Amidst selling unicorn meat and uranium ore, Amazon found time to start a crowdsourcing service called Mechanical Turk. The platform enables workers (“turkers”) to complete small tasks that computers cannot do, such as transcribing an audio recording or flagging inappropriate photos for a social network. A task (known as a “human intelligence task,” or “HIT”) can pay anywhere from a cent to a dollar.

Turkers represent the Wild West of the crowdsourcing work force. The process of posting HITs (known as “requesting”) is not well regulated: there is no restriction on how much a requester can charge. I attempted to carry out one of the many HITs from ReceiptHog, a mobile app that pays users to snap photos of their grocery receipts and pays turkers to transcribe them. The illegible grocery receipt that I was assigned listed more than twenty items, and my transcription would earn me just two cents. After ten minutes of entering items incorrectly, I gave up.

Professional turkers weigh each HIT according to how much they’ll earn per minute, even if it’s merely pennies. So when I hoped to convince a few of them to participate in my documentary, I figured the best way to get their attention was to pay up. In the request I posted, I asked turkers if they thought it was weird that I was paying them to be in my film. “Everything has a price” one turker responded. “It literally takes all of your energy to earn pennies some days.

Bassam Tariq is a TED Fellow and the director of the feature film “These Birds Walk.”

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