Crowded Rhizome Proposal

Project Description

Crowded is an montage audio program similar to radio shows like This American Life, The Moth, or the productions of Joe Frank.  What makes it unique is that all of the material is is made up of segments of audio requested from and submitted by workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site in return for payment.  I have made one incomplete episode as a test.  You can listen to it here:

Crowded - Episode 0 - (beta)
(I apologize for the audio quality of the first story - you have to listen very closely to hear what he is saying.  I will fix it eventually, but this was fine for this proof of concept)

Time Date Worker ID Song Filenames
4:10:00 1/15/2009 A21Y3YW3PIFA Julian Fane - Exit New Year Jonathan01.mp3
15:55:00 1/14/2009 A3QG4E1VG413GV The Dead Texan - Girth Rides a (Horse) BethH01.mp3
14:09:00 1/14/2009 A3PIP9BPN0R408 Muddy Waters - Mannish Boy jmostyle-record-omp46f45fm3c.mp3
Justin01.mp3 and Justin02.mp3
1/15/2009 A20R672MXJ9NMJ Freescha - Holiday Frost smashmazing-upload-1c334g2yq51w.mp3
1/15/2009 A312KFQ78WB3A4 Freescha - Holiday Frost StewieRadio.mp3
A1CUT3GA914MXU Secede - Big Day Out Junebugbetty-record-wzpoxgzbb48a.mp3
AWP2TKTG82IX8 Julian Fane - Exit New Year FaeJinx-record-uzaf469qb42t.mp3

Each episode has a mechanism or a theme.  For the test episode, I asked workers to listen to a collection of songs.  After listening, they picked one that reminded them of an important event in their life, and then recorded themselves telling that story.  You can see the HIT (Human Intelligence Task - the instructions given to the workers) at the bottom of this page.  The tentative list of future themes are all listed below in the prouction timeline.  Some of them have nothing to do with labor or MT.  Some are very self-conscious.

tuerke3The workers are given around $5-$10 to follow the directions like the ones below, depending on the complexity of the task. The jobs usually involve recording some audio. Depending on the assignment, they will use either a custom-built recording applet or a commercial conference call service.  When I receive the audio, I (with the help of Graham Reznick, an audio engineer) organize and edit the results into a professionally produced radio show.  Although it would be interesting to keep these results as raw as possible and strive for objectivity, I have decided that I would rather focus on creating an intriguing show.  Except where the theme specifically calls for it, I will not give up editorial privileges.


After doing several projects using crowdsourcing (Dirt Party, Invisible Threads, You’re So VIP) that essentially use workers as a faceless labor force only slightly better than a computer, I wanted to do a project that was about the actual people who are doing these tasks.  Who are they?  Where do they come from?  Why do they do these jobs?  The dynamics of “buying” a story via Mechanical Turk are interesting to me.  Do I own the story?  What kind of stories do you get from workers  who are ultimately looking at the estimated time vs. payment bottom line?   You could argue that I am still not humanizing them - that I am simply exploiting their willingness to tell personal stories for a few bucks.  But this project isn’t really taking a position in terms of the ethics of online labor markets.  It’s simply the MT system - which most believe is a kind of foreshadowing of a labor paradigm that will inevitably become much more common in the future - in a way that I think is more interesting and rewarding than most of what I have seen.  Most of the workers who respond to my requests are very excited to have been asked to do something that requires a little more creativity and thought.  The trick will be to bring out something unique about the kind of people who do this kind of work.  The average person doesn’t know what crowdsourcing is, and especially doesn’t care to hear strangers talking about uninteresting topics.  So the concept alone won’t make this project successful.  The tentative themes below are intentionally being left somewhat vague so that, when I gain a better understanding of the workers , I will be able to craft a show scenario that will coax better material out of them.

The end result will be a CD of these shows along with a small pamphlet or booklet about the workers who contributed, and any thoughts or research that I accumulate over the course of the show.  Because I don’t want people who wouldn’t normally be on MT to accept the tasks, I will release the entire collection after the project is done.   I will also release the MP3s of the shows and all of the source audio on the web.  With the help of Rhizome, I hope to one day hope to pitch this to WNYC as a series that they can play on air.

Project Budget & Timeline

I would like to make 1 episode per month for 1 year, starting in September of 2010.

Episode Budget

  • $100 for stories (roughly 5-10 workers @ $10/job to get enough usable content)
  • $200 audio editing
  • $50 audio/hosting services (conference call lines, media server, etc.)
  • TOTAL: 1 episode costs around $350

Main Budget

  • 12 Episodes: $4,200
  • Jingle composition: $800
  • Printing booklet: $300
  • TOTAL: $5500


I will complete one episode each month and send it out to a small list of people for comments.  The following are the tentative themes for each month.

  1. September Listen to a series of songs, choose one that reminds you of an event in your life, and then tell that story.  The stories will be collected and played on top of the song that you choose. (11 calls @ $8)
  2. October Answer the following questions (20 calls @ $4)
    1. describe your immediate environment
    2. how/when did you working on MT?
    3. how do you plan on using the money that you receive for this work?
    4. record 2 minutes of ambient audio from somewhere nearby
  3. November Call me and have an argument about a topic I give you.  I will edit myself out, leaving only your side of the argument. (5 calls at $12)
  4. December Call this conference line.  You will be joined by 2 other workers.  Your character is [fill in a character].  During the course of this call, you must [plot point 1], [plot point 2], [plot point 3].(I’m not quite sure how I will orchestrate this one yet, so it is very tentative - 6 calls @ $15)
  5. January Use the recorder below to record yourself answering the following questions:
    1. Who do you think I (the Requester) am?
    2. Do you ever think about the people who give you the tasks that you do on MT?
  6. February Use the recorder below to record yourself reading from your favorite book. (12 calls @ $5)
  7. March Use the recorder below to record yourself talking about previous jobs that you have had. (10 calls @ $8)
  8. April Use the recorder below to record your first name, your last initial, and where you live.  (This show will focus on quantity rather than quality.  250 calls @ $0.5)
  9. May TBD
  10. June TBD
  11. July TBD
  12. August The ubiquitous “best of” show.

Resume or Curriculum Vitae

Please see my CV here.

Work Samples

Sample MT HIT

Tell me a story

I am working on a radio show called This Mechanical Life where all of the material comes from Mechanical Turk workers.  And I need your help!  Just follow the 6 steps below.

  • Listen to the songs below.
  • Think of an event in your life that reminds you of that song.  This could be any story, but it should be important to you, or something that you think other people would enjoy hearing.
  • Find a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed
  • Tell me your story! Follow the instructions below to record the story. Some tips:
    • Please dont mention the song that you chose while telling your story, or even that the story you are telling was inspired by a song.  Just tick the circle below and the song will play underneath your story.
    • You can use either your computer microphone or a telephone.
    • The story should be between 8 and 15 mins.  Please try to stay on topic and don’t ramble.  That being said, just relax and don’t rush through it.
    • Speak up, speak slowly, and speak clearly.  No bonus will be given if I can’t understand what you are saying.
    • Do not play the song while you are recording.
  • Tell me how you recorded it here.
    • if you called the phone number, put the number from which you called here.
    • If you used YouTube, put the URL here
    • If you used HoundBite, put the URL in here
  • If you wish to be credited in the final production, please enter your information here.  I cannot guarantee that your story will be used, or that it will not be edited or re-told.  But don’t let this dissuade you!  If you have a problem with any of this, let me know and I will work with it.

The Songs (also available at

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Freescha - Holiday Frost
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The Dead Texan - Girth Rides a (Horse)
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DNTEL - Last Songs
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Julian Fane - Exit New Year
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Microstoria - Edu
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The Octopus Project - What They Found
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Secede - Big Day Out
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Am-Boy - Turning Of Season
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Neoangin - Trippy Disco
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Ratatat - Brule
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Ratatat - Bird Priest

Recording Options

  • Leave me a message. The maximum length is 3 minutes. You will have to call back a few times.
  • Use YouTube QuickCapture.  You don’t have to even be in the frame as long as the audio is clear.  The maximum length is 10 minutes.
  • HoundBite is like YouTube for audio.  So if you really don’t want to record a video, this is your solution. The maximum length is 15 minutes.