: cancerous tumor cells.

This information made quite a difference—not so much on the quality of work, which was generally high (with an average of 91 percent of cancer cells identified), but on the quantity of work they performed.

Among those in the “meaningful” group, 80.6 percent labeled at least one image, compared with 76.2 percent of those in the no-context group, and 72.3 percent in the “your work won’t be recorded” group. In addition, those in the meaningful group were approximately 23 percent more likely than the others to be “high-output workers” who labeled at least five images.

“Our finding has important implications for those who employ labor in any short-term capacity,” the researchers conclude. “As the world begins to outsource more of its work to anonymous pools of labor, it is vital to understand the dynamics of this labor market.”

They have clearly identified one such dynamic. When asking people to do dull work for little pay, it helps to have something else to offer them: the opportunity to do something significant. Even in cyberspace, meaningfulness matters.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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