oDesk - Freelancer Community Characteristics
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“Pay peanuts – get monkeys.”
When I thought about how I’d mentally summarize my feelings on the oDesk freelancer community as a whole, that saying is what immediately popped into my mind. I use it with a bit of trepidation, as I realize that some people may be offended by the comment, and could read too much into it. My intent is not to be derogatory towards oDesk freelancers, because I was one myself for a couple of years. The point is figurative: you don’t get good quality work—or workers—when you aren’t offering much compensation.
And so it is with oDesk, a freelancing site that isn’t really trying to even attract real freelancers. Its business model is based on employers outsourcing tasks to virtual workers in order to save money, and the entire system is set up to encourage huge numbers of workers to sign up to bid on these jobs. The results are predictable: a community that consists predominantly not of independent professional freelancers, but semi-skilled and unskilled workers, mainly from developing countries, working for often staggeringly low wages.
oDesk has nine project categories, and using its advanced search capability, I was able to show approximately how a snapshot of projects at a particular point in time were distributed among them. It is similarly possible to search for contractors in each of these nine categories, to see where workers on the site are looking for jobs. The results are shown in Figure 9.
oDesk doesn’t require that contractors choose a primary work category, rather allowing each to select from up to ten different subcategories. Thus, the data reflects a fair bit of overlap, since contractors are counted in each category in which they have checked off at least one subcategory. In theory, one contractor could choose a subcategory in each of the nine overall categories, and so show up in every “slice of the pie”, but in practice most are only in at most a handful of categories. And regardless of this overlap, the chart still shows how many contractors are likely to bid on jobs in each area.
Compare this chart to Figure 8 to see how the split of workers compares to that of projects, and you’ll notice not just discrepancies, but larger ones than exist in many other sites. The higher-end categories are underrepresented: consider just 12% of workers are active in Web & Development, compared to a whopping 33% of projects. And the reverse is true with the low-end categories that don’t require as many technical skills: Business Services is 8% of the contractor base but just 3% of projects; Administrative Support is listed by 18% of contractors who are going after 9% of projects, and most notable of all, Customer Service has 11% of contractors going after only 1% of oDesk jobs!
oDesk’s useful oConomy section, which I used in looking at the site’s quantity statistics, shows readily the results of these mismatches, along with the general focus on cost over quality. Figure 10 contains a graph of hourly rates for a variety of work functions on oDesk. The categories don’t match up perfectly with oDesk’s own categories, but still give you a pretty good idea of what has been happening over the last four years.
As you can see, those in the technical fields have maintained their average rates, while in most other categories, pay rates have plummeted—and many of those didn’t start out very high to begin with. Note the dramatic drop in wages for writers: this is not due so much to a mismatch between the number of workers and the number of jobs, but rather a shift in projects from serious authorship to just churning out large quantities of cheap junk for search engine optimization (or manipulation, depending on your point of view).
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