Collaboration & Social Networking

Researchers Help Online Workers Act on Grievances

While the Internet may be wildly successful at bringing like-minded people together, it can be less effective at helping people gather together to act on shared grievances. A group of researchers undertook a study to try to understand the barriers that prevent online workers from taking collective action. The specific subject of the study was the Mechanical Turk community, Amazon's distributed work platform.

"It can be difficult to get a group of people in a room to agree on a course of action, and those difficulties are compounded when people try to work together online," said Niloufar Salehi, a Stanford University graduate student who studies human-computer interactions.

Salehi worked with Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford, and Lilly Irani, an assistant professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, to study how to create an online forum geared toward action.

The result is Dynamo, a platform that supports the Mechanical Turk community in forming "publics" around issues and then taking action. As the paper, "We Are Dynamo: Overcoming Stalling and Friction in Collective Action for Crowd Workers" explained, publics as groups of people who come together "to discuss issues of mutual interest and reach common judgment when possible."

The researchers wanted to "take it to the next level," said Bernstein. Their goal: to figure out what it takes to "transform that energy into decisions and the pursuit of common goals."

The two main barriers, as identified by the team: "stalling" and "friction." Stalling surfaced when consensus-building or next steps "became too labor-intensive to sustain worker engagement," the report noted. Friction appeared when some action turned into "divisive disagreement" among workers or "when fly-by criticisms diminished motivation."

When faced with those two barriers, the researchers found that "structured labor" by a trusted individual "could move the effort forward and prevent failure." For example, friction could be changed into progress when that trusted party proposed deadlines for a current goal or proposed actions that could be done "experimentally" without consensus, but could be undone if objections or outcomes weren't good.

Dynamo brought together several hundred freelancers who work in Mechanical Turk and wanted to see small changes made to the online work environment. To settle which changes they would pursue, members used voting to identify those goals that had the broadest support.

The researchers found that when they worked with organizations to put up an image of success, they generated hope among participants. When conflict arose, they repeated posts "using more neutral language" or simply removed tense topics from the discussion.

"We call this the labor of action," Salehi said.

The forum actually achieved successes. One goal, for example, was for "Turkers," as the workers call themselves, to generate "positive publicity." Their collective action resulted in coverage from multiple media outlets, including The Guardian and the Daily Beast.

Salehi will present the team's findings at the forthcoming Computer Human Interactions Conference in Seoul, South Korea next month.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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