The promise of the gig economy—that it would empower workers to be their own bosses, liberate them from tyrannical office culture, and let creative types chase their dreams while maintaining a side hustle—is wearing thin. On-demand startups like Uber and Postmates have spawned countless lawsuits from workers claiming they’ve been misclassified and underpaid, while platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk have become infamous for pocketing 20 percent fees on microtasks that pay an average wage of $2 per hour. Now, two entrepreneurial brothers think they can rehabilitate a corner of the gig economy with blockchain technology—and they’ve just raised just over $60 million to do so.
Gems is the brainchild of Rory and Kieran O’Reilly, brothers who dropped out of Harvard in 2014 to cofound gifs.com and soon found themselves under the tutelage of the Thiel Fellowship. Their ambitious mission to challenge Mechanical Turk might stand a chance: Crowdwork, in which tens of thousands of workers clean data, train AI, and moderate online content for notoriously little pay, is ripe for disruption. Gems has attracted a fair amount of buzz, including a 45,000-person Telegram chat group, plus help from big-name advisers such as Twitter cofounder Biz Stone and Recaptcha cofounder Ben Maurer. It’s also earned the support of some 350 Facebook, Google, and Apple employees, who banded together to contribute about $1.2 million to the recent funding through an initial coin offering, alongside investors like Pantera Capital and Alphacoin Fund. But for Gems to succeed, it will need to inspire the people and companies farming out tasks to move their business to the blockchain—and convince crowdworkers that it’s time to trust their livelihoods to the volatile world of cryptocurrency.
That won’t be easy. The O’Reillys are paying some companies—including The Q, an HQ trivia competitor—to place tasks on their site. But it won’t be able to sponsor an artificial supply of work for long: Gems isn’t designed to be profitable; ultimately, it aims to be self-sustaining. For those early requesters to stick around once Gems’ sponsorship runs out, Gems will need a ready and willing workforce. And working on the Gems platform requires first purchasing Gems tokens—a barrier to entry for the financially strapped workers who often turn to microtasks. The O’Reillys are also facing legal trouble. Earlier this month, an enterprise blockchain and cryptocurrency startup called Gem sued Gems and the O'Reillys for allegedly infringing on its trademark, company name, and brand. According to Gem, Rory O’Reilly has known about the other startup’s existence since at least 2014, when he allegedly tried to sell Gem the gems.org domain name. Gems says it believes the claims are without merit and will vigorously defend itself.1
Gems isn’t the first attempt to dislodge Mechanical Turk: Amazon has long faced competition from Crowdflower, another commercial microtask platform; it’s also seen challengers from academia, such as Daemo and Prolific, and other blockchain-based initiatives, such as Storm Market and Coinworker. To date, Mechanical Turk has stubbornly remained the Xerox of crowdwork.
Still, Gems thinks it can prove its value. On top of cutting commission fees altogether—Amazon’s range from 20 to 40 percent per task—the O’Reillys have created a visually pleasing interface meant to rival Amazon’s relatively user-unfriendly design. Mechanical Turk “is the lowest of low priorities for Amazon,” says Rory O’Reilly. “No offense to Amazon’s team, but they don’t have their A, B, C, or D teams on it—you have to look deep in alphabet to see any level of attention.” Amazon declined to comment.
To attract task-requesters, the brothers have devised a mechanism to reduce redundancy in microtasks, which they hope will translate into fewer payments for duplicate work. Whereas requesters on other crowdwork platforms often pay as many as 15 workers to complete the same task to ensure accuracy, Gems will ask workers to “stake” a token—now valued at about 7.5 cents—on any given task. They’ll get that money back, plus payment, once a veteran worker with a proven accuracy rate signs off on their work. Requesters will pay both the veteran worker and the rookie, but theoretically, that will be cheaper than paying a dozen workers to all complete the same task.
That system, though no doubt efficient, will deter many crowdworkers from joining Gems, according to Kristy Milland, community manager of the worker forum TurkerNation.com. She also worries that having trusted workers vet the performance of newer taskers could lead to trouble: “Let’s say the person with this high trust score just isn’t in a good mood. What if they determine [the new worker] is someone they know who they don’t like? There’s going to be communication between workers off the platform, and that happens—there is internet drama everywhere.”
The O’Reillys know that Turkers might find Gems’ “staking” system off-putting. That’s why, to start, the Gems team will actually avoid marketing the platform to workers on Mechanical Turk or other microtask platforms. Rather, Gems will start by touting itself as an avenue for people who are looking to participate in the crypto craze but are hesitant to invest in volatile markets.
“There are a lot of people that talk about crypto, they’ve heard their friends talk about crypto, but they don’t want to put money into it, and it’s understandable—it’s something that’s new, and the prices change very frequently,” says Maurer, the Gems adviser. “[Gems] is a way to get your feet wet without having it connect to a real-world financial infrastructure.”
Many members of Gems’ sprawling Telegram community say they’re eager to jump on the work. Christiana Silver, an illustrator, says she previously looked into earning extra money on Mechanical Turk but was turned off by the low pay and challenging interface. She’s excited by the opportunity to earn some cryptocurrency on Gems, though she doesn’t think she’ll make a full-time job of it.
Gems’ founders say they plan to recruit crowdworkers from rival platforms starting in about a year, after they’ve established a flow of tasks and a base of workers. That’s where things will get especially tricky. Though there are certainly some crowdworkers well-versed in crypto—Milland estimates that there are at least a couple hundred people on Turker forums who know their way around an ICO—most are primarily concerned with easy access to cash.
“The average Mechanical Turk worker is someone in a rural area with limited resources and education,” says Rochelle LaPlante, a Turker and co-administrator of MTurk Crowd, a worker forum. “If you’re trying to reach [a] worker who just wants some money on their debit card for payday, I don’t know if blockchain is really the connection point you’re going to make there.”
Rory O’Reilly points out that while it’s true that Gems tokens can’t be used to pay rent or tuition, they can be converted to another cryptocurrency, such as Ether, which can in turn be converted to dollars. “An analogy is sending money from Venmo to PayPal to your bank,” he says. “You don’t want to do it, but you can do it—but in the beginning, if you’re not into crypto, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”
Gems therefore finds itself in an odd position. The O’Reillys have cooked up a smart application of blockchain technology to a flawed sector of the gig economy, but they haven’t yet found the secret sauce for making that solution attractive to the workers most desperate for a better system. Gems’ plan to attract crypto-curious taskers by marketing itself as a blockchain entrypoint might just work—but until cryptocurrencies become more widely accepted, it’ll have a tough time attracting the very workforce that it’s trying to help.
1 UPDATED, FEB. 26, 7PM: This article has been updated to include a reference to the lawsuit by Gem.
The Gig Economy
- Behind some recent advances in artificial intelligence is an army of low-paid workers acting out scenes in supermarkets, homes and offices.
- Mechanical Turk's low pay and poor interface have some of its 500,000-plus workers looking for alternatives.
- Struggling startups seek to boost their prospects by pivoting to the blockchain.