Cashing In On the Web In this week's Next Big Thing, more people are turning to the Internet to earn extra cash. Salon.com writer Katharine Mieszkowski explains the phenomenon and how listeners can get with the program.
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Cashing In On the Web

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Cashing In On the Web

Cashing In On the Web

Cashing In On the Web

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In this week's Next Big Thing, more people are turning to the Internet to earn extra cash. Salon.com writer Katharine Mieszkowski explains the phenomenon and how listeners can get with the program.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we go behind closed doors to talk with two mothers about the challenge of raising adult children with Down syndrome. But first, it's time for our weekly feature, the Next Big Thing. It's our regular look at all that is hip down the edge, or so we hope.

Sometimes it's easy. They don't exactly keep it a secret when they're coming with a new PlayStation. But what about the hard stuff, the stuff that changes every nanosecond, like the hottest ways of making money on the Internet? We can't keep track of it all. So to help us, we are joined by Katharine Mieszkowski, a senior writer at the online magazine, Salon.com. She joins us from member station KALW in San Francisco. Welcome, Katharine.

Ms. KATHARINE MIESZKOWSKI (Senior Writer, Salon.com): Hi, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for coming. So is it hard to keep track of this stuff if you're not in the industry? If you're not thinking about it 24/7?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: It can be, but mostly, the things that you need to keep track of will kind of find you. People don't wake up in the morning and think, you know, I need hundreds of thousands of videos made by people I don't know. You know, I need YouTube. Instead, they get an email in their inbox from a friend that says, hey, you have to check out this video. And suddenly, they've found their way to YouTube, and they're finding things that they think are funny or amusing.

MARTIN: Okay, so, today, we want to talk about hot stuff on the Internet, and most particularly, ways that you can make money on the Internet. And you recently wrote a piece about money-earning sites. Now what made you think of that?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: Well, I mean, we all get these crazy emails about how to make money online, and I just wanted to see, you know, what are the new and interesting ways that people actually are making money online? You know, not these kind of scam spam emails.

One way I found is that companies are starting to offer prizes for things that they would formerly hire people to try to figure out. So for instance, there's this one site called innocentive.com, where biologists and chemists go on and try to, you know, compete for a hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars, in these contests, essentially, where they, you know, try to do things like find a biomarker for, you know, marking the progression of Lou Gehrig's disease.

So these really serious issues that companies are trying to solve, they'll, you know, sort of put this money out there, and then the whole world of talent can compete. Of course, not everyone can solve these kinds of problems, so there are other things that many more people can participate in.

For instance, there's this site called istockphoto.com. You know, lots of people who are kind of amateur photographers. And on this site, you can actually sell and get royalties for photographs of, you know, any kind of thing, like flowers, children. So people put up their photographs there to kind of showcase them. And then if somebody decides to license their image, they get a cut. But, of course, the licensing fees are much smaller. They're, you know, a dollar or two dollars a photo. So maybe you make 20 cents. But still, that's pretty exciting for, you know, someone who's an amateur.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about Amazon's Mechanical Turk. What's that?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: This site I found so fascinating. And I actually became, for my story, I became a mechanical turker - or a turker, as they call themselves. And what this site is is Amazon has essentially created a marketplace where companies can ask people, anyone on the Web, to do things for them, and then they get paid for doing these tasks.

So the task that I did was categorizing products according to color. So I would be looking at my computer screen and say - like, a woman's pink flat shoe would show up. And then I would have to choose from a list of colors. And I would say, you know, this shoe is pink. And then I was $0.2 for doing that.

The company wants to categorize the items so that when someone is searching for, to buy a pink shoe, they'll find it. But this is the kind of task that although it's very easy for a person to do it, it's not very easy for a computer to do it. It's actually kind of hard to automate.

MARTIN: That is just seems, like, mind-numbingly boring. I'm sorry, I mean…

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: Oh, I know. I mean, well, that's what's so funny about it, because I didn't last very long. I think I made a dollar forty-five doing this. And I was talking on the phone to a friend while I was doing it. I mean, and I definitely had that question, like, why would anyone do this? I mean - and so interviewed people who had done it, and they sort of saw it as a game, or maybe they were trapped at their computer at work anyways, and so there was sort of moonlighting on the side. And some of these people, made, you know, $600, $340…

MARTIN: Well, you know, and I don't want to take this too seriously, but is there something exploitative about it?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: Well, I did wonder about that, because this is a situation where the company you're working for doesn't even know who you are. You don't own what you produce, and none of the sort of labor laws apply to this work because you're working as an independent contractor.

And so some labor people I interviewed about this did see it as this sort of dystopic thing where the worker has to, you know, provide everything. And then the fees are so extraordinarily low because there's so many people - surprisingly, there's so many people competing to do the work.

MARTIN: But in the spirit of full disclosure, you know, we've been doing a little bit of that here on this program. We've asked people to give us feedback, as many news organizations now do. We've asked people to comment on the stories. I then you and I…

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: And you're not paying them $.02 either, are you?

MARTIN: No, I'm giving them my best wishes and my eternal affection.

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: Well…

MARTIN: So I guess what I'm asking you Katherine is, am I wrong?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: I don't think you're necessarily wrong. I mean, I think it shows that how much people want to participate or give their input. I don't think it's necessarily exploitative as long as people know what they're getting into.

MARTIN: Okay. And so for full disclosure Katherine, if you send me an email telling us how we can do the program better, for the record, I'm not exploiting you. You're just participating, right?

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: I'm just participating. You're not going to compensate me. I will have the greater glory of having contributed.

MARTIN: Exactly. Katherine Mieszkowski is a senior writer at Salon.com. She joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco. Thanks, Katherine.

Ms. MIESZKOWSKI: Thank you.

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