Today I logged into Linkedin and was reminded of an old gold claim I done and possibly forgotten.
A tip to anyone who wants to claim influence, be on the fringe, it has its rewards. I started the first ever Amazon Mechanical Turk group on Linkedin, before even Amazon itself took the product as seriously as I did. Today it sports over 3000 members and every week I get about 50 people to approve for the group.
What’s Mechanical Turk?
Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing service devised by Amazon to train its own software to learn about things. In many ways its the foundation of everything Amazon has today in terms of product intelligence.
Here in this age where Artificial Intelligence is all the rage. AI and machine learning is exploding everywhere and everyone thinks its the norm, like bam! People forget that everything on the web is built on something else. Something always comes before next.
The Whole Earth Catalog is the foundation for Mondo Magazine which is the foundation of Wired magazine. In many ways sites like Hacker News, Product Hunt, LifeHacker, Waxy, Swiss Miss and Four Short Links generates a new “whole earth” like site every day end on end.
Back to the turks..
Mechanical Turk was a tool that presented users of Amazon itself a dozen images, and asked them to clarify what was and wasn’t- such as a house, or define the lines on a road, or note if there is a sidewalk in an image.
The computer has to be trained on our world, much like a new born baby, this is a hot burner, do not touch.
The service was novel at the time in that it offered users on the site pennies, yes pennies to do a task. Amazon was shred back then just as it is today. People would work, and still work, for pennies. I mean why not. Heck every day when you use a product, you inform the product on what you like, dislike. Your car learns about how you drive. Your browser knows how you surf. This chair i’m sitting in knows when to expect me, how long I sit, and how fidgety I get. My watch monitors my heart rate, notes when I should breathe or stand. We’re in the age where we do alot more for free than we realize. Turk at least gave us pennies.
I used Amazon Mechanical Turk to do market research experiments back in 2008. I was fascinated by this huge pool of people, by now its likely in the hundreds of thousands that will do micro tasks on the platform for pennies, dimes, a few nickels, a buck or two. I did a ton of experiments. I had a blast. I would annotate what worked and what didn’t and this was just fun for me.
Like the 5 Dollar Data Project, This is a series of small experiments using turks for market research. At the time I was working for my brothers company Lextant which instilled into me (something I still have today) this huge love of data. I had a theory back then and it turned out to be true in many ways that crowdsourcing with people online can produce tons and tons of data, all very relevant, and all very useful just like how Amazon used turks to train its own systems.
I started doing projects in parallel to the research projects we were doing at work. One project we were doing with GE was talking to consumers about their kitchen appliances. How they felt about them? What matters more the fridge, the stove, the microwave oven?
In research you’re after the good stuff, the emotional core context behind what people want.
These studies where done over months with interviews, focus groups etc. I recreated them on turk in an hour and sent these turks off to do basically the same kinda work, be it 1/100th the depth and quality that the real research was doing.
Yet I was looking for whiff of the data, a kind of trace of trajectory. The results were fun and interesting and in the end often in parallel to where the real research was headed.
Check out Appliance Street Gangs, where I asked turks to re-imagine their kitchen appliances as a gang, who does what, personify these appliances. Their answers would lend to design and product position like nuances. This was a study done in a matter of hours not months.
Another great project is Brand Ransom, where I had turks articulate a recent brand or product experience that sucked and articulate it in the form of a ransom note. The results were spectacular.
So whats the point?
Everyone’s looking for the influence in what they are doing. We all want to show we’re on the pulse, near the goodness, and talk about it. To me this is the fringe, find it for your biz, and stake your claims.
Since I loved turk I played with it alot. I became an expert on it. I spoke about, talked about, blogged about it, claimed the first group on linkedin about it, and its yielded some 3000 contacts, points of intersect for my own biz efforts or general connection goodness. As a bonus wise I’ve had a ton of fun with these fringe tools which now are the basis of mainstream thinking, doing.
The fringe matters and everyone has a “fringe” aspect in the biz or focus area they’re in. Few run with it. Few get into the mess. Claim your stakes, nurture your future influence capability, reap the rewards.