How to earn money online

From listing your top three cheeses to playing with Lego, you can earn cash (well, pennies) doing all sorts of tasks online. Simon Usborne clocks into the world of crowdsourcing

Cheddar, feta, gruyère. It takes me a few seconds to type the words and click "submit". The next question pops up. What are your top three favourite soups? Hmm... tricky one. Lentil, spicy parsnip and goulash (does that last one even count?). And on we go with a seemingly endless quick-fire round of food-based questions. I go on to list my favourite nuts, pastas, meats, seafood, Italian dishes, and "top foods I never cook at home". Each time I earn $0.01. Yes, that's right. Half a penny.

Minutes earlier, I had signed up to Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk), a corner of the online retail empire where the only thing on sale is cheap labour. Mturk takes its name from a contraption invented in the late 1760s by an enterprising Hungarian called Wolfgang von Kempelen. He toured Europe with the machine, claiming it could beat any human at chess. Napoleon Bonaparte and chess fanatic Benjamin Franklin were among thousands checkmated by the Turk - a wooden automaton that comprised a small cabinet, a chess board and the torso of a turbaned mannequin. But Von Kempelen was soon exposed as a fraud; the cabinet concealed a human chess master, who operated mechanical arms. The Turk was a flashy bit of technology powered by human intelligence.

Amazon set up its site along a similar principle: Mturk helps companies find people to perform simple tasks that would defeat even the smartest computers, from evaluating beauty to language translations. Anyone with a bit of free time and an internet connection can undertake these Hits (Human Intelligence Tasks). "Turkers" earn money, and the company (requester) gets to exploit the "crowd" - a hidden and until now untapped pool of brain power.

Amazon is not the only company to realise the value in outsourcing to the crowd. The model that gave rise to Wikipedia - the user-generated web encyclopaedia - is increasingly being embraced by everyone from back-room software developers to multinational pharmaceuticals giants - and now there's money to be earned. The phenomenon was recognised by Jeff Howe, a writer and internet-observer for the US magazine Wired. He named it crowdsourcing and came up with this definition: "The act of taking a function traditionally performed by an employee and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people."

Praline... marzipan... fudge... This is getting tedious. The requester behind the endless food-based Hit is another company in the Amazon family. UnSpun invites thousands of people like me to rank things into lists, from the potentially useful - "best bakeries in Seattle" - to the puerile, such as "dumbest celebrity". If enough people contribute to the lists, UnSpun hopes the site will become useful to companies who might otherwise pay thousands of pounds to commission their own market research.

The amounts of money exchanged over Mturk are considerably less; after answering a dozen or so questions, I work out that I am being compensated at a rate of about 90p an hour. This seems more like virtual slavery than a chance to boost my salary, so I look for something more rewarding.

William Hallenbeck wants people to "plot musical instrument bitmaps" in Paint (the standard Windows drawing software). He needs a set of simple icons for a CD he is creating. His shopping list includes a "tango accordion" and something called a Shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese bamboo flute). I plump for the relatively simple double bass and get half an hour to complete my line drawing. It takes me 15 minutes to come up with something that resembles an instrument from the string section. I upload the file and await approval by Hallenbeck and my 10 cent fee. OK, that's a lower pay rate than the food rankings gave me, but at least I'm having fun (almost), and, after all, I could have lost thousands by playing poker.

I now have 23 cents in my Mturk account and I am on a roll. The more tasks you complete, the more the lucrative jobs start to come your way. Scanning the long list of Hits available to me, the offer of a "$1,695 weekly reward" catches my eye. The task: a NowNow research question. Another Amazon project, NowNow is an answering service. E-mail it a question - any question - and as if by magic an answer wings its way to your inbox. Behind the scenes, a global army of Turkers is scouring cyberspace, earning two cents per Hit.

I begin. "What's a good volumiser to use when you're styling dry hair?" Skip that one. "What are the differences between the 1995 Nissan Maxima SE, GLE and GXE?" Hmm. "Who are the top three sexiest women from Peru?" The only Peruvian I can name being Paddington Bear, I decide NowNow questions aren't worth the lure of a big-money reward, let a lone the penny I get for researching each one. I return to the available Hit lists.

Have "qualified" to take on bigger and better jobs, I accept a Hit posted by CastingWords, a New Mexico transcription service. As the MP3 file downloads, I warm up my typing fingers. This should be a bit more interesting...

"... And the universe is communicating with you all day long," says an American man in a dull drawl. "As part of this master-key system, I suggest you increase the channel through which the universe will communicate with you." For nine minutes he rambles on. It turns out a run-in with a coyote as he drove in Sedona (Arizona, apparently) got him thinking about life. What prompted him to pay me to transcribe his thoughts is not clear. Perhaps because he could - CastingWords' clients, who also include academics and journalists, pay just 20p per minute of audio file uploaded to the website, receiving proof-read text via e-mail a few days later.

The recording ends suddenly. I go back and clean up the typos, and run a spell-check. I feel like I've done a good job and submit the transcript in exchange for a handsome $1.06 fee. That's way over double what I've already earned, but it still works out at about 54p for 20 minutes.

One more Hit and my crowdsourcing days are over. This one's posted by an Oxford company called Geospatial Vision (GSV). They are looking for Turkers to do image tagging, which involves going through a series of digital photographs of a road in England and marking specific features, such as road signs, drainage points or bollards. The company uses this data to build 3D maps of the road network, which they sell to local authority asset managers and sat-nav companies. It's monotonous work and my reward for ploughing through dozens of photos is a measly 3p.

This really is slave labour, isn't it? "Not at all," says Nick Bolton, chief executive of Oxford Metrics Group, which owns GSV. "Jeff Bezos [the multi-billionaire Amazon chief] does image processing for us. I bet Bill Gates does it too. The fact is, most people who are spending time doing our Hits are treating it as a mental exercise that happens to have a real financial value to them, as well as being beneficial to us."

But Turkers do more than just save money, says Bolton. "We give them tasks that are beyond the capabilities of the most advanced image processing techniques," he says. "Obviously, it means a reduction in costs to us, but more important is the speed, accuracy and detail that the Turkers provide."

Jeff Howe is (like me) surprised by the success of Mturk. "Mturk is my anomaly," he says. "It's the crowdsourcing model that refutes my hypothesis. The amount of interest is in inverse proportion to the amount of pay - I hear about lawyers who earn 100 grand a year and they're coming back home and picking up a few dollars on Mturk. I don't get it." But what we should all get, says Howe, is that while still in its infancy, the model has a big future. He says anyone in the business of sourcing information should take notice of the crowd. "Things like focus groups and consumer surveys are like something out of the Stone Age," he says. "Companies are going to realise that having agents going out collecting information no longer makes sense, and that's going to shake a lot of things up."

A final glance at my Mturk "dashboard" shows my account is less than shaken. For the hour's work I have put in over three or four evenings, 23 Hits have earned me a fortune of $1.70 (88p). But I can only spend those pennies, I later discover, at Amazon. com - not co.uk - or transfer them to a US bank account. I consign them to cyberspace and leave the crowd behind, for now.

How I earnt my 88p

TASK ONE Ranking favourite foods, including types of pasta, nuts and soups, for UnSpun, a "community consensus ranking" site. I tackled 14 different foods.

Time taken Three minutes

Money earnt 8p

TASK TWO Researching questions submitted to NowNow, a web-based answering service owned by Amazon. I tried to answer three people's questions, but none of my answers were accepted.

Total time taken Two minutes

Money earnt Nothing

TASK THREE Drawing musical instruments for a man who wanted icons for a CD he was creating. I drew a double-bass.

Time taken 15 minutes

Money earnt 5p

TASK FOUR Scouring New York mortgage contracts for specific information for a research firm. I managed to scan four documents.

Time taken Eight minutes

Money earnt 2p

TASK FIVE Transcribing a voice recording for a New Mexico transcription services firm.

Time taken 20 minutes

Money earnt 47p

TASK SIX Marking out drains, signs and bollards on a series of photographs of UK roads for an Oxford-based 3D mapping firm.

Time taken 12 minutes

Money earnt 26p

More ways to Crowdsource

Cambrian House

Founded a year ago, the Canadian company develops crowdsourced software. Anyone can submit an idea for a new application. Members of the Cambrian community then rate the ideas and the best enter monthly "IdeaWarz" tournaments. The crowd then writes the code and tests the software. Collaborators earn royalty points, which can be exchanged for cash.

InnoCentive

Corporations like Boeing and Procter & Gamble increasingly look to "garage" scientists to solve problems that stump their own R&D departments. Anyone can visit InnoCentive and take on one of these challenges, with rewards for cracking them ranging from $10,000 (£5,100) to $1m.

iStockphoto

This gives amateur snappers a chance to make money out of their images. The site, which has become the leading community-led marketplace for stock photography, boasts a library of well over a million photos. Businesses that previously relied on expensive picture agencies now save thousands at iStockphoto.

Lego

At Lego Factory, enthusiasts of any age can download software to build virtual models. Approved models go on show at the site's gallery, where anyone can place an order. Designers pick up royalties from any sales.

Second Life

The virtual world, or metaverse, could become the crowdsourcing capital of cyberspace. One first-life company, a US software developer, plans to build an island, where virtual passers-by test real software applications in exchange for money.

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