The Downside of Virtual Work: How To Get Fired From ChaCha

One of my students, knowing of my interest in the promises and perils of virtual work and virtual businesses, told me about a sticky situation that developed when he was working for ChaCha. For anyone not familiar with ChaCha, users text questions to the website, and they are then paired up with a “Guide” who sends answers back to the users in real time.

My student was working as a ChaCha Guide off and on to make extra money before starting law school. For the most part, he enjoyed looking up the answers to user questions, even existential questions or more silly ones like “should I ask out the person I’ve developed a crush on?”*** The way he described it is that some questions would take two minutes to answer, and others would take a lot more searching and be that much more difficult to find.

My student recounted what happened next. After about two weeks of working fairly steadily for ChaCha (and, he says, making below the hourly minimum wage), ChaCha announced they were cutting compensation from twenty to ten cents per search. “At that point they had private message boards for the “Guides,” which is what they called us. So I went to the message boards and tried to organize . . . all Guides [not to sign in] at the moment that the new rates started. And at that point they sent me an e-mail terminating my employment.”

This is certainly interesting. I’ve seen some documentation of the IBM Italy “virtual strike,” which seemed to indicate that virtual organizing could start to take off. This might be much more difficult in the market for crowdsourced labor, simply because many crowdsourcing sites would not have the bulletin boards or any way for one worker to reach the other workers. So, while I remain sanguine about the efficiency gains associated with working with others in cyberspace, ChaCha serves as a cautionary reminder.

***The answer (at least in my book) is “yes,” since otherwise there is the potential to waste time on an unrequited crush, and it is better to get an answer (regardless of what it is) and be able to move on.

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4 Responses

  1. Craig says:

    I don’t know the answer to this – but is terminating someone for organizing / strike activity permissible?

  2. Matt Bodie says:

    Looks like a potential 8(a)(1) violation to me, unless guides are not employees under the NLRA.

  3. Frank says:

    great points, Miriam. I wish we had you at the Internet as Factory & Playground conference:
    http://digitallabor.org/
    You might also like this dialogue:
    http://archleague.org/2010/11/situated-exploitation-from-mobile-playgrounds-to-sweatshop-city

    Trebor is working on a booklength expansion of it now.

  4. Miriam Cherry says:

    I’d like to be there… looks like a great conference…. check out my article on virtual work:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1649055