I mostly side with Lukas and Panos on the fantastic potential of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing service specializing in tiny payments for simple tasks that require human brainpower, like labeling images. Within the field of computer science alone, this type of service will revolutionize how empirical research is done in communities from CHI to SIGIR, powering unprecedented speed and scale at low cost (here are two examples). My guess is that the impact will be even larger in the social sciences; already, a number of folks in Yahoo’s Social Dynamics research group have started running studies on mturk. (A side question is how university review boards will react.)

However there is a seedier side to mturk, and I’m of two minds about it. Some people use the service to hire sockpuppets to enter bogus ratings and reviews about their products and engage in other forms of spam. (Actually this appears to violate mturk’s stated policies.)

For example, Samuel Deskin is offering up to ten cents to turkers willing to promote his new personalized start page samfind.

EARN TEN CENTS WITH THE BONUS – EASY MONEY – JUST VOTE FOR US AND COMMENT ABOUT US

EARN FOUR CENTS IF YOU:

1. Set up an anoymous email account likke gmail or yahoo so you can register on #2 anonymously

2. Visit http://thesearchrace.com/signup.php and sign up for an account – using your anonymous email account.

3. Visit http://www.thesearchrace.com/recent.php and vote for:

samfind

By clcking “Pick”

SIX CENTS BONUS:

4. Visit the COMMENTS Page on The Search Race, it is the Button Right Next to “Picks” on this page: http://www.thesearchrace.com/recent.php and

5. Say something awesome about samfind (http://samfind.com) on The Search Race’s Comments page.

Make sure to:

1. Tell us that you Picked us.
2. Copy and Paste the Comment you typed on The Search Race’s Comment page here so we know you wrote it and we will give you the bonus!

In fact, Deskin is currently offering bounties on mturk for a number of different spammy activities to promote his site. On the other hand, what Deskin is doing is not illegal and is arguably not all that different than paying PRWEB to publish his rah-rah press release (Start-up, samfind, Launches Customizable Startpage to Compete with Google, Yahoo & MSN, Los Angeles, California (PRWEB) August 4, 2008). And I have to at least give him credit for offering the money under his own name.

Another type of task on mturk involves taking a piece of text and paraphrasing it so that the words are different but the meaning remains the same. Here is an example:

Paraphrase This Paragraph

Here’s the original paragraph:

You’re probably wondering how to apply a wrinkle filler to your skin. The good news is that it’s easy! There are a number of different products on the market for anti aging skin care. Each one comes with its own special application instructions, which you should always make sure to read and carefully follow. In general, however, most anti aging skin care products are simply applied to the skin and left to soak in.

Requirements:
1. Use the same writing style as much as possible.
2. Vary at least 50% of the words and phrases – but keep the same concepts. Use obviously different sentences! Your paragraph should not be just a copy of the first with a few word replacements.
3. Any keywords listed in bold in the above paragraph must be included in your paraphrase.
4. The above paragraph contains 75 words… yours must contain at least 64 words and not more than 101 words.
5. Write using American English.
6. No obvious spelling or grammar mistakes. Please use a spell-checker before submitting. A free online spell checker can be found at www.spellcheck.net.

If you find it easier to paraphrase sentence-by-sentence, then do that. Please do not enter anything in the textbox other than your written paragraph. Thanks!

I have no direct evidence, but I imagine such a task is used to create splogs (I once found what seems like such a “paraphrasing splog”), ad traps, email spam, or other plagiarized content.

It’s possible that paid spam is hitting my blog (either that or I’m overly paranoid). I’m beginning to receive comments that are almost surely coming from humans, both because they clearly reference the content of the post and because they pass the re-captcha test. However, the author’s URL seems to point to an ad trap. I wonder if these commenters (who are particularly hard to catch — you have to bother to click on the author URL) are paid workers of some crowdsourcing service?

Can and should Amazon try to filter away these kinds dubious uses of Mechanical Turk? Or is it better to have this inevitable form of economic activity out in the open? One could argue that at least systems like mturk impose a tax on pollution and spam, something long argued as an economic force to reduce spam.

My main objection to these activities is the lack of disclosure. Advertisements and press releases are paid for, but everyone knows it, and usually the funding source is known. However, the ratings, reviews, and paraphrased text coming out of mturk masquerade as authentic opinions and original content. I absolutely want mturk to succeed — it’s an innovative service of tremendous value, one of many to come out of Amazon recently — but I believe Amazon is risking a minor PR backlash by allowing these activities to flow through its servers and by profiting from them.

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