February 16, 2015
Nowadays, Alfredo García studies graffiti. His dissertation in sociology at Princeton University is an ethnography of a changing Miami neighborhood, which means he spends his time chatting up strangers, arranging interviews, and climbing ladders with street artists. But during his second year at Princeton, in 2012, he tried something else. With a bit of out-of-pocket money, he surveyed 420 people about how looking at different kinds of fake Facebook profiles affected their views about Islam. He obtained clear statistical findings and produced a paper that is now under review at a respected journal. In the process he didn’t meet a single one of his subjects; not one of them was a Princeton undergraduate required to take surveys for a class.
Mr. García used Mechanical Turk, an Amazon.com-owned platform that describes itself as "artificial artificial intelligence." What it offers has been called crowd-work, or digital piecework, or crowdsourcing—thousands of people around the world sitting at their computers and doing discrete tasks for pay. Each of Mr. García’s subjects earned a quarter for filling out a survey less than 10 minutes long—$1.50 an hour, that is. Read more