The Future of Crowd Work

Aniket Kittur, Jeffrey V. Nickerson, Michael Bernstein, Elizabeth Gerber, Aaron Shaw, John Zimmerman, Matt Lease, and John Horton. 2013. The future of crowd work. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW ’13). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1301-1318. DOI=10.1145/2441776.2441923


In this paper, the authors ask the provocative question, “can we foresee a future crowd workplace in which we would want our children to participate?” To address this question, they review a large body of literature on crowdsourcing (over 100 papers) and incorporate commentary from a survey of 104 US and Indian crowd workers. The authors start with a consideration of tradeoffs of crowd worker vs. traditional work, and then synthesize 12 foci or challenges to the future of crowd work that are especially important. For each focus, the authors describe the goals, review some related work, and offer a proposal for what the future of crowd work should entail. The foci are crowd processes (workflow, task assignment, hierarchy, realtime, synchronous, and quality control); crowd computation (crowds guiding AIs, AIs guiding crowds, and platforms); and crowd workers (job design, reputation and credentials, and motivations and rewards). They conclude with 3 design goals that span multiple foci to provide clear step forwards. The first is to create career ladders that allow workers to advance to more complex and rewarding roles. The second is to help requesters design better tasks that workers will understand and enjoy more. The third is to facilitate learning, which offers the dual benefits of providing workers with new skills and requesters with the talent needed to complete their tasks. The authors conclude by emphasizing that both system design and careful study of the effects are needed, but crowd work provides an exciting new opportunity: to explore radically new kinds of organizations in a controlled experimental setting.


This is an ambitious paper that covers a lot of ground (over quite a few pages), but it’s all valuable, important stuff. The challenge to imagine a future where we’d want ourselves or our children to be crowd workers is a wonderful provocation. At first it seems hard to imagine, maybe because I’ve seen so many unpleasant crowd tasks. But on further reflection, it’s an exciting vision of the future–one where people can, from the comfort of their homes, find any kind of work they want to do, and engage with it in a way that is financially rewarding and personally satisfying. I also appreciated the authors’ efforts at synthesizing such a large and diverse range of crowdsourcing papers. Just summarizing what’s been done is helpful per se, but the authors go much further by pointing out the drawbacks and opportunities to do better. I’m simultaneously amazed at the amount of crowdsourcing research that’s been conducted in just a few short years, and surprised at how much is still left to do. For example, the authors note that we have almost no idea if “algorithmic management” is better than traditional management techniques–what an interesting question. I find this inspiring as a researcher in this area. Finally, I appreciated that the authors raised some of the ethical concerns of working in this area, such as fair compensation, privacy, and power dynamics. I think they could have gone even further here. While I agree that all the foci are important, I think maybe the ethical concerns supercede all of them, or at least need to be embedded in each of them. Everything from quality control to hierarchies to AI-guided crowds raises serious questions about ethics and morality that need to be seriously considered from day one.


  • Would you want to be a crowd worker? Your children? Why or why not? What do you think is needed to make that vision a reality?
  • What are some of the potential advantages of crowd work over traditional work? Disadvantages?
  • What was a focus/challenge that you found particularly exciting or interesting? One that seemed especially difficult or hard to realize?
  • How could we make crowd labor more appealing than current traditional jobs?
  • Some of the proposals in the paper make crowd work look more like traditional work. If we follow this line of thinking, will we end up with something that looks just like today’s traditional jobs? Why or why not?
  • Did any of the proposals in the paper strike you as being particularly ethically worrisome? Why?
  • As you begin thinking about your project idea, which of these foci do you think you might contribute to?

Kurt Luther

Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Virginia Tech

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