Mechanical Turk is a Community Substitute

Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk is great as artificial, artificial intelligence. It is perfectly designed to facilitate humans (or Turkers) transcribing podcasts, fixing MP3 metadata, and picking the best picture of a storefront. I am now beginning to think that it is also a method for bootstrapping community on a website. It was Amazon’s release of UnSpun that got me thinking along this way.

If you haven’t seen it. Unspun is a Ruby on Rails app (their first) that Amazon released a couple of weeks ago. The premise is simple. You create an ordered list such as the Top Sushi Restaurants in Seattle, WA and then populate it with your choices. Each item on the list is assigned a point value; the third item is always scored at 1000 points. Other users can see your public lists, make them their own, and add to them. The lists can then be viewed with the derived Community Ranking. It’s very similar to the Robot Coop‘s ListsofBests.

But unlike the ListsOfBests, UnSpun uses Turkers to get the Community Rank of your list. Every list gets touched by MTurk — or is at least submitted to MTurk. Amazon pays 1 cent for three additions to your list.


They are paying 1 cent for a Turker to tell them if the list title is offensive. They are also paying 5 cents to find the best websites for list items – this seems to mostly be Wikipedia pages. That’s inexpensive to provide some community interaction and keep the site clean — in fact that’s cheap when compared to normal customer acquisition costs. As the Unspun user base grows I wonder if they will drop the Turkers, but until then it’s a great way for them to boostrap community.

Another example of this is Amazon’s NowNow. It’s a Q&A site that relies on Turkers to answer questions. It’s currently free, but they may charge in time. It’s being launched at the same time as Amazon’s AskVille, a Q&A site that relies on humans to answer questions (see the Radar post on both of them). I have no extra insight into Amazon’s plans for these two sites, but I think that they are being set-up as comparisons to see which is more effective at answering questions and presumably making money.

Will other sites begin to do this? If you’re a small startup that relies on community this seems like a great way to get things rolling for your site. You just need to keep your MTurk usage out in the open. Amazon calls it out quite explicitly and makes it clear that MTurk is involved (see the FAQ). I’ll bet it will help you attract even more people (until everyone is doing it).