There are many different types of spam: in the past, the word referred exclusively to a tinned item of food comprising pork shoulder meat, salt and various other ingredients; in the 1990s, the term became synonymous with unwanted or ‘junk’ e-mail. Nowadays, the word spam has acquired a much broader meaning: the proliferation of any online activity that may be deemed dishonest, detrimental or deficient in some shape or form.
Framed in its broader context, spam may refer to any work produced by the members of websites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (mturk.com), or ‘MTurk’, and Short Task (shorttask.com), which were created with the aim of establishing a ‘marketplace’ for all kinds of tasks that require a certain degree of human intelligence and physical capability. Simply put, the problem with these and other such websites is that they risk promoting cheap labour whilst churning out massive quantities of spam.
Users can sign up to MTurk and Short Task in order to post jobs or ‘tasks’ that are advertised to other members. Many of these tasks are menial in nature; for instance, a member might accept a task to ‘like’ a Facebook page, post a story on Digg.com or Tweet about something, somewhere or somebody. Members who complete such tasks are rewarded in pennies or cents, meaning that they must carry out literally tens of thousands of time-consuming tasks before any kind of meaningful income is generated.
A more malign problem underpins these websites. Dishonest or fraudulent activities are, to put it mildly, very common on the internet. Spam – usually of the e-mail variety – attempts to lure or trick recipients into clicking on links to websites that are designed to compromise the security of computers, bank accounts and other sensitive systems or data. Spam via MTurk and Short Task may or may not compromise security in the same way, but it can result in various undesirable or illegal consequences.
Commonly requested tasks on MTurk-style websites include those that encourage users to manipulate systems that ought to be affected only by organic website traffic. Product reviews, for example, are often ‘boosted’ by legions of users who have been paid to leave favourable (or negative) comments on sites such as Amazon. Voting systems, opinion polls, questionnaires and political surveys can be exploited in much the same way, whilst affiliate schemes that work on a per-lead basis and cost-per-click (CPC) advertising models are also subject to fraudulent activities of the kind described above.
Unfortunately, it is inevitable that MTurk-style websites produce spam; those who pay peanuts for menial tasks can expect monkeys in return. Furthermore, companies that rely on social media advertising via MTurk and Short Task users are likely to experience poor traffic, low conversion rates and obscured site analytics as a result. Aside from spamming and scamming, however, there is at least one positive use for MTurk-style websites: the completion of laborious data entry work.