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Crowdsourcing company introduces the 'game-ification' of dull labor


What might look like a bridge of gibberish to you is more precisely a string of seemingly random Finnish words (so, yeah -- gibberish). See a word and type it. Do so correctly and you'll have constructed a segment of the bridge, leading a parade of moles across a chasm. You repeat the process -- type the word you see -- until construction is complete and your performance is scored. This is Mole Bridge, and it's "valuable work," Ville Miettinen, CEO of creator Microtask, tells VentureBeat.

Like other taskmaster companies before it, Microtask, a Finnish startup, is using a crowdsourcing model to distribute mind-numbing, repetitive work across a network of laborers -- actually, volunteers for now. "Pure monetary compensation is a 20th-century concept," Miettinen told The New York Times last October. At the time, he envisioned the "game-ification" of dull clickwork, which could pay players with virtual currency or other rewards valued by gamer culture. It's now a reality.

The company's first major project, "Digitalkoot," has some 25,000 volunteers digitizing the archives of the National Library of Finland by playing Mole Bridge and its companion game, Mole Hunt. (See a video of each posted after the break.) So all that gibberish? Uh-huh, it's actually a series of randomly selected images -- in most cases, individual words -- from scanned documents, which character recognition software has been unable to interpret. Our reward for still being smarter than the machines? A high score.

NY Times columnist Randall Stross criticized Microtask's brand of cheap labor for its "insidious efficiency." It's not that all of Microtask's workforce will be volunteer, but a company pays only about $1 for an hour's worth of Microtask's service, meaning the laborer would be payed an incomprehensible fraction of a cent for each task completed; and far from minimum wage for completing an hour's worth of these so-called micro-tasks, even for an incredibly fast and accurate typist. (Stross implied a comparison between Microtask and the exploitative nature of organized gold farming operations.)

Miettinen's counter-argument, as he told VentureBeat, is that "bits of digital work could be outsourced to Third World countries" -- a sentiment championed by Yankee Group market-research analyst Emily Green, who finished Miettinen's thought (months before he said it), "... living as they do on less than $2 a day."

"Microtask, and Stross by extension, are right about the disruptive power of giving work to other people," Green wrote in response to the NY Times column. "But it's not about us [the US and Western Europe], it's about the rest of the world. Let's let the atomization of tasks do the same thing for other regions that outsourcing at the process level did for India." Or, if you can't get down with that element of globalization, think of Microtask as a way for you to make a little extra pocket change playing games while you kill time at your already mind-numbing, repetitive day job.

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