Culture

The Amazon poets making pennies per verse

A Mechanical Turk project teases the dour future of creative work.

Culture

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The amount, in cents, paid per poem commissioned by MechanicalTurk Poems
Culture

The Amazon poets making pennies per verse

A Mechanical Turk project teases the dour future of creative work.

On January 2, 2017, a thread on the r/mturk/ subreddit pointed out a strange listing on the Amazon Mechanical Turk site, a crowdsourcing platform for low-wage electronic tasks just a little too difficult or expensive for companies to automate. Amongst routine requests for image identification, speech-to-text transcription, and other tasks demanding the attention of a living person, the post asked for a brief poem. “Write a short poem about your work,” it read. “Do not plagiarize. The poem can be as short or as long as you would like.”

The request felt a little odd compared to the more typically utilitarian listings on the service. At $0.01 per piece, it hardly seemed like adequate compensation for more traditionally commissioned poetry. But something about it caught the eye of a few Mechanical Turk workers on Reddit, who quickly started speculating about the intentions of whoever requested the work. “What do you think was the requester’s aim in this very weird task?,” asked Reddit user swyx. “Weird. But interesting. I imagine they’d be able to get better poetry out of Reddit [through other means] but that seems not to be the goal.”

Commenters quickly identified the request as coming from Reddit user Poem_for_your_sprog, who for the last few years has used the service to crowdsource “little rhymes for the everyday :),” at least according to a Facebook bio associated with the account. The project has spawned a fan page, where supporters can download a PDF compilation of the poems as of the day of access, as well as an Android app that helps allows users to read the collection in a series of simple swipes resembling an eBook. But beyond the slightly amusing first impression of using the Mechanical Turk system for poetry, other commenters noted the growing number of artists requesting Mechanical Turk labor for their own creative endeavors.

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“Various professional artists periodically show up on MTurk to collect input from a bunch of people to use in some weird artwork they’re putting together,” wrote Reddit user clickhappier. “As a hypothetical example of how they could use these, imagine someone reciting poems about work over looping video clips of Office Space-style printer smashing.” The user brought up examples like the time net art pioneers Eva and Franco Mattes crowdsourced an entire Tumblr of bizarre performance art videos stand out as now somewhat legitimized in the art world. Others, like the repeated requests for used panties, revealed that even within Amazon’s terms of service, there’s really no limit to the bizarre and outright creepy sort of things you can ask of a struggling worker. All this hinted at a darker future where, absent the means of making a real living, more and more of us were all forced to partake in odd jobs for mere cents — a kind of hellish, bottomed-out freelancing in which there’s always another job to be done for less pay and always a worker willing to replace you


Some time last year, an account called MechanicalTurk Poems followed me on Twitter. Roughly each week, the anonymous user behind the account uploads a new, brightly-colored image gradient featuring a completely original poem written by a Mechanical Turk worker to their Twitter and Instagram accounts. Forcing viewers to pause and reflect, however briefly, on the subject matter of work, the project publishes a variety of first-hand accounts on the life of the Mechanical Turk worker, from charming, light-hearted musings on the workday to some fairly dark accounts of grueling hours, low-pay, and horrific conditions.

These sobering reflections often problematize the sort of clean public relations language that companies like Amazon, Fiverr, and TaskRabbit use when discussing their crowdsourcing platforms. “Ask me my income, my sex, my age / ask if i’m frugal / would i go on a spending spree? / pay me 12 cents / not bad for a gal with a master’s degree,” wrote one recent worker. Paid only $0.05 per poem, it’s hard to expect workers to really last very long with the system. Yet day after day, worker after worker trudges on in a system designed to minimize their contributions to the point that Amazon for years jokingly referred to it as their “artificial artificial intelligence” in the workforce.

Over the phone, the anonymous creator of MechanicalTurk Poems calls it a “sort of anthropological experiment” that attempts to peel back the layers of artifice to get to the true realities of precarious gig economy labor. “I think part of the intention behind it is definitely wanting to explore what these people’s live are like and shed new light on these practices,” the creator told The Outline. “I realize precarity is increasingly a condition that is felt by almost everybody—from really high-skill and high-waged workers to lower-skilled and lower-waged workers, especially with people in journalism, in academia, in people with quote-unquote ‘creative’ jobs as freelancers and web designers and that kind of thing. I think it’s one of the reasons why more and more of this project has been garnering attention. Even though not everybody who’s interested in it is in the same kind of precarious situation as a lot of these Mechanical Turk workers, it’s this feeling of precacity that is increasingly common.”

Though ostensibly flexible and convenient geographically, the Mechanical Turk platform, like the nature of precarious work itself, seems only ever to result in longer days, lower wages and an endless number of employers looking to profit. At the same time, this is more a product of the platform’s intentional design than any conscious manipulation of workers by their digital employers. Scrolling through this feed, you could imagine a world where creative industries, searching for a cheap fix to their need for content, would utilize the same effortless conveniences that make the tech world appear so seamless. Workers on sites like Fiverr and TaskRabbit already offer everything from proofreading and manuscript editing to custom website layouts and app development options at prices lower than ever. And with so many workers competing for your hard-earned cash, prices are driven lower and lower every day.

A poem featured on the @MTurkPoems account.

A poem featured on the @MTurkPoems account.

In a 2015 essay for The New Yorker, blogger and University of Pennsylvania professor Kenneth Goldsmith described what he termed a “post-internet” moment in contemporary poetry. In the same way that the term has become increasingly common in the 2010s art world as a way to “describe the practices of artists who use the Web as the basis for their work but don’t make a big deal about it,” Goldsmith saw this “post-internet poetry” as a way of viewing the Web as “just another medium, like painting or sculpture.” He wrote:

“Earlier Web-based poetries tended to either exploit the technical side of the Web or underscore the weirdness of it. E-poetry animated words and letters in browser windows. Conceptual poetry made dry, programmatic works that mimicked the structures of the Web. Flarf harvested strange language from Google searches and then presented it newly as kitschy objet trouvé. Alt Lit aped the goopy sincerity of social media, recasting it in poems. These movements produced very different types of poetry, but they shared the idea that the Web was a distinct rupture in the way that poetry was made: after the Web, we would never write the same way again.”

As artists increasingly exploit the Mechanical Turk platform for their own creative ends, maybe this too signals another shift in the newfound use of crowdsourced labor for poetry. Where the work Goldsmith alludes to tends to cut up and rework various texts from the internet, this Mechanical Turk project has more in common with traditional models of commission than anything else identified with this “post-internet” descriptor. In the same way that the platform’s large-scale image identification and language translation projects keep things on the internet running smoothly, Mechanical Turk Poetry is a near-frictionless exercise in the commodification of creative writing; with its lightning-quick first-thought-best-thought approach, the project reduces the inspiration and enthusiasm of the artform to another artifact on a desktop, a streetside curiosity sold without reflection on why it was produced.

Thanks to Amazon’s Terms of Service, which state that all ownership and intellectual property rights will “vest with that Requester immediately upon your performance of those Tasks,” the ownership of any work produced through the platform lies in the hands of whoever made the original work request. Asked about the ethical implications of the piece, its creator stressed the importance of their own anonymity as a way of keeping the focus primarily on the relations at play in their work. “It’s one thing to re-contextualize an exploitative practice to shed new light on it, critically engage with it,” they write. “It’s another thing to engage in the practice to shed light on oneself. I would rather be doing the former.”

When I asked if there was any way I can get in touch with the workers behind the poems, the artist said though the system technically allows Requesters to message employees, these Mechanical Turk poets were never told that their work is being published. While not denying the request outright, the artist noted that Amazon’s platform outright discourages off-platform requests in its Terms of Service — most likely to prevent uncontracted exploitation, but thereby consolidating the feeling of automation, that there isn’t a human on the other end of the screen.

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Now that the web is “just another medium” where everyone’s constantly writing in some form or another, the most pressing issues all seem to point to questions of how to effectively monetize work in the digital economy. In the last few years, the watercooler discussions of Reddit and the Mechanical Turk forum TurkNation.com have each turned to bigger-picture questions of how these platforms can be reformed to better serve the precarious gig economy worker. In 2014, organizers born on TurkNation started a letter-writing campaign to pressure Amazon into recognizing them as “actual human beings” with a living wage comparably higher than the current $2-$3 hourly average. Though it doesn’t appear much has come from it, the impulse to organize only seems stronger with the changing presidential administration.

The sheer bleakness of reading through hundreds of accounts of the grueling minutiae of the work day is at times almost too much to bear. “Can you believe it / I’m on for five hours and I / Only make 10 bucks.” “All the soul sucked out. / For pennies I do all this? / Desperation still reigns.” No matter how short and effortless they seem, behind each of poem is the story of a worker. Whatever their circumstances, the Mechanical Turk platform facilitates unique anxieties about the modern workday that I think everyone recognizes on some level, even if they aren’t necessarily working for pennies. “Today I work hard / Tomorrow I will work too / It will never end.” Now brought to the surface in poetry, it’s an interesting reminder of how much we all really have in common.

Rob Arcand is a freelance writer, editor and designer on the internet.