ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mechanical Turk – Turn Clicks Into Cash

Let me speak to the RPG gamers out there for a moment. Have you ever thought it would be great if only in real life you could go out and slay a few easy monsters to earn some spare cash? Well, ok, maybe it would take more than a few, but wouldn’t it be nice if all you had to do to get a little extra income was to grind away at a simple task for a bit?

Well, it turns out Amazon already has a way for you to do just that, and it won’t even cost you a penny to get involved.

The premise of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (often abbreviated to MTurk) is simple: people need basic tasks done, and a computer can’t do it for them, so they pay you to do it for anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars.

These Human Intelligence Tasks, or HITs, usually take 10-30 minutes to complete and require no more than filling out a research survey for a university, checking a web page’s Google ranking, and so forth. Higher-level tasks such as audio transcription take significantly longer to complete, but also pay significantly more per HIT. Signing up for the service is free, and works with any existing account as well. Money earned on MTurk then is transferred directly to your Amazon account and from there can be turned into an Amazon Gift Card, placed into a Paypal account, or delivered via paper check.

Above: The original ‘mechanical turk’--a man hidden in a
cabinet controlling a seemingly robotic Turkish chess player

The idea is an interesting one, and there is no doubt as to the convenience of having a secondary income working from home without any prerequisites, but before you get too excited, it should be mentioned that MTurk is not without its downsides.

Mechanical Turk is definitely not one of Amazon’s better-known services, and there is a reason for that. The site itself, for one thing, is not remarkably well designed, so don’t expect any eye-candy or a very intuitive interface. But worse, it would appear that Amazon has kept the service relatively out of the spotlight so that it doesn’t have any obligation to offer much in the way of site management, and as such, there are a fair amount of MTurk scams to beware of. They are usually not dangerous for you as a turker, but nobody wants to put time and effort into something only to end up not being paid the agreed upon amount for all the work. Thankfully, for this a group of MTurk users have created Turkopticon, a browser addon that presents reviews of HITs in order to cut down on the number of people falling prey to such scams. In addition, the reviews include useful information on legitimate HITs such as how long it takes for a certain Requester to pay their workers, and if they offer bonuses frequently or not. Note that Turkopticon is entirely a third-party service, however, and it is your responsibility to obtain the addon in every browser you use for turking to benefit from its information (which should, in my opinion, be a part of MTurk in the first place).

In the end, is there real money to be made through MTurk? Absolutely, but it is definitely no get-rich-quick scheme. Put as an hourly wage, the average Turker shouldn’t expect more than $2 an hour, but remember you are making this money by hitting a few keys and clicking a mouse. On the other hand, should you be willing to put the time and effort into qualifying for and completing harder tasks, MTurk can end up paying about as well as a part time job. Don’t expect to make the service your career, but if there’s something particular that you would like to save up for, MTurk is a great and convenient way to do it.