Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


working-online

(PHOTO: GAJUS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.