I have been working on Amazon Mechanical Turk since February 15, 2015. I was sent the link from a friend and used that to sign up. It was a very simple process, but they did ask for my social security number and other personal information. It wasn’t an instant approval process, I believe it was three days before I received an email stating my account was approved.

When I first logged in and saw the ‘hits available’ page, I thought what have I signed up for. It was all very overwhelming. I just kept scrolling and looking for probably over an hour. I’m sure it was probably another hour before I finally got brave enough to actually accept a hit. That’s when I found out that most of the time you have to wait days for your money and even then it’s not guaranteed that requesters will pay you - more on this later.

The funny thing is back then I had no clue that I should be keeping records of my bonuses that requesters said I earned. I’m sure there were plenty that never sent what they said they would. I think on my first actual day I earned $2.00 that was already awarded to me. I remember being limited to only 100 hits per day in my first ten days - and that I couldn’t transfer any of my earnings during that period. I can also remember reading some instructions on the hits and they were so complicated that I thought I was reading another language. My first experiences with Turk were very confusing and honestly I thought they would be my last. I then started researching and that’s when the real fun began. I learned how to Turk and be successful, because without the proper tools Turking could possibly be the worst job you’ve ever done in your life.

Learning to Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourced platform for requesters, whether they are researchers or businesses, to post Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for ‘Turkers’ to complete. The tasks can range from research studies, surveys, data processing, and many other tasks computers can’t complete.

When I first started I worked mostly alone. Some of the time I worked with a friend from New York that I had met in a movie group on Facebook. She knew I was having trouble with bills and things because the economy of my area was turning to shit with all the coal mines closing and my former husband wrecking my finances. Those first days I was amazed that there was so much work posted. It didn’t matter what time of day or night, I could always see work. I was fooled though by the high paying transcription hits at first. I wasted so much time trying to earn a decent hourly wage, but it just wasn’t going to happen. If I had to estimate how much time I wasted, I would say at least 2-3 days because I even went back repeatedly to try again. The monetary value of the hits were just so large that they were hard to ignore.

After a day or two, my New York friend invited me to a Facebook group for new Turkers called “Turkers 101.” It was a small group of maybe 20 people that were active, but none who really made any money on Turk. They had the goal of making 5 dollars a day and there’s no way I could support my family on that.

I started making money. At first I thought it was just hobby money, but I realised I could make more. So I started searching for other turkers. In the group they had a list of scripts to help with the work so I started downloading them. Although after trying to use them I was really confused, so I started to watch YouTube videos about them - because you know YouTube knows everything. That’s when I saw videos of people making good money and I developed my plan. For reference, I made 128 dollars in my first 8 days on Turk.

Scripts are used to increase Turking efficiency by altering the default behavior of Turk or adding new functionality. Turkers use these scripts to maximize their income and minimize the time spent looking for work. Some scripts are used to automatically catch HITs as they are posted on the site. Most Turkers use PANDAs (Preview And Auto Accept) to maximize their ability to catch the highest paying HITs. An issue I experienced with this system is that if your internet speed or computer processor speed is slower than others, you have less of a chance to “catch” the work before others do. Despite this competition, you can still find workers from all over the world in groups of Turkers willing to help each other. Some groups are focused on creating things to make Turking easier, but others are more focused on the camaraderie of developing friendships.

When thinking of all the groups and different forums that are out there for Turkers, it really does show that most of us still strive for that personal connection, even when working quietly from our own homes. I have personally developed lifelong friendships with people all over the world. In the process, I have learned so many things about different cultures that I would have never been exposed to living in a rural American town. This is a big reason why I have developed such a passion to make this work better, so others can hopefully capitalize on the great opportunities and learning that comes from working as a Turker.

While I worked I kept branching out and looking for other Turkers that I could relate to. Eventually I found another large Turk group. I had never seen a group in which people helped each other so much before. They had a daily hit thread sharing all the well paying hits and tagging people to help each other. I regularly participated in the thread and loved the companionship of having an office crew of sorts. The overall structure of the group seemed to be like “a water cooler” where you could share anything - whether it was HITs or something happening in your life. The sense of companionship became really important - so much so that some members were upset that the daily HIT thread wasn’t just HITs but people sharing about their lives and the drama was just too much!

A select group of us broke off into a smaller subgroup. Some people got left behind in the process. They said they missed us so we started adding them and others back in. Over time we added more and more, to the point where it’s now above 2300 members. There are daily HIT threads that I still converse with. It seemed the more you would share the more people would converse with you and give you pointers. They all had their own language and abbreviations for HITs and if you didn’t know them you would probably miss a batch before they answered you back. The overall feel of the group made me really feel like we were co-workers and we were supporting each other through both the good and the bad times.

How I Turk today

Nowadays, I’m more of a lone Turker. I work with a small group of about 8 people that I know I can talk about anything with. I’ve become a much more secluded Turker because now that my husband works, I don’t have to dedicate as much time to Turking. I still need to make some money for us to stay afloat and make it from paycheck to paycheck. I found that when I started working less, I didn’t want to take from the other group when I wasn’t contributing “my part.”

Most days I start out turking by grabbing my necessities for the day: caffeine and nicotine. I know that once I sit down if the work is there I won’t be getting up until it’s gone. That’s the thing about Turking, you never know when the work is going to be there. Or to put it another way: you never know when the good work will be there. I have my computer running PANDAs and HIT Notifier 24 hours a day, just so I won’t miss the higher paying hits when they are dropped or returned for some reason by another Turker. I usually go through HIT Notifier first to see if there are any good HITs that I need to PANDA and set my PANDAs for them. I always have anywhere between 4-8 PANDAs running at any given time - and that’s all the time. One old Turk friend of mine has the motto ABT - “Always Be Turking.” Because guess what: if you want to make a good wage at this, that’s what you will be doing.

My life today as a Turker is more based on helping other Turkers learn the tricks and tools to make decent money on Turk. I scan forums and groups to see who is having issues. If I find something, I reach out to show them links to help get their rejections overturned or show them a tool they could use to help maximize their earnings.

The effects of Turking

My work affects other Turkers. Not as much now, but before I was always told I caught all the good hits and I knew how to look for work. I had developed a system to start my day, setting my scripts to work. I’ve helped many turkers learn what timers to set their PANDA catchers to, how to look for hits through Turkopticon for certain requesters, and set up searches to find the good work. I think a lot of Turkers can suffer from jealousy seeing what other people make on the platform. And that carries over when some don’t make as much as others. I’ve had people block me because I had better earnings than them. They couldn’t catch the hits and acted like it was my fault.

I had set out to make the best of Turk and that’s what I did. It didn’t matter if I worked 2 hours or 10 hours - sometimes as high as 14 hours! - I sat there until I made what I needed to. I found myself gravitating to people that worked like this. I had a Facebook Turk group named “hardcore home workers” (which is kind of funny thinking how that came about now) where it was all full time Turkers. I can remember actually making phone lists to call people when good hits dropped. We were all from different parts of the country but had enough respect for each other’s life stories that we would help each other make a living. I can remember talking to friends on chat, trying to keep each other motivated to finish batches of work - even after working 4 or more hours straight on the same task, just going as fast as we could.

Turk affects my family as they would love to have mom take a day off from work. I can’t remember the last day that I didn’t log onto Turk on my laptop. It is not something that I have thought about, but it is a strange feeling looking back at how often I log on. I can say that I have had the convenience of working when I wanted to, but sometimes I would have to work double time to make it worthwhile. I can’t tell you the times my husband has felt neglected due to my work on Turk. We could be in the middle of a conversation, but if a HIT dropped I would have to tell him to hold on until I was finished.

Leverage on Turk

The leverage I have comes from knowing some Turkers respect me. I’m passionate about Turkers getting fair treatment whether it be fair pay, fair treatment from requesters, or transparency for qualifications. I’m not scared of Amazon because I feel that if I don’t stand up for what I believe then I’m just being a sheep. I have built a lot of different connections over the years that I can reach out to and bring in more support if needed. For example, I received a mass rejection several years ago. A requester rejected over 70 HITs at one time because it seemed they didn’t want to pay for my work. I realized something was really wrong with my system of work. I had always been a careful worker and made sure to not do bad work, but then a requester (who had no history on Turk) came in and ruined that for me in my eyes. I emailed the requester and Amazon repeatedly, getting no response from either. For the first time in my Turk career, I felt totally powerless. I decided to reach out to Turkopticon (a worker review site of requesters) to leave a review of my experience with this requester. Then it dawned on me: no matter what happens, this was all the leverage I had at the time..

Last year was a bad year Turking for me. The wages went down, the quality of the requesters depleted, and the overall Turk system seemed to be getting worse. I felt like I was getting to the end of my Turk career. It would have to improve or we would never be able to make it from week to week. I was talking with my husband about a particular requester and how they have ruined things. While ranting about the latest problems with Turk, I realised that in order to actually change things I would have to stand up for what I believe in.

I decided that now was the time. This meant finding a way to get a voice to Amazon, telling them that we wouldn’t take this sitting down. It was time to make the Turker’s voice heard: a time for change and to stand up. I believe that requesters can’t be allowed to continue rejecting good and honest work just because they want to - or they want to scam the system and not pay. In turn, Amazon can’t stay silent forever while their whole force of Turkers continue to be treated unfairly.

Speaking honestly, I love Turk and it has opened so many avenues for my family. But I guess the old saying holds true here: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me, fool me three times and I have become a fool. As Turkers, we need to stop being fooled by the flexibility of Turk and realise that we are humans and deserve to be treated as such.

After all these realisations, I saw an email from Turkopticon. They were calling for help to revamp their website. The creators had been operating it for over 10 years and wanted to turn it over to be Turker organized and owned. Turkopticon had always been so helpful for me to find good work and I didn’t want to lose it. I still had many friends that used the site. That’s when I knew I had to sign up and get involved. As Turkers, we needed a system for us to be able to communicate the crap work to others.

Over the next couple of weeks I was eagerly checking my email to see if they had replied. When they did, I was excited to see and hear what was happening. The first workshop I attended with Turkopticon was so eye opening. I saw how much Amazon relies on Turkopticon to take care of the bad requesters. It got me thinking whether it was really Turkopticon’s place to do this. I felt Amazon was really missing the mark by not letting Turkers have a say in how to deal with the bad requesters.

I am now involved working and finding other Turkers to actually make Turk work better for everyone around the world and finally be heard as the hidden tech workers!



Sherry works on Amazon Mechanical Turk.