Crowdsourcing: an ethics dilemma?

April 23, 2011 By Aminda

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society raised the challenging question as to whether corporate social media is ethical. Is there a “Tom Sawyer syndrome” at work in which people are suckered into doing work thinking that it’s something to be enjoyed, where they are persuaded to complete simple tasks for no pay at all, instead offering recognition within the volunteer community or points in the guise of a game.

“Fees paid for crowdsourced tasks are usually so meager that they could not possibly earn participants a living wage,” Mr. Zittrain argued. Rather they are going to be more appealing to groups such as poor graduate students seeking spending money.

At least one USA Today writer supports him. “Penny-pinching companies are hiring specialists to plumb the vast resources of the Web in search of cheap expert help,” he writes. Crowdsourcing “is gaining momentum among businesses, non-profits and individuals who are getting work done at a fraction of the normal cost.”

As reported by the Chronical of Higher Education, the SXSW Conference where Zittrain presented this theory, featured panelists with some compelling counter-arguments as well, including Lukas Biewald, head of CrowdFlower, which is “not at all like a sweatshop”. All of the activities are voluntary, he pointed out, and the workers can log off anytime. He said it was hard to imagine the repressive tactics used in physical sweatshops going virtual.

It is also is a huge opportunity for workers, says a Boston Globe writer. He cites, txteagle, which distributes image, audio and text-based tasks to mobile cell-phone users across the globe, and has become one of Kenya’s largest employers, employing a 10,000-strong workforce is a network of freelancers.

What do you think? Is Zittrain’s opinion exaggerated or is there some validity to it?

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