Spike in Online Gig Work: Flash in the Pan or Future of Employment?

Most conventional jobs involve hierarchy. A boss divvies up work to the office’s full-time employees awaiting direction and a green light. While still true for the majority of American workers, a growing number of people are picking up work online — accepting jobs with companies that assign, schedule, route, and pay for work through websites or mobile apps. This on-demand “gig work” is unraveling the typical job. Yet none of our current workplace statistics or labor laws reckon with the new employment reality turning APIs into shift managers. Our research team spent the past two years conducting one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of its kind to learn about the lives of on-demand gig workers. One of our greatest challenges was that we didn’t have a representative sample of American workers that could validate and enrich our findings. That is…until now.

We shared our survey questions and preliminary findings with the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science and Tech as they designed their survey, “Gig Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing.” Pew wanted to develop a better way to gauge how many people, from a representative sample of the U.S. population, participate in gig work, ridesharing (think apps like Uber and Lyft) and homesharing (via sites like Airbnb and VRBO). It is hard to get a good headcount of those earning an income in the gig economy because the words to describe these jobs change with the launch of a new on-demand service or court case challenging what it means to “work” for a mobile app. Ridesharing and homesharing are more visible in the media. But a variety of jobs are quietly shifting online to become on-demand gig work, too. TaskRabbit and Thumbtack, for example, connect consumers with trade workers available to do the task. Crowdflower and Amazon Mechanical Turk are two of the more popular “crowdsourcing” platforms. They offer companies a way to post tasks online to a pool of people who have signed up to sift through the platform’s online listings of work opportunities. These public crowdsourcing platforms are the tip of the spear. Today, nearly every large tech company developing artificial intelligence uses proprietary services like these. The on-demand labor that AI-fueled jobs create is hard to measure, let alone see. The typical jobs performed on these platforms are white-collar office gigs, like transcribing audio, labeling images, and reviewing social media material flagged as “adult content” or “not safe for work.”

Before Pew’s report, scholars and policymakers had only the Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements survey, last run in 2005, to estimate the size and growth rate of this workforce. A lot has changed since then but worker surveys never caught up with the technology trends radically altering the workplace.

The Pew’s findings confirmed everything we learned. It is the perfect complement to our roughly 200 in-person interviews, tens of thousands of survey responses, dozens of behavioral experiments and big data analyses of gig work platforms. It also spotlights how quickly temp and contract work have changed for U.S. workers since the Great Recession.

According to the Pew report, about 5% of the U.S. population, or 1-in-20 people, does some form of online gig work. To put that in perspective, online gig work was a far more common source of income than homesharing (at about 2%) or ridesharing (around 1%).

How important is earning money from gig work to those who do it? Are we talking about college students earning beer money or people trying to put food on the table? According to Pew:

· Only 8% of those surveyed said the money they earned from selling goods online is “essential for meeting my basic needs.”

· Eighteen percent said the same of money earned from homesharing.

· But roughly one quarter of those doing gig work reported that the money they earned was essential for meeting their basic needs.

· Another one quarter said the money was important.

According to the Pew analysis, “workers who describe the income they earn from these platforms as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ are more likely to come from low-income households, more likely to be non-white and more likely to have not attended college.”

The reliance on gig work income reported in the Pew survey is echoed in our own survey of over 2,000 gig workers, collected across 4 different platforms. Over half of our study’s respondents reported that they had a minimum amount of money that they needed to make that month from gig work.

Part of gig work’s appeal is a chance to manage one’s own workflows. Of the people who said doing gig work was “essential” or “important” in the Pew survey:

· Just under half reported that they do this work because they have a “need to control their own schedule.”

· Another quarter said there was a “lack of other jobs where they live.”

In fact, according to one of our study’s experiments, gig workers were willing to take somewhere between a $0.40/hour and $0.80/hour pay cut to work on tasks that allowed them some degree of control over when they complete the task. And almost every one of our interview participants described balancing care for a loved one or completing a school program as the kind of constraint that pushed them to seek online work. Clearly, people do this kind of work because they need the job, they need to control their schedules and/or they don’t have a lot of employment options in their hometowns.

Pay attention to online gig work because it is dramatically reshaping our society. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Al Krueger estimate that conventional temp and alternative contract-driven work rose from 10 to 16%, accounting for all net employment growth in the US economy in the past decade. Assuming Pew’s trends continue at the current rate, by the year 2027, nearly 1 in 3 American adults will transition to online platforms to support themselves with on-demand gig work. This is only bad news if we do nothing to change the outdated laws and structures in place to support working people. Ignoring corporate and consumer dependency on an on-demand gig workforce is not a sustainable strategy.

Pew’s study is robust proof that the world of work — what we spend most of our time doing — is quickly moving online. Platform start-ups are cropping up every day to connect people directly with employers for short-term gig work. There is no evidence that this trend will reverse and every indication that the move to on-demand gig work is well underway. The future of work will look more like the apps and web-based platforms that we have been studying the past two years than the “traditional” employment around (some of us) today. These workers may be difficult to see but they are vital to the future of our economy. Our country cannot afford to leave them behind.


Siddharth Suri (@ssuri) is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, New York City. Mary L. Gray (@maryLgray) is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Associate Professor at Indiana University and Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. They are writing a book about workers’ experiences of the on-demand economy. You can read more about their research at inthecrowd.org.

Announcing our SMC PhD interns for 2016!!

Well, it was another exciting season of reviewing a rich batch of applications for our 2016 PhD Internship Program. We love reading about all the great work out there but really, really, really hate that we have just a few seats for our intern program. Please spread the word about this program and throw your hat into the ring next year! We’ll put the call out for interns again in mid-October, 2016.

For this year, we are pleased to announce that the following emerging scholars will join us as our 2016 Microsoft Research SMC PhD intern cohort:

At Microsoft Research, New England

Update:
Ming Yin

MingYin_headshot

Ming Yin is a computer science Ph.D. student at Harvard University, supervised by Professor Yiling Chen. Her research interests lie in the emerging area of human computation and crowdsourcing, and her goal is to better understand crowdsourcing as both a new form of production and an exciting opportunity for online experimentation. Her work is published in top venues like AAAI, IJCAI and WWW, and she has received Best Paper Honorable Mention at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’16). Before graduate school, Ming obtained a bachelor degree from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.

 

Stefanie Duguay StephDuguay

Stefanie Duguay is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and holds an M.Sc. in Social Science of the Internet from the Oxford Internet Institute. She has also worked professionally as a Strategic Advisor in Digital Services for the Canadian federal government. Her research focuses on the everyday identity performances and interactions of people with diverse sexual and gender identities on social media. Her doctoral thesis examines the way that same-sex attracted women’s identities are constructed, shaped, and received across platforms, such as Instagram, Vine, and Tinder, with attention to the influence of both user and platform dynamics. Stefanie is the recipient of a QUT Postgraduate Research Award and her work has been published in New Media & Society, the International Journal of Communication, Disability & Society, and the Canadian Review of Sociology. She will be working with Mary L. Gray, Nancy Baym, and Tarleton Gillespie to examine the off label uses and user-led economies of mobile apps.

 

Caroline JackCarolineJack

Caroline Jack is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at Cornell University and an Exchange Scholar in Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT. She also holds an M.B.A. and an M.A. from Saint Louis University. Caroline’s scholarly work focuses on: the public communication of economics and capitalism in the American past and present; social imaginaries of the American economy; and understandings of the economic self in networked culture. Her research on the public communication of science and economics in the United States during the Cold War era has been published in Enterprise & Society and The Appendix. Caroline will be working with Mary L. Gray, investigating social imaginaries of self, market, place and property that emerge in and around peer economy platforms.

 

Shannon McGregorShannonMcGregor

Shannon McGregor (M.A. University of Florida) is a third-year doctoral student (soon to be doctoral candidate!) in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas – Austin. Her research interests center on political communication, social media, gender, and public opinion. She has presented her work at International Communication Association (ICA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), and the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR). Her work has been published in the Journal of Communication, International Journal of Communication, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Journal of Media Ethics. Twitter @shannimcg

 

At Microsoft Research, New York City

Aaron Plasekplasek.bio.pic

Aaron Plasek works at the intersection of the historyof science, new media, and computation, and is writing a history of machine learning that examines the ways in which algorithms have been deployed in (ethical) arguments. He is currently a doctoral student in History at Columbia University and an MA candidate in the Draper Interdisciplinary Masters Program at NYU, and holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and undergraduate degrees from Drake University in physics, astronomy, and writing.

 

Book release: Queering the Countryside-New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies

I am happy to announce the release of Queering the Countryside, with exciting contributions by great scholars and edited by Brian J. Gilley, Colin R. Johnson and myself. Find it in NYU Press, or order it from Amazon.
—————————————————————–
“Rural queer experience is often hidden or ignored, and presumed to be alienating, lacking, and incomplete without connections to a gay culture that exists in an urban elsewhere. Queering the Countryside offers the first comprehensive look at queer desires found in rural America from a genuinely multi-disciplinary perspective. This collection of original essays confronts the assumption that queer desires depend upon urban life for meaning.

queeringBy considering rural queer life, the contributors challenge readers to explore queer experiences in ways that give greater context and texture to modern practices of identity formation. The book’s focus on understudied rural spaces throws into relief the overemphasis of urban locations and structures in the current political and theoretical work on queer sexualities and genders. Queering the Countryside highlights the need to rethink notions of “the closet” and “coming out” and the characterizations of non-urban sexualities and genders as “isolated” and in need of “outreach.”
Contributors focus on a range of topics—some obvious, some delightfully unexpected—from the legacy of Matthew Shepard, to how heterosexuality is reproduced at the 4-H Club, to a look at sexual encounters at a truck stop, to a queer reading of TheWizard of Oz.

A journey into an unexplored slice of life in rural America, Queering the Countryside offers a unique perspective on queer experience in the modern United States and Canada.”

LA Times Op-Ed: Your job is about to get “taskified”

I’ve got a small Op-Ed from our crowdwork research in the Sunday’s Los Angeles Times’ print edition, published on January 10th, 2016 . It reflects on the challenges that workers face in a world of “taskified” labor—particularly the problem of getting paid when no one’s legally on the hook for sending you your last paycheck. Full text below:

The global digital assembly line has arrived. Its workers labor at computer keyboards, performing the behind-the-scenes tasks that make the Internet appear intelligent and functional. They assign labels like “family” or “theme park” to photos, check that Web URLs work, verify addresses on Yelp, review social media posts flagged as “adult.”

Corporations, from the smallest start-ups to the largest firms, can now “taskify” everything from scheduling meetings and debugging websites, to finding sales leads and managing fulltime employees’ HR files. Instead of hiring help, firms just post their needs to the Web.

This online piecework, or “crowdwork,” represents a radical shift in how we define employment itself.

The individuals performing this work are of course not traditional employees, but neither are they freelancers. They are, instead, “users” or “customers” of Web-based platforms that deliver pre-priced tasks like so many DIY kits ready for assembly. Transactions are bound not by employee-employer relationships but by “user agreements” and Terms of Service that resemble software licenses more than any employment contract.

Researchers at Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Technology and Employment estimate that nearly 30% of jobs in the U.S. could be organized like this within 20 years. Forget the rise of robots and the distant threat of automation. The immediate issue is the Uber-izing of human labor, fragmenting of jobs into outsourced tasks and dismantling of wages into micropayments

In the U.S. and overseas, crowdwork payments can mean the difference between scraping by and saving for a home or working toward a degree. But as Riyaz Khan, a 32-year-old from a small town in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh in India, discovered, doing work on spec posted by someone you’ll never meet and who has no legal obligations to you has serious disadvantages.

My team at Microsoft Research spent two years studying the lives of hundreds of American and Indian crowdworkers like Khan to learn how they manage this nascent form of employment and the capriciousness that comes with it. Khan, when we met him, had spent three years finding work on Amazon Mechanical Turk. AMT is one of the largest online marketplaces that connect “providers” from around the world like Khan with “requesters,” typically U.S. or European businesses or individuals. He did tasks for companies as big as Google and as small as neighborhood print shops.

On good days, he made $40 in 10 hours — more than 100 times what neighboring farmers earned. He soon found more tasks than he could complete himself. So he hired locals to work with him out of his living room. In exchange for a cut of their pay, Khan helped his crew create their own accounts, taught them how to complete tasks efficiently, and ferreted out tasks that best matched his workers’ skillsets. He also handled any final queries after the completed task was submitted. They called themselves Team Genius.

Three years in, now dependent on this income to support family and friends, Khan heard worrying tales of Indian workers’ AMT accounts being shut down. One by one, members of Team Genius lost their accounts.

Then it happened to him. An email from Amazon’s Customer Service Team offered no explanation beyond: “I am sorry but your Amazon Mechanical Turk account was closed due to a violation of our Participation Agreement and cannot be reopened. Any funds that were remaining on the account are forfeited, and we will not be able to provide any additional insight or action. You may review the Participation Agreement/Conditions of Use at this URL: http://www.mturk.com/mturk/conditionsofuse. Thank you for trying Amazon Mechanical Turk. Best regards, Laverne P. We value your feedback, please rate my response using the link below.”

Using a “Contact Us” link, Khan sent several messages pleading his case. He received auto-replies thanking him for his patience, but no information about how to appeal or retrieve the funds he’d banked with AMT for completed tasks over the last two months. Instead, he was referred to the agreement’s “Restrictions and Limitations” clause, which grants AMT the “right to terminate or suspend any Payment Account… for any reason in our sole discretion.”

Six months later, without explanation, Khan received his final paycheck. Other members of Team Genius, unsure how to pursue resolution, got stiffed. None ever found out exactly why AMT suspended their accounts, although I suspect they know what parts of the Participation Agreement they broke. Practices such as automating the acceptance of tasks, or transferring an account to another person violate AMT’s rules but are widespread among those in the United States and India alike who are trying to cobble together a full-time living.

Khan’s experience should be a warning to us all. Crowdwork may seem like a small eddy of employment, contained to those who work on computer code and Web development. But it looms like a tsunami of change for anyone whose routine work — filing forms, drafting standardized reports, coordinating events — can be broken into bits and farmed out online.

We must recognize that crowdwork sites are not just technologies that deliver convenient services. They are sites of employment that encompass the globe. Yet there are no clear rules for how this new form of employment should operate. As Team Genius’ case demonstrates, the right to be paid for one’s labor is no longer guaranteed. Centuries of global labor activism, from child labor laws to workplace safety guidelines, are left vulnerable.

The Amazons, GrubHubs, Upworks, and Ubers that profit from brokering this new work relationship certainly bear some responsibility. More broadly, state and national governments need to reset their labor rules and reweave social safety nets. This is not a simple matter of re-classifying crowdworkers as employees; rather we need to move beyond the fulltime-freelance divide. Businesses (and their customers) demand an all-hours, at-the-ready workforce. But to get that, workers need portable healthcare, a basic income, paid leave and retirement plans.

Corporations and governments would be wise to underwrite portable benefits plans; after all, companies stand to profit the most from a flexible, on-demand workforce. With comprehensive universal benefits, more individuals could absorb the risks of letting their 9-to-5 jobs go. Governments and corporations could stabilize on-demand work, boosting productivity and global economic growth. Without such benefits, on the other hand, we have a recipe for further financial insecurity, underemployment and social unrest.

As the nation with the greatest number of tech companies dependent upon and profiting from the global digital assembly line, it’s up to the United States to set the bar for what gainful employment looks like in 21st century. We must do so with our own children in mind, as well as children in Andhra Pradesh, for their futures are intertwined. And neither deserves an emailed pink slip that makes collecting a paycheck a customer service nightmare.

Reminder! MSR Social Media Collective PhD Intern Call, Cycle 2016!

APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 29, 2016

Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for advanced PhD students to join the Social Media Collective (SMC) for its 12-week 2016 Intern Program. The Social Media Collective scholars at MSRNE bring together empirical and critical perspectives to address complex socio-technical issues. Our research agenda draws on a social scientific/humanistic lens to understand the social meanings and possible futures of media and communication technologies. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines (including anthropology, communication, information studies, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field), but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to media or communication technologies and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.

MSRNE internships are 12-week paid internships in Cambridge, Massachusetts. PhD interns are expected to be on-site for the duration of their internship. Primary mentors for this year will be Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary L. Gray, with additional guidance offered by our lab postdocs and visiting scholars.

PhD interns at MSRNE are expected to devise and execute a research project (see project requirements below), based on their application project proposals, during their internships. The expected outcome of an internship at MSRNE is a draft of a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference of the intern’s choosing. Our goal is to help the intern advance their own career; interns are strongly encouraged to work towards a creative outcome that will help them on the academic job market. Interns are also expected to collaborate on projects or papers with full-time researchers and visitors, contribute to the SMC blog, give short presentations, attend the weekly lab colloquia, and contribute to the life of the community through weekly lunches with fellow PhD interns and the broader lab community. While this is not an applied program, MSRNE encourages interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists, economists, and mathematicians.

PEOPLE AT MSRNE SOCIAL MEDIA COLLECTIVE

The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:

  • How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)
  • How are social media platforms, through algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)
  • What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
  • How are predictive analytics used by law enforcement and what are the implications of new data-driven surveillance practices? (Sarah Brayne)
  • What are the social and political consequences of popular computing folklore? (Kevin Driscoll)
  • How are the technologies of money changing and what are the social implications of those changes? (Lana Swartz)

SMC PhD interns may have the opportunity to connect with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:

  • What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC)
  • What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)

We are looking for applicants to focus their proposals on one of the following seven areas (though, you may propose a project that speaks to more than one of these):

  1. Personal relationships and digital media
  2. Audiences and the shifting landscapes of socially mediated entertainment
  3. Affective, immaterial, and other frameworks for understanding digital labor
  4. The social and political consequences of popular computing folklore
  5. The politics of big data, algorithms, and computational culture
  6. How emerging technologies shape countercultures, identities, and communities of difference
  7. Histories of computing and the internet that focus on the experiences of people from marginalized social, economic, racial, or geographic groups

Applicants should have advanced to candidacy in their PhD program by the time they start their internship (unfortunately, there are no opportunities for Master’s students or early PhD students at this time). Interns will benefit most from this opportunity if there are natural opportunities for collaboration with other researchers or visitors currently working at MSRNE. Applicants from historically marginalized communities, underrepresented in higher education, and students from universities outside of the United States are encouraged to apply.

For a complete list of all permanent researchers and current postdocs based at the New England lab see:

Which is: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/labs/newengland/people/bios.aspx

Previous MSRNE interns in the Collective have included Amelia Abreu (UWashington, information), Stacy Blasiola (University of Illinois, Chicago, communication), Jed Brubaker (UC-Irvine, informatics), Aleena Chia (Indiana U. communication and culture), Jade Davis (University of North Carolina, communication), Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (University of Washington, communication), Scott Golder (Cornell, sociology), Germaine Halegoua (U. Wisconsin, communications), Tero Karppi (University of Turku, media studies), Airi Lampinen (HIIT, information), Jessa Lingel (Rutgers, library and information science), Joshua McVeigh-Schultz (University of Southern California, interactive media), Alice Marwick (NYU, media culture communication), J. Nathan Matias (MIT Media Lab), Jolie Matthews (Stanford, learning sciences), Tressie McMillan Cottom (Emory, sociology), Andrés Monroy-Hernandez (MIT, Media Lab), Laura Noren (NYU, sociology), Nick Seaver (UC Irvine, anthropology), Jaroslav Svelch (Charles University, media studies), Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University, Institute of International and Social Studies), Shawn Walker (UWashington, information), Omar Wasow (Harvard, African-American studies), Sarita Yardi (GeorgiaTech, HCI), and Kathryn Zyskowski (University of Washington, anthropology).

For more information about the Social Media Collective, visit our blog: https://socialmediacollective.org/

APPLICATION PROCESS

To apply for a PhD internship with the social media collective:

  1. Fill out the online application form: https://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/jobs/intern.aspx

On the application website, indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.” in the pull down menus. Also enter the name of a mentor (Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, or Mary Gray) whose work most directly relates to your own in the “Microsoft Research Contact” field. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. So, please, make sure to follow these detailed instructions.

Your application will need to include:

  1. A brief description of your dissertation project.
  2. An academic article-length manuscript (~7,000 or more) that you have authored or co-authored (published or unpublished) that demonstrates your writing skills.
  3. A copy of your CV.
  4. The names and contact information for 3 references (one contact name must be your dissertation advisor).
  5. A pointer to your website or other online presence (if available; not required).
  6. A short description (no more than 2 pages, single spaced) of 1 or 2 projects that you propose to do while interning at MSRNE, independently and/or in collaboration with current SMC researchers. The project proposals can be related to but must be distinct from your dissertation research. Be specific and tell us: 1) What is the research question animating your proposed project? 2) What methods would you use to address your question? 3) How does your research question speak to the interests of the SMC? and 4) Who do you hope to reach (who are you engaging) with this proposed research? This is important – we really want to know what it is you want to work on with us and we need to know that it is not, simply, a continuation of your dissertation project.

On Letters of Reference:

After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees, on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this email (tell them to check their spam folders, too!) and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of Friday 29 January, 2016. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.

TIMELINE

Due to the volume of applications, late submissions (including submissions with late letters of reference) will not be considered. We will not be able to provide specific feedback on individual applications. Finalists will be contacted the last week in February to arrange a Skype interview before the internship slots available to us are assigned (note: number of available slots changes year-to-year). Please keep an eye on the socialmediacollective.org blog as we announce the 2016 PhD Interns on the blog by the end of March.

If you have any questions about the application process, please contact Mary Gray at mLg@microsoft.com and include “SMC PhD Internship” in the subject line.

PREVIOUS INTERN TESTIMONIALS

“The internship at Microsoft Research was all of the things I wanted it to be – personally productive, intellectually rich, quiet enough to focus, noisy enough to avoid complete hermit-like cave dwelling behavior, and full of opportunities to begin ongoing professional relationships with other scholars who I might not have run into elsewhere.”
— Laura Noren, Sociology, New York University

“If I could design my own graduate school experience, it would feel a lot like my summer at Microsoft Research. I had the chance to undertake a project that I’d wanted to do for a long time, surrounded by really supportive and engaging thinkers who could provide guidance on things to read and concepts to consider, but who could also provoke interesting questions on the ethics of ethnographic work or the complexities of building an identity as a social sciences researcher. Overall, it was a terrific experience for me as a researcher as well as a thinker.”
— Jessica Lingel, Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

“Spending the summer as an intern at MSR was an extremely rewarding learning experience. Having the opportunity to develop and work on your own projects as well as collaborate and workshop ideas with prestigious and extremely talented researchers was invaluable. It was amazing how all of the members of the Social Media Collective came together to create this motivating environment that was open, supportive, and collaborative. Being able to observe how renowned researchers streamline ideas, develop projects, conduct research, and manage the writing process was a uniquely helpful experience – and not only being able to observe and ask questions, but to contribute to some of these stages was amazing and unexpected.”
— Germaine Halegoua, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Not only was I able to work with so many smart people, but the thoughtfulness and care they took when they engaged with my research can’t be stressed enough. The ability to truly listen to someone is so important. You have these researchers doing multiple, fascinating projects, but they still make time to help out interns in whatever way they can. I always felt I had everyone’s attention when I spoke about my project or other issues I had, and everyone was always willing to discuss any questions I had, or even if I just wanted clarification on a comment someone had made at an earlier point. Another favorite aspect of mine was learning about other interns’ projects and connecting with people outside my discipline.”
–Jolie Matthews, Education, Stanford University

The paradox of automation’s “last mile”

My collaborator, Siddharth Suri, and I have spent nearly 2 years studying a nascent but rapidly expanding piece of the platform economy that we call “crowdwork.” Right now, crowdwork — millions of people around the world working in concert with programmers issuing tasks to an API — fuels automation of the internet. This work requires people to contribute responses, at a moment’s notice, and benefits most from a dispersed, diverse set of responses more than the steady input of one person responding to a single call full-time. We see a moving frontier, between what machines can and can’t solve, what we call the paradox of automation’s last mile. As machines progress, they solve problems that previously only humans could solve. But with each solution a new problem — or opportunity for machine learning — presents itself. Engineers, using crowdwork, put their heads down and dig into advancing the frontier of automation once again. The humans who used to solve these now automated problems are continually displaced, as economists David Autor among others, have noted. New labor markets open up as we think of new problems that need solving. We could say that automation is a hard problem, not because of its technical barriers but because each time engineers nail a wicked problem, from voice recognition to self-driving cars, we see another social need or desire that we want to address through automation. Herein lies the paradox: we keep making progress only to find new problems to tackle. There are as many automation problems as there are perspectives on what constitutes a social need or desire and time-efficient ways to address them.

 

As anyone in the thick of the race to automate responses to human needs and desires knows, we are several decades away (at least) from conquering the hardest problems in automation. As we strive to solve problems, the process of drawing on human insight and creativity through crowdwork will repeat, resulting in the rapid creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of tasks. Thus, these new labor markets are, by design, extremely dynamic. Even more unpredictable: The land of IoT sensors and devices will further expand to-date unimaginable on-demand services and products delivered through the power of human-driven crowdwork. For every sensor informing an individual about an action they could take (e.g., close their refrigerator, pick up a waiting child, help a elderly family member in immediate need), crowdwork will offer new services to respond to the call, when and wherever we need it.

 

The problem generated by the paradox of automation’s last mile is that we treat those piecework, outsourced, now crowdworked jobs as temporary and marginal, always secondary to the “real jobs” in our economy. Crowdwork and the critical role of workers driving the on-demand economy illustrate that contingent labor is no longer exceptional. Arguably, it never was. It’s just been undervalued or rendered invisible, overshadowed by the mystifying and dazzling machines we build to do what humans can do.

 

The reality is that innovations in automation and on-demand economies are completely dependent on human labor because of the paradox of automation’s last mile. Right now, the effort to automate relies on crowdwork — people making themselves available to programmers and customers issuing requests for help through an API. Even if one believes most work can be automated, let’s consider the (long!) stretch of time (and all the productive possibilities) between this moment and the singularity as a chance to rethink the structure and meaning of employment. We can no longer afford to ignore the people—whether they work 40 hours or 40 minutes a week—undeniably vital to advancing automation or delivering the goods and services that make on-demand economies work. I think that’s a good thing for all of society to accept.

 

Platformation: Greetings from the future of work!

On September 9, 2015, the Data & Society Research Institute hosted Platformation, a one-day summit that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss platform economies and the labor that fuels them. Participants included platform business leaders, researchers, labor organization representatives, policy experts, and those contributing labor to this growing sector.

You can read the full summary report here.

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The event was co-convened by Dean Jansen, Data & Society Fellow and myself, with a great deal of encouragement and support from the SMC (thanks peeps!)

Participants raised questions and discussed concerns, but the consensus was that collaboration at a larger scale is necessary to arrive at concrete solutions in all sectors.

We broke the day into three sessions – the first grappled with accountability and trust and how these dynamics shift as platforms scale. To begin, the nature of work itself has changed, as automated workflows replace traditional modes of managing work. Participants highlighted that some workers see their platform work as surplus income while others make a living from it. As companies scale, the rift between the definitions of workers and platforms may widen, and companies could see themselves differently than how workers see them. Participants also shared how they made accountability work on their own platforms. One discussant said that having workers act as intermediaries between the platform and workers had been successful in building a trusting and transparent relationship.

During the second session the group wrestled with the complexities of classification; participants described sharing economy workers as contributors, entrepreneurs, freelancers, consumers, and partners. Although the media focuses on the 1099 vs. W-2 debate, participants argued that the framework is potentially incongruous with the new economy, and solving the dichotomy is just the beginning. Also, regulation is not necessarily the only or most effective way of securing ethical treatment of workers. Participants added that the focus on vehicles of change such as regulation could be shifted towards outcomes, such as ensuring a living wage. Additionally, attitudes towards unions are mixed, with some reluctant to be bound by the restrictions of other workers. A common fear is that a platform could easily drive out any individual seeking to organize workers; this highlighted the isolated nature of platform work.

The third and final session centered around collaboration – mutual obligations between governments, public interests, and the private sector. Traditionally, benefits are defined in terms of goods mediated by government, such as paid sick and vacation leave, retirement, etc. How would a new social contract be crafted to map out new categories of support for the gig economy? The day ended with a reflection on how to continue dialogue around platform labor in a meaningful and sustained way. As different groups grapple with the same questions, there is a need for new conversations and efforts to address a lack of data and research. Also, as new frictions emerge, actors in this space will benefit from a variety of perspectives, which can best emerge and be sustained through continued development of spaces for dialogue.

Our hope is that Platformation marks the beginning of a conversation that more fully includes voices from those doing the work and values their experiences as we collectively develop policy and business models for a more equitable and productive future.

Hello Andrea (SMC’s 2015-16 Research Assistant Extraordinaire!)

As we say goodbye to the *amazzzzing* Rebecca Hoffman <serious sad face emoji>, we have the solace of welcoming Andrea Alarcón to SMC’s ranks.

Andrea received her MSc degree from the Oxford Internet Institute, and her BSc in online journalism from the University of Florida. She has researched ICT4D, online language barriers and data collection by international corporations in developing nations. She has worked as a web producer and editor for the World Bank, and in social media for Discovery Channel in Latin America. She currently writes about digital culture for Colombian mainstream media.

Please join us in welcoming Andrea to MSR!

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MSR’s Social Media Collective is looking for a 2015-16 Research Assistant (to start 15 July)

Microsoft Research (MSR) is looking for a Research Assistant to work with the Social Media Collective in the New England lab, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MSR Social Media Collective consists of Nancy Baym, Sarah Brayne, Kevin Driscoll, Tarleton Gillespie, Mary L. Gray, and Lana Schwartz in Cambridge, and Kate Crawford and danah boyd in New York City, as well as faculty visitors and Ph.D. interns affiliated with the MSR New England. The RA will work directly with Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary L. Gray. Unfortunately because this is a time-limited contract position, we can only consider candidates who are already legally eligible to work in the United States.

An appropriate candidate will be a self-starter who is passionate and knowledgeable about the social and cultural implications of technology. Strong skills in writing, organization and academic research are essential, as are time-management and multi-tasking. Minimal qualifications are a BA or equivalent degree in a humanities or social science discipline and some qualitative research training.

Job responsibilities will include:
– Sourcing and curating relevant literature and research materials
– Developing literature reviews and/or annotated bibliographies
– Coding ethnographic and interview data
– Copyediting manuscripts
– Working with academic journals on themed sections
– Assisting with research project data management and event organization

The RA will also have opportunities to collaborate on ongoing projects. While publication is not a guarantee, the RA will be encouraged to co-author papers while at MSR. The RAship will require 40 hours per week on site in Cambridge, MA, and remote coordination with New York City-based researchers. It is a 12 month contractor position, with the opportunity to extend the contract an additional 6 months. The position pays hourly with flexible daytime hours. The start date will ideally be July 15, although flexibility is possible for the right candidate.

This position is perfect for emerging scholars planning to apply to PhD programs in Communication, Media Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Information Studies, and related fields who want to develop their research skills before entering a graduate program. Current New England-based MA/PhD students are welcome to apply provided they can commit to 40 hours of on-site work per week.

To apply, please send an email to Mary Gray (mLg@microsoft.com) with the subject “RA Application” and include the following attachments:

– One-page (single-spaced) personal statement, including a description of research experience and training, interests, and professional goals
– CV or resume
– Writing sample (preferably a literature review or a scholarly-styled article)
– Links to online presence (e.g., blog, homepage, Twitter, journalistic endeavors, etc.)
– The names and emails of two recommenders

We will begin reviewing applications on May 15 and will continue to do so until we find an appropriate candidate. We will post to the blog when the position is filled.

Please feel free to ask quesions about the position in the blog comments!

Introducing the 2015 MSR SMC PhD Interns!

Well, after a truly exciting spell of reviewing an AMAZING set of applications for our 2015 PhD Internship Program, we had the absolutely excruciating task of selecting just a few from the pool (note: this is our Collective’s least favorite part of the process).

Without further ado, we are pleased to announce our 2015 Microsoft Research SMC PhD interns:

At MSR New England:

Aleena Chia

Aleena

Aleena Chia is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Her ethnographic research investigates the affective politics and moral economics of participatory culture, in the context of digital and live-action game worlds. She is a recipient of the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork grant and has published work in American Behavioral Scientist. Aleena will be working with Mary L. Gray, researching connections between consumer protests, modularity of consumer labor, and portability of compensatory assets in digital and live-action gaming communities.

 

 

 

Stacy Blasiola

Stacy

Stacy Blasiola is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and also holds an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Stacy uses a mixed methods approach to study the social impacts of algorithms. Using the methods of big data she examines how news events appear in newsfeeds, and using qualitative methods she investigates how the people that use digital technologies understand, negotiate, and challenge the algorithms that present digital information. As a recipient of a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellowship in Electronic Security and Privacy, her work includes approaching algorithms and the databases that enable them from a privacy perspective. Stacy will be working with Nancy Baym and Tarleton Gillespie on a project that analyzes the discursive work of Facebook in regards to its social newsfeed algorithm.

 

J. Nathan Matias

NathanNathan Matias is a Ph.D. Student at the MIT Media Lab Center for Civic Media, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a DERP Institute fellow. Nathan researches technology for civic cooperation, activism, and expression through qualitative action research with communities, data analysis, software design, and field experiments.  Most recently, Nathan has been conducting large-scale studies and interventions on the effects of gender bias, online harassment, gratitude, and peer thanks in social media, corporations, and creative communities like Wikipedia. Nathan was a MSR Fuse Labs intern in 2013 with Andrés Monroy Hernández, where he designed NewsPad, a collaborative technology for neighborhood blogging. Winner of the ACM’s Nelson Prize, Nathan has published data journalism, technology criticism, and literary writing for the Atlantic, the Guardian, and PBS. Before MIT, he worked at technology startups Texperts and SwiftKey, whose products have reached over a hundred million people worldwide. At MSR, Nathan will be working with Tarleton Gillespie and Mary L. Gray, studying the professionalization of digital labor among community managers and safety teams in civic, microwork, and peer economy platforms. He will also be writing about ways that marginalized communities use data and code to respond and reshape their experience of harassment and hate speech online.

 

At MSR New York City:

Ifeoma Ajunwa

ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa is a Paul F. Lazersfeld Fellow in the Sociology Department at the University of Columbia. She received her MPhil in Sociology from Columbia University in 2012. She was the recipient of the AAUW Selected Professions Fellowship in law school after which she practiced business law, international law, and intellectual property law. She has also conducted research for such organizations as the NAACP, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the ACLU of NY (the NYCLU), and UNESCO. Her prior independent research before graduate school include a pilot study at Stanford Law School where she interrogated the link between stereotype threat and the intersecting dynamics of gender, race, and economic class in relation to Bar exam preparation and passage. Ifeoma’s writing has also been published in the NY Times, the HuffingtonPost, and she has been interviewed for Uptown Radio in NYC. She will be working with Kate Crawford at MSR-NYC on data discrimination.