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Pixel and Dimed
March 18, 2014 11:30 PM   Subscribe

When I come across the task, "Proposal Flash Mob in Central Park,” I know immediately that I am exactly the wrong person for the job. The training video opens in a mirrored dance studio, with a man in a tight-fitting black t-shirt. "Please make sure you are familiar with this choreography before you commit to that rehearsal so we don't have to waste any time,” he explains in a high-pitched voice before counting out about three minutes of what looks to me like complex choreography. During slow claps at baseball games, I'm the fan who claps on the wrong beat. A real rabbit might have a better chance of learning this dance."
A journalist's month-long experiment with the gig economy.
posted by FJT (55 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
That is the single most depressing thing I've read in a long time.
posted by flippant at 12:54 AM on March 19 [15 favorites]


Great writing. It would be interested in taking a look at who is underemployed in the States, why they might be underemployed, and who from the underemployed cohort is participating in the "gig economy."

I suspect that the people Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in "Nickel and Dimed" represent an underclass that exists even below the "gig economy", which after all typically requires regular access to a computer with a working internet connection, something far beyond the waitresses and chambermaids of Ehrenreich's book.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:20 AM on March 19 [10 favorites]


As I read this, I couldn't help but notice that this is just -yet- another thing that the middle class don't seem to understand or don't want to understand that the lower classes have been doing for quite some time. Of course, if a poor person can't make enough money to survive by constantly taking a never ending torrent of odd (shit, probably) jobs, then they just don't have enough "hustle". All we're doing now is putting a new, shiny, high tech spin on the same old same old, polishing it up nice and shiny so the white collar people it is now impacting can pretend they aren't getting their hands dirty, and calling it "disruptive" so they can pretend they are now the trend setters, bold visioneers, pioneering their way in a new era in a "new economy" that is really the same old one... albeit with a few neat new gadgets thrown into the mix. The same, inequality filled economy, out to drag them into the muck and the mire with their lower class brethren. All the while those with the real, fuck you money hope to make a few extra bucks on top of what they already have by selling an app that will help everybody stretch themselves a little bit thinner, and sell themselves a little bit cheaper.
posted by FireballForever at 1:31 AM on March 19 [27 favorites]


So basically it's a series of websites that let people who don't value labor find people desperate enough to work for less than minimum wage. That's... that's something we should be jailing people for.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:35 AM on March 19 [75 favorites]


But they're disrupting the status quo. This must be for the best.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:12 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with its familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. 4 hour shift from 1415. She sighs, dismisses it. She’s not even sure why she still keeps that notification running. Starbucks, the holy fucking grail. But she can’t go there, can’t even try, without that elusive Barista badge...
posted by Rhaomi at 2:20 AM on March 19 [48 favorites]


Gigging — how high and fast can you hop (before you drop)?
posted by cenoxo at 2:43 AM on March 19


The US' famed entrepreneurial spirit flourishes yet again, in another capital effort to screw low paid workers ! hooray for US capitalism!
posted by wilful at 2:44 AM on March 19


Rhaomi, that is exactly the story I was thinking of after reading this article, but had no idea how to find it.

Maybe I'll post a fiverr task for someone to help me find that website I vaguely remember seeing a few months ago. Thanks for the freebie!
posted by heathkit at 2:58 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


And in 2012 when PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel's Founders Fund led a $13 million investment round in the errand platform called TaskRabbit, its CEO Leah Busque told TechCrunch that the company's goal was to "revolutionize the world's labor force.”

Technology Review named Leah Busque one of its "35 innovators under 35", extolling the way that her company helps "micro-entrepreneurs...[be] their own bosses." Sounds like she's just the enabler of the real innovators; shouldn't TR have really named one of these trailblazing dog-walker/mover/lunch-deliverers to their list?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:10 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


No, the kind of innovator they are interested in is the kind that looks out over a city of underemployed dogwalkers, snowshovelers, personal assistants, homework helpers, IKEA furniture assemblers, ad-hoc errand runners, and so on, and says "How do I get 20% of that under-the-table cash payment action without assuming any liability, becoming subject to any minimum wage laws, and without paying any taxes or benefits?"
posted by ceribus peribus at 3:26 AM on March 19 [68 favorites]


I love "be your own boss" - it generally combines all of the stress, pressure and ultimate responsibility with none of the renumeration or independence.

Seriously, though, it's worth reflecting how many people would like to see our labour markets go back to a Dickesian ideal of no protections, no minimum, just a desperate bid to the bottom. The worst part is - as demonstrated by the mostly-nice taskrabbit hirers in the piece - users of the service are not the ones who want that. The ones who want that hold the levers of real power.
posted by smoke at 3:30 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]


No, the kind of innovator they are interested in is the kind that looks out over a city of underemployed dogwalkers, snowshovelers, personal assistants, homework helpers, IKEA furniture assemblers, ad-hoc errand runners, and so on, and says "How do I get 20% of that under-the-table cash payment action without assuming any liability, becoming subject to any minimum wage laws, and without paying any taxes or benefits?"

Well, yeah, but shouldn't they at least pretend to believe their bilge about "micro-entrepreneurship"?
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:30 AM on March 19


CEO for economy-disrupting social media company

C-level executive needed for social media startup. You will be the front man for a TechCrunch-profiled short-term employment site. This job carries a lot of responsibility, including facing investors and the media, possibly while dealing with hard questions. Candidates must have previous C-level experience, with credentials, and drug test records. At the end of two-day, 26 hour assignment, we will expect to see progress towards second round of funding and at least one news release about plans for IPO.

$7.50/hour. Third shift only. Successful completion of two-day assignment may lead to preferential consideration for Friday's re-hiring.

posted by ardgedee at 3:42 AM on March 19 [34 favorites]


Does this mean I should feel bad about hiring people off task rabbit? Because it fills a serious niche for me, and I think for the people that do the jobs too. It would be better if everyone who wanted a stable 9-5 could have one, but some people have their own thing going on.
posted by bleep at 4:18 AM on March 19


It's hard for me to conjure much outrage for services that allow people to take small/short jobs. After all, a lot of the "management" in these situations isn't too far off from doing something similar themselves; it allows them to fill a niche when they need it and when they couldn't possibly credibly employ a person, even at minimum wage.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:54 AM on March 19


I was intrigued to see that the UK site for Taskrabbit gives price ranges for its task categories, which bottom out at £12/hour; for reference, minimum wage is £6.13/hour. It obviously won't make you rich, and there are all the problems of unpredictable bookings to deal with, but if it's enforced it sounds less horrifying than the journalist's experience.
posted by metaBugs at 5:13 AM on March 19


No, no, really we're the best country! Sure, unemployment is high and the actual numbers are worse. There are companies/people predating on the poor, hopeless, destitute, and option-less. What had been standard full time jobs are now becoming piecemeal work. Cost of living is up while wages are down. Corruption in government and business, at all levels but the most basic person to person interactions, is frighteningly open. The political system is focused on maintaining the purity and power of two parties that aren't fixing current problems. The military and the industry around it is ridden with waste, greed, and general awfulness while remaining an expense that outweighs everything else in the budget. The infrastructure of the country is collapsing and no one wants to pay to fix it. Opportunities for social and economic advancement are rare while being less meritocratic and more about how much 'networking' one has done. We have a set of spy agencies who think Der Leben Der Anderen is the framework for a functioning, modern state. The news media is focused on popular scare pieces, our entertainment is watching people with somehow worse lives than our own, and a portion of the populace truly enjoys watching the punishment of The Other via IRL-tag-along police, repo, justice, etc shows.

But at least were still better than those dirty reds in just-before-the-collapse USSR!
posted by Slackermagee at 5:31 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]


It's hard for me to conjure much outrage for services that allow people to take small/short jobs. After all, a lot of the "management" in these situations isn't too far off from doing something similar themselves; it allows them to fill a niche when they need it and when they couldn't possibly credibly employ a person, even at minimum wage.

As long as the small pieces pay at or above the minimum (and are covered by other relevant worker protection rules), I see some benefit. It's still a problem that more people are being moved into a contingent status, with less stability and predictability all the time, though, and that's less "entrepreneurship" and more "symptom of growing inequality."
posted by Dip Flash at 5:38 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


I don't think that article knew what it wanted to be. The main premise (guy takes a bunch of jobs he doesn't like, doesn't like it) isn't very interesting

Any of the secondary topics (profiles of regular users, uber and tort liability, price decreases for things like editing) would've been very interesting.
posted by jpe at 5:40 AM on March 19


Cost of living is up while wages are down.

I think the Consumer Price Index in the States is relatively flat or in decline actually.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:05 AM on March 19


That's eight hours of work for $40, $5 an hour, which is $3 an hour less than New York State's minimum wage. The task quickly disappears. Either the poster deleted it, or a fellow rabbit quickly accepted it.

ouch.
posted by bukvich at 6:10 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


But at least were still better than those dirty reds in just-before-the-collapse USSR!

I've been thinking about this the last several days and I wonder if it's too late to re-hire that Mikhail Gorbachev guy. He seemed like a real go-getter.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:13 AM on March 19


They also did a feature on this article on NPR this morning which somehow made it sound even more depressing. Except for Dmitry, the "super-TaskRabbit" guy she talks about - it sounds like a lot of the work he gets is handyman work which probably keeps him busy enough to do okay. He also said that on the days when he doesn't have anything scheduled in the morning he just doesn't put on pants and said "now what boss would let you get away with that," and I have to admit that sounded kind of a sweet deal.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 AM on March 19


The comments below the article are actually not terrible. At least not yet.
posted by GrapeApiary at 6:29 AM on March 19


Am I the only one getting a redirect to, "PROPOSED INDIAN TOILET PARK HAS A WHIFF OF COMMUNITY" instead of the article when clicking the above link? It's also happening when I follow the link from a Google search of the article's name...
posted by codacorolla at 7:23 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Yeah, something has gone wonky with the link.
posted by neroli at 7:26 AM on March 19


KokuRyu: I think the Consumer Price Index in the States is relatively flat or in decline actually.

The data is published as percent increase, so while it's growing less than it was, it's still increasing.
posted by JauntyFedora at 7:28 AM on March 19


The main premise (guy takes a bunch of jobs he doesn't like, doesn't like it) isn't very interesting

Not very relevant, but I'm pretty sure Sarah Kessler is not a guy.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:41 AM on March 19 [7 favorites]


this is a great article. I thank my lucky stars that I have a contracted job instead of being unemployed, because articles like this remind me that, while I think I'm not well-off, I actually should be grateful for what I've got and stop feeling like I deserve better.
posted by rebent at 7:58 AM on March 19


this is a great article. I thank my lucky stars that I have a contracted job instead of being unemployed, because articles like this remind me that, while I think I'm not well-off, I actually should be grateful for what I've got and stop feeling like I deserve better.

I see your point but, on the other hand, I think gratitude is sort of the exact opposite of how you should feel. I think the vast majority of us deserve better and, while it could definitely be worse, it SHOULD be better for everyone.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:04 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]


while I think I'm not well-off, I actually should be grateful for what I've got and stop feeling like I deserve better.

Ew.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:07 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]


The opening setpiece that Bioshock Infinite uses to introduce you to the Fink Industries area is of a job auction in the main square there, where workers bid each other down for jobs listed on a large mechanical board.

Whenever I read about places like TaskRabbit, I think back to that scene.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:20 AM on March 19 [13 favorites]


The opening setpiece that Bioshock Infinite uses to introduce you to the Fink Industries area is of a job auction in the main square there, where workers bid each other down for jobs listed on a large mechanical board.

Making me think of the finger scene (well, a lot of scenes, but that one in particular) in "Cheap Thrills".
posted by inigo2 at 8:40 AM on March 19


Does anyone actually believe the government reported CPI?! I use Shadowstats whenever I want to see how much they are fudging things compared to the methodologies that they used to use not even that long ago. Between that and substitution bias (which I don't really agree with), it's pretty bologna, if you ask me.

Also, Nickled and Dimed comes up often here on the blue, and I've probably mentioned it before, but I live in southern Maine where part of the book takes place and my take on that section was that she was stretching the truth a lot of the times to make things look bleaker than they were. Not to say low wage earners don't have it very tough, but stretching the truth just makes me question every other thing she says. Just my two cents.
posted by mbatch at 9:56 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


I live in southern Maine where part of the book takes place

Are you a low wage earner there?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:04 AM on March 19 [5 favorites]


A wise agency would always prefer to have 10 carefully selected people working for 2 clients on 5 reliable long term contracts - as opposed to 100 bozos working for 20 skinflints on 50 intermittent short term contracts. To that end they will:
1. Make it cheap and easy for client and worker to size each other up and ensure they trust each other.
2. Screen out idiot workers, clients and assignments.
3. Encourage longer term hiring by offering discounted rates.
4. Be skilful and fair arbitrators of disputes between client and worker (they depend on the good will of both).

It doesn't sound like the companies mentioned do this - and once cannot therefore be at all surprised when both worker and client wish to bypass them as soon as possible.
posted by rongorongo at 10:17 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


That's because they don't care about the long term. They don't see a long term relationship between themselves and either the clients or workers, so the mentality is to "get while the getting is good".
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:33 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Also the point of the whole endeavor is not to provide excellent service but to be able to act as an employment agency without being subject to the laws and regulations surrounding employment agencies (or, indeed, the laws and regulations that apply to employing people!). Exploitation is the point.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:19 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


That link doesn't work for me at all. It takes me to AMERICAN EXPRESS SPOTLIGHTS THE ISSUE OF FINANCIAL EXCLUSION IN DAVIS GUGGENHEIM DOC "SPENT" (sorry for the caps). I can't google a better link either. Anyone have one?
posted by fieldtrip at 11:47 AM on March 19


Are you a low wage earner there?

No, I am not. But I was when she published the book in 2001, and I presume her research happened well before the book was published and to this day a good 90% of the people that I interact with on a daily basis are in the service industry with very low pay, very unpredictable schedules, and not a lot of support from family.

There, Steely-eyed Missile Man, are you satisfied? Am I allowed to have an opinion now?
posted by mbatch at 11:58 AM on March 19


What did she get wrong?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:01 PM on March 19


It was a long time ago so I don't remember a lot of the details but one thing in particular I do recall was that she ended up living in Old Orchard Beach (I think) in the winter because "Portland was too expensive" but yet the rent she was paying then was more than the rent I was paying - in Portland - in 2005 (I have to presume that was at least 5 years later). I think her argument was "can't live in Portland, too expensive" and "need a car to get to jobs in Portland" but that just doesn't add up to my experience. I know many many people today who live in-town Portland with no cars and I should note that Portland's vacancy rate now is very low - sub 2% - and therefore rent is more expensive (discounting inflation) than it was back then.

This is a bit of a derail. I enjoyed the FPP article. Thanks FJT.
posted by mbatch at 12:08 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Ah, it's one of those "your experience was not my experience and thus is invalid" things, gotcha.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:11 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


If you read my previous posts, you will see I did not call her experience invalid. I'm talking about facts: if she said "there was no way I could live in-town Portland on my wages" then that is factually wrong. I see from the wiki entry for the book that she was living on ~$15,000 a year. I know people now in 2014 that live in-town Portland on that. Am I invalidating her experience by pointing this out? Am I claiming people in poverty and near poverty don't have it very tough in this country?

That being said, I realize she made the choice to, say, live out of town. That does not mean that was the best choice, or the most economical, based on fact.. But it is true that the truly poor may not always have the time/energy/resources to be fully aware of the facts and also be able to make sound economic decisions all the time.
posted by mbatch at 12:18 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Which was, hey, her point.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:22 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Perhaps I should have read the whole book. I stand by my opinion that the book was somewhat misleading. You're welcome to yours.
posted by mbatch at 12:24 PM on March 19


Hey guys, could we move on to fighting about the content of the current FPP?

The sheer variety of gigs Kessler tries to attempt made me tired just to read about; I can't imagine attempting to line all that up, let alone do it.
posted by psoas at 1:29 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


All we're doing now is putting a new, shiny, high tech spin on the same old same old

Agreed. Fix the lawnmower, deliver a Christmas tree, assemble some IKEA furniture... these are all things that I post ads on CL for, under gigs. Which is the modern-day classifieds. Why would I want to use any of these apps anyway?
posted by vignettist at 1:41 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


That link doesn't work for me at all.

(Sorry guys, I'm trying to find out what's going on now.)
posted by FJT at 1:46 PM on March 19


The Google cache works. You may get a sponsor pre-roll ad that redirects to an error page, but just re-enter the URL and it should work.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:56 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


In theory, the apps provide verification and accountability. In reality, they provide a 20% cut to the operators.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:08 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]


Does anyone actually believe the government reported CPI?! I use Shadowstats whenever I want to see how much they are fudging things compared to the methodologies that they used to use not even that long ago. Between that and substitution bias (which I don't really agree with), it's pretty bologna, if you ask me.

Traditional rebuttal article to Shadowstats here.
posted by kithrater at 2:35 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Nobody searching Airbnb (more than $300 million in funding) will select a slowly deflating air mattress in my Brooklyn living room/kitchen/office/dining room/gym/guest room

Um, sure they would
posted by Bwithh at 9:22 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I'm a little surprised in such a comic-literate crowd that nobody name-checked Shatter ("the first all-digital [sic] comic"), published in 1985, and which revolved around a private eye / cab driver / pursuit cop / whatever comes up on the job board hack trying to make ends meet in a world where "all jobs are temporary."
posted by lodurr at 5:48 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


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