About 8 percent of U.S. adults earn money by doing contract work through so-called “gig economy” employers like Uber, Favor, or Amazon Mechanical Turk, according to the Pew Research Center; if the trend continues, one-third of Americans will support themselves this way by 2027.
The gig economy is growing rapidly, but it’s also changing how we think about what it means to work. Uber and other online platforms are making the case for a future in which work happens in little on-demand bursts — you need a ride, and someone appears to give you that ride. Instead of a salary and benefits like health insurance, the worker gets paid only for the time they’re actually driving you around.
I’m a researcher who studies how people work and I have a hard time endorsing this vision of the future. When I see Favor delivery drivers waiting to pick up a to-go order, I imagine a future in which half of us stand in line while the other half sit on couches. And then I imagine a future in which all these mundane tasks are automated: the cars drive themselves, the burritos fly in our windows on drones. And I wonder how companies are going to make money when there are no jobs and we can’t afford to buy a burrito or pay for a ride home from the bar.
To understand the answer to that question, you have to scrape the very bottom of the barrel of gig work. You have to go so far down that you don’t even call it work anymore. You have to go to Crowdtap.
Crowdtap pitches itself as a place where anyone can “team up” with their “favorite brands” and “get rewarded for your opinions” by completing “missions,” such as filling out surveys and posting product promotions to social media. These actions earn points that can be traded in for gift cards.
Along the way, you might also get a few free samples or coupons. There are also occasional contests where members can win additional gift cards or larger prizes. A lot of what Crowdtappers do is post brand promotions to social media. As I’m writing this, for example, I’m looking at someone who has tweeted, in the last ten minutes, about Febreze (“Would totally use Febreze to fight persistent odors in my basement”), squeezable apple sauce (“Great deal, just in time for the new school year!”), Splenda (three times), cheese snacks, LensCrafters (twice), Suave (twice), and McDonalds.
Picture a future in which half of us stand in line while the other half sit on couches
A cynical view of Crowdtap is that it’s just another form of social media marketing — people being paid to tell their friends to buy things. But then you realize that these people don’t have large social media followings (in fact, Crowdtap users I interviewed said they create throwaway social media accounts to use exclusively for Crowdtap). And sharing content on social media isn’t even required — the default option is to share, but you get your points either way. Crowdtap passes members’ responses on to brands, but otherwise nobody is listening to what they say. No one is responding. There’s very little about this that might be called social. Imagine someone wandering alone in a giant desert, shouting “I love Big Macs!” into the sky. That’s Crowdtap.
So here’s an even more cynical view: Crowdtap isn’t social media marketing. Instead, it’s a form of work that rewards people for selling products to themselves. And if we imagine a future in which more people work in the gig economy, in which income inequality continues to increase, and in which brands need new ways to stimulate consumption, it might give some hints about what’s coming after Uber.
In the summer of 2016, I interviewed twelve people who use Crowdtap and similar online platforms. I compensated the interviewees, as is standard in academia, in order to get a more diverse sample and also because it seemed like the ethical thing to do given the fact that they could have spent that time Crowdtapping. I offered $5 Amazon gift cards and explained that the interview was for labor research. In exchange, I asked them what their lives are like and why they do what they do.
The people I talked to generally don’t have standard jobs. Seven referred to themselves as stay-at-home moms. Two are retired. One described herself as disabled, and two told me they have disabled children. Two said that they rarely leave the house, and several others described similarly isolating daily routines. Almost all of them said, unprompted, that they use the gift cards they earn to buy Christmas presents for family members. But they talk about the free products they receive, too, which Crowdtap sends them in order to complete tasks — how helpful it is to get shampoo, pain killers, tampons, or dog food, for the small price of answering surveys about their mustard purchase habits or commenting on an Instagram photo of a redesigned Splenda bottle.
Imagine someone wandering alone in a giant desert, shouting “I love Big Macs!” into the sky. That’s Crowdtap.
One of the dark sides of Crowdtap and similar platforms is how little participants end up making. Crowdtap doesn’t advertise itself as a kind of work (although its Membership Agreement makes clear that participants are classified as independent contractors), and members typically don’t see Crowdtap as an employer, either. But people I talked to said they spend an average of 15 hours a week on these platforms, and, when I asked how much they end up making based on the value of the free products, coupons, and gift cards, the answers ranged from 25 cents an hour to about $11, with an average of $2.45.
But beyond the far-below-minimum-wage payments, the more insidious side of this kind of work is that it masquerades as something it’s not. Crowdtap says it’s about letting people share their opinions with brands and with other consumers, but the flow of information actually goes the other way. Crowdtap isn’t about letting people speak to brands; it’s about letting brands speak to people.
I didn’t fully understand this until I decided to spend an afternoon using Crowdtap. During that time, here’s what I did:
- Picked a list of my favorite brands.
- Answered questions such as “What are the benefits of aloe in a facial skin care product?”
- Visited pages that provided information about various cheese products.
- Filled in prompts about these cheese products such as “Think my fam will love ______.”
- Tweeted these responses, being sure to include hashtags such as #HorizonCrowd and links to product pages.
- Wrote a short response about why I was “hoping to try out a delicious variety” of cheese snacks. I was reminded to “mention both what kind of occasions you envision your family snacking … and which aspects of the snack pack appeal to you most.”
Answering a survey question usually earns two points. Posting something to social media usually earns 20. Uploading a photo earns 30. To get your first two $5 Amazon gift cards, you need 500 points; after that, it takes 1,000 points for each gift card. As I wrote short tweets and answered survey question after question, I felt myself pulled in two directions — between getting through the rote tasks as quickly as possible and putting enough effort into my responses that I wouldn’t get kicked off the platform. As one woman told me, “A lot of times it gets really repetitive. You're looking at the same links over and over again so you just fly through it.” But flying through can feel a little unsettling when you’re not sure if anybody is checking your work and you know you’re an independent contractor who can be dismissed at any time.
Regardless of whether we call it work or “connecting with brands,” these repetitive tasks are a pretty intense form of consumer education. And when you repeat these activities hour after hour, spending enough time to actually earn a $5 gift card, you probably pick up some habits that brands are happy about. Such as:
- Good consumers have favorite brands.
- Good consumers are knowledgeable about the products produced by those brands. Specifically, they can list features that make those products better than others.
- Good consumers think about buying and using products in the future, and they tell people about their plans.
- Good consumers include brand hashtags when they talk about products online.
There’s a further level of education built into these activities as well, in that you often have to already have bought certain items before you can earn your points. For example, a lot of the tasks are intended to be completed on a smartphone with a camera. A mother of two told me her family had recently purchased a smartphone with their tax refund so she could participate in these tasks. Another, an unemployed single mother, told me that she couldn’t complete all the tasks offered because she just couldn’t afford to: “They want you to take a picture of you eating lobster. I don't eat lobster and I can't afford lobster, which is why I'm getting Amazon gift cards from Crowdtap.”
Good consumers keep their personal electronics up to date. And they eat lobster (or at least aspire to).
I contacted Crowdtap to learn more about its members and to ask what brands get out of these arrangements.
In an email response, the company’s manager of platform operations, McKenzie Lawton, and senior marketing manager, Nitya Srikishen, echoed a lot of what you find in the platform’s marketing materials: that people join because they’re “interested in trying new products and sharing their experiences” and that they get the opportunity to “communicate with the brands they already know and love, and discover new favorites.” They acknowledged that most of their members don’t have large social media followings but also stressed that a lot of the value for brands isn’t in spreading a message but in getting feedback from consumers. And they described Crowdtap’s method of mixing consumer education in with all the consumer research and social media marketing as a feature, not a bug, saying, “The ability to get Amazon gift cards also can help [members] try some of the new things they discover!”
“Honestly, Crowdtap has helped me more in self-worth than anything.”
My guess is that most of the people I talked to wouldn’t necessarily agree with my characterization of Crowdtap as a depressing view into the future of work. Two people said they like Crowdtap because they enjoy learning about new products. One woman, a student who takes online classes while caring for her child, told me, “I get to try new brands, and I love that. … This is kind of, for me, a chance to try something without taking that risk. That’s what I love about it. The extra money doesn’t hurt.” Four of the stay-at-home moms I talked to said that they enjoy being able to contribute to their households’ finances. One woman, who is the mother of a disabled child and who says she “actually never gets out of the house,” told me that she appreciates Crowdtap because “it does help me as a three-year homemaker feel as if I am contributing to the family financially. … Honestly, Crowdtap has helped me more in self-worth than anything.”
Crowdtap isn’t entirely new or unique. In the late ‘90s, sites like iWon let users earn points and enter prize drawings in exchange for playing games on the site or clicking on links. “Pay to surf” companies like AllAdvantage offered users a small payment (e.g., 50 cents per hour) in exchange for installing software that would display ads on their screen.
Performing rote tasks on the internet in exchange for emotional gratification isn’t new, either; it’s how lots of people use social media. And an online platform claiming a mission that doesn’t align with its business model certainly isn’t new. Facebook claims to “build community and bring the world together,” but it’s really just segmenting us into smaller ad audiences. Similarly, Crowdtap does let you share your opinions with brands and even pick a charity to support — but it’s also heavily engaged in marketing directly to its members. (Crowdtap declined to say what percentage of its revenue goes to charity.)
Crowdtap is almost like a form of welfare — be a good consumer, and coupons, tampons, and dog food will trickle down from the sky. In Crowdtap’s world, you’re not even “working” for your benefits. You’re just trudging through the day’s list of missions and learning what to spend that $5 gift card on.
Gig companies like Uber and Favor portray themselves as hiring workers for whom the flexibility of working gigs when they want outweighs the stability and benefits that come with a full-time job. But Crowdtap presents an alternative vision of the future of work, one in which the workers are little more than receptacles for advertising. We might imagine Uber drivers in ten years, put out of work by self-driving cars and sitting on their couches, wondering how they’re going to buy Christmas presents for their kids or feed their dogs.