In early 2013, Mike Naab found himself in dire need of a side gig.
As a full-time senior business analyst, the Pennsylvanian made a decent living. But he had a baby girl on the way, and the impending vortex of expenses — clothing, childcare, hospital bills, truckloads of diapers — threatened to push him into financial peril.
He browsed the usual “5 Easy Ways To Make $$$ From Home” listicles, but came up empty. Pet sitting didn’t appeal to him. Nor did selling knick-knacks on eBay, or posting up on the corner in a lemonade stand. He began to lose hope.
Then, he came across Mechanical Turk.
The platform, run by Amazon, offered anyone the opportunity to earn money by completing quick, menial tasks posted by researchers: Labelling images, taking surveys, transcribing receipts. Though these tasks paid as little as $0.01, Naab saw their additive potential.
Today, he is one of a reported 500k workers on Mechanical Turk who collectively complete millions of tasks each month.
But how much can a person really earn completing mindless tasks for pennies on the dollar? Is this a viable way to make a part-time income?
What the heck is Mechanical Turk?
In the 18th century, an unbeatable chess-playing “machine” called The Turk toured Europe, infamously defeating the likes of Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Turk was hailed as a great feat of artificial intelligence — until, of course, it was revealed that it was no machine at all, but a mechanical puppet controlled by a human chess master who hid in a box under the board.
Today, Amazon runs its own iteration of this concept, dubbed Mechanical Turk (MTurk for short). It doesn’t play chess. In fact, it’s not a physical machine at all. But like its namesake, it renders the human labor that underlies AI invisible.
Launched in 2005, MTurk is a platform where “requesters” post mind-numbingly boring jobs called “Human Intelligence Tasks” (HITs) that workers can complete for very small sums of cash.
These HITs are typically things that computers and algorithms can’t quite handle yet — everything from psychological surveys to the identification of NSFW images.
A large percentage of the requesters who post these tasks are academic researchers with limited budgets, and tech companies looking to compile human-cultured data that can be fed to AI algorithms.
When a worker logs into her MTurk dashboard, she sees a list of available HITs, who they’re offered by, the deadline, and the pay. She might choose to transcribe a receipt ($0.01), summarize a block of text ($0.35), or take a behavioral economics survey ($1).
Some HITs take 10 minutes and pay out $1 (a $6/hour pay rate); others call for 5 minutes and pay $0.10 ($1.20/hour). Requesters have control over the rates they choose to set — and Amazon takes a 20%-45% cut of each transaction.
On paper, this sounds like a pretty crappy deal for those completing the tasks. Yet, Amazon hundreds of thousands of registered workers flock to MTurk each month.
Who are they?
Meet the Turkers
Jeff Bezos has dubbed the workers of MTurk “artificial artificial intelligence;” they prefer the term “Turkers.”
Turkers skew young (77% fall between the ages of 18-37), educated (70% have a B.A. or higher), and slightly female (51%). Despite an uptick in foreign users over the past few years, the majority of them (75%) are based in the US.
These workers also tend to suffer economically.
One in 3 Turkers is unemployed, and the average Turker reports a household income of ~$47k per year ($12k below the US national average). In a 2016 Pew survey, 25% of Turkers said they used MTurk because they lacked other available opportunities.
But recent data shows that Amazon isn’t doing most Turkers any favors.
A 2018 academic study analyzed 3.8m tasks completed by 2,676 workers on MTurk and found that average earnings through the platform amounted to $2 per hour. Only 4% of all workers earned more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour.
Because Turkers are independent contractors, they are not safeguarded by most labor protections, including minimum wage laws.
The amount they earn on MTurk is determined almost entirely on their ability to: A) Secure as many “higher-paying” (i.e. minimum wage +) tasks as possible, and B) Complete them as fast as possible within the bounds of what requesters will accept. If the job isn’t completed satisfactorily, it can be rejected without pay.
Unfortunately, this is a hard game to play.
Lower-paying requesters flood the platform — and when a higher-paying HIT does pop up, it’s immediately lapped up by one of the 2k Turkers populating the platform at any given moment. (“Literally count to 5 — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — and it’s gone,” one Turker tells The Hustle).
Roughly 80% of all tasks on the site are completed by just 20% of Turkers, who use a suite of tools and browser extensions, optimizing every move.
For these Turkers, MTurk can actually work out to be a pretty decent side gig.
When Mike Naab first learned of MTurk, he “thought it was too good to be true.”
The prospect of stringing together any kind of side income by completing low-paying tasks — $0.05 here, $0.20 there — seemed unrealistic. And for some time, it was: In his first few weeks on the platform, he pulled in less than $2/hour.
Then, he discovered a bustling online metropolis of hardcore Turkers.
They posted in forums with names like MTurk Crowd and Turkernation. They built software tools that automatically alerted them of well-paying HITs with a chirp or chime. They installed browser extensions that tracked hourly rates and optimized workflow.
“I started to learn more about how things worked,” says Naab. “And that’s when the switch really flipped.”
Since 2013, Naab has completed 95k HITs and earned $45k working part-time on MTurk. In a typical 30-day period, he completes around 4k HITs (many of which take just a few seconds) and pulls in $1k.
To be sure, this isn’t a big-money side hustle — and he still has to pay taxes on this. But it’s a meaningful supplement to Naab’s daily income.
It’s also relatively passive. Naab Turks during short gaps in his day: A 30-minute lunch break may mean a few $1.25 Stanford studies. A 10-minute lull between meetings is a $2 psychological survey on chocolate. A 30-second stretch could net him $0.08 for a 1-question poll on the effectiveness of candle scents.
“Most of it is just filling in empty [space] in the day — time I’d probably be wasting otherwise,” he says. “If you’re not doing anything anyway, it’s just bonus money.”
One downside of this logic is that it promotes a constant, break-less cycle of work. To maintain a decent wage, Naab must be constantly alert, always tuned in, and willing to spring to action at the “ding!” of a $0.50 HIT.
Another downside is the uneven flow of the work. Some days, Naab might make $50 in a few hours; other days, he’ll only pull in a few bucks.
“I look at it from an hourly rate standpoint, rather than what I make total,” he says. “If a HIT takes 15 minutes and pays $3, that’s a $12 pay rate, which isn’t bad.”
Naab has to constantly run time assessments in his head: A task that pays $0.25 for 1 minute ($15/hr) is better than a task that pays $1 and takes 10 minutes ($6/hr). Anything that pays out at an hourly rate of less than $6 is “sucky.”
In his book, Side Hustle From Home: How To Make Money Online With Amazon Mechanical Turk, Naab enumerates on the many tools and resources he uses:
- Turkopticon: A site where Turkers rate requesters’ communication, generosity, fairness, and promptness on a scale from 1-5. (Used to filter out or avoid bad actors who populate MTurk.)
- Turkmaster: A browser extension that finds HITs based on criteria, including pay, and pushes them to you. (Saves time spent looking for tasks, and increases the amount made.)
- Mmmturkeybacon: An extension that tallies projected earnings for the day.
- MTurk Crowd, HITs Worth Looking For, MTurkForum: Forums where Turkers give out tips, compile quality HITs, and discuss bad requesters.
“Most people’s first mistake is they go on there and accept any task they see,” says Naab. “They’ll do these transcriptions — $0.01 to transcribe a whole receipt for Expensify. That’s a terrible ROI.”
Naab prefers surveys, which generally pay $1 or more and don’t require much time. Other tasks require “qualifications” (anything from age/location, to a certain number of completed HITs, to experience with psychological trauma).
But even for a top 1% Turker like Naab, the good stuff has been drying up lately.
“Either there’s not as much work, or there are more workers now,” he says. “It’s harder to catch the good ones, and it’s definitely not as good as it was at its peak.”
The platform, it seems, has grown in popularity — especially among workers in India, where the pay rates are more favorable. Once underground enclaves, the MTurk forums now court thousands of posters from around the world.
“Digital sweatshop” or supplemental opportunity?
Naab is, of course, an outlier in the MTurk ecosystem.
We asked 4 other avid Turkers to share their most recent earnings (and time estimates) on MTurk; 3 of 4 made less than the federal minimum wage:
- Turker #1: $1,310, 297 hours ($4.14/hour)
- Turker #2: $1,287, 219 hours ($5.87/hour)
- Turker #3: $946, 109 hours ($7.17/hour)
- Turker #3: $860, 87 hours ($9.88/hour)
Given the low average hourly rates, lack of basic labor protection, and the menial nature of the work, it’s hard to argue that these descriptors don’t have some merit.
But it’s more complex than that. Like most tech platforms, MTurk is a land of haves and have-nots, where most earn paltry sums and a small subset optimizes its way to success. For Naab, and others in the latter category, it’s a welcome opportunity.
“I’d literally be sitting around bored half the day without it,” he says. “Making money beats doing nothing.”