It has an undeniable upside during the pandemic. The work is accessible from home, although participants said it can sometimes be bleak and comes with a host of complications that underscore inequality in America: low pay, tough competition and a maze of little-known apps that requires people to develop complicated strategies to get the most out of their time.
Increasingly, there’s a hierarchy to the apps, with the best-paying ones coming closer to full-time jobs in the pay and the demands. The selection process can be rigorous, with live video chats to screen potential subjects.
And rejection is a way of life, as corporate researchers often look for specific traits, screening for things like age, location, medical condition or income.
“Sometimes, if you’re too low-income, they won’t pick you,” said Becky Robinson, who’s been relying on the income from online market research since having been laid off from both of her part-time jobs in southeastern Pennsylvania.
An invisible workforce
The world of online gig work is expansive. It ranges from sites such as Mechanical Turk, where people can perform menial “microtasks” for pennies, to mystery shopping offers, app testing, transcription services, sites to teach English as a second language and services that pay for participation in academic studies, often for psychologists or other social scientists.
No one really knows how many people are doing work on such sites, because companies rarely disclose data and the jobs don’t fit into existing categories for labor statistics kept by government economists, said Mary Gray, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and an Indiana University faculty member.
“Economists don’t have a way of measuring the world that doesn’t look like a factory floor,” Gray said.
There are dozens of companies behind the services, mostly obscure except to the people who spend hours on them. Making money means constantly recalibrating which platforms and tasks to concentrate on and being wary of potential scammers.
They have a growing labor pool to draw from. Unemployment has soared since the pandemic began to take hold of the economy in February and March. The unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in July, a drop from its peak but still indicating that 1 in 10 people in the labor force couldn’t find work. Some gig workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, are among those hit, and some have sought unemployment benefits.
That’s led people to look for new ways to scratch out some income. But online gig work isn’t quite as easy as signing up and clicking away. Information about the different services can be hard to come by, so communities have popped up on social media and elsewhere for newcomers and veterans to swap tips.
In January, just before the pandemic, a teenager posted a video on TikTok saying he had made more than $900 on Dscout, a market research and survey service, and encouraging others to download the app. The video spread widely, getting about 400,000 favorites on TikTok, and Dscout said it saw a jump in interest.
The Reddit community r/beermoney features regular earnings reports from users who meticulously track their income, as well as warnings about sites that aren’t worth the time. One person said they spent time on more than 30 sites and made $1,700 in five weeks, even after what they called wasted time on couponing websites.
“Part of the work is searching for work,” said Miriam Cherry, a Saint Louis University law professor who has studied virtual work and written a textbook on the subject.
“And the more people that come on to these sites, the more competition there is,” she said. For that reason, elaborate planning makes sense. “You’ve got to be pretty clever to outsmart the 300 other people around the world,” she said.
Jones did online surveys as far back as college, and she turned back to them in May. She had been laid off from her job as a purchasing director for a company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and she dived into researching and strategizing which websites offered the best opportunities.
“For those two weeks, I did nothing but research this stuff,” she said. She has since found another full-time job, but she’s still spending her mornings and nights online to build up her family’s rainy day fund.
She said she spends 15 to 20 hours a week just on research, seeking out about three new sites a week. “Every day I’m tweaking this list,” she said. And then she spends eight more hours a week on the actual hustles.
Jones has also begun to post YouTube videos with tips, hoping to build a following there and on other social media sites as more people look to make money online.
Almost like a video game, hustle websites steer people through different levels, with a reward coming usually at the very end. There are initial screening tests. Then there are applications for particular studies or “missions.” And finally the task itself.
And even within each stage, there are pitfalls. Research companies boobytrap some of their projects with “attention checks” to catch people who speed through without reading closely.
The possible rewards aren’t entirely monetary, as with any job. Robinson said market research offers a kind of affirmation that opinions from people like her can matter.
“Something where you can influence a brand or a product, it’s cool, and you feel like these people who interview you actually listen to you. It makes you feel important,” she said.