ShortTask, launched in late February, has the potential to be an interesting service, but has, in my opinion, become one of a number of clearinghouses for third-party astroturfing schemes of somewhat questionable ethical intent. ShortTask, according to the company, is:

“based on the idea that there are still many online jobs that cannot be fully replaced by technology and require human input. ShortTask has subdivided its working into two categories — solvers and seekers. Seekers are companies or individuals who need various tasks accomplished without hiring in-house staff, while solvers are workers who can complete these jobs virtually and get paid.”

In other words, if a company regularly has short tasks that cannot be done by a computer, it can post those tasks on ShortTask for Solvers to perform on a per task basis.

ShortTask is very similar to Amazon's Mechanical Turk (which I wrote about here.) Anyone can sign up for either service. ShortTask refers to Seekers (people contracting out small tasks) and Solvers (people who perform the tasks.)

Though not the point of this post, the impact of this on the American worker is clear. So many in-house salaried positions have been converted to temporary contractor positions. And with microcontracting/microsourcing, it gets worse. Not only are jobs outsourced, so are tasks.

But beyond economic concerns, ShortTask (and other services) seem to facilitate behavior of questionable ethical intent. For example, some ShortTask tasks require users to post positive product reviews on Epinion, or RateItAll. The instructions for these tasks make it clear that payment will not be made unless the reviews are positive, and that when rating systems are available, products and services must be rated no lower than three or four out of a possible five. Others require a “Like” on StumbleUpon or a Digg.

All of these actions use deception and misrepresentation to create a positive impression of a product, service, company or etc. The practice of having company representatives, or their agents (PR firms, for example, or in this case, Solvers), leave anonymous comments on blogs, web sites, communities, etc. to create the impression of independent consumer endorsement of products, services and companies is called astroturfing, and is a disservice to consumers, unethical, and in some cases illegal.

Industry associations like the Word of Mouth Marketing Association are trying to address this trend with codes of ethics and education, but as evidenced by continuing ethical breaches by individuals and corporations alike, self-regulation is apparently not enough.

The EU's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive bans astroturfing, The FTC is also increasingly concerned about this trend, and may crack down.

What's happening with ShortTask (and other services) is that companies and their agents are struggling to create arms-length astroturfing schemes in which, somehow, because of the involvement of multiple third parties, companies mistakenly believe they can create amorphous arrangements that shield them from accusations of wrongdoing.

ShortTask is not necessarily to blame for this. As spammers and unethical “business people” take advantage of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other vehicles to peddle their scams, they will also do so when new media become available. ShortTask has the potential to be very useful to companies microsourcing tasks and to people looking for a modest income performing these tasks.

For now, companies and consumers alike should be aware that not every bit of user-generated content is user-generated, and until more demanding standards are in place, by choice or regulation, social media is no more trustworthy than “old media,” and in some cases, less so.

Note: I offered a ShortTask representative the opportunity to respond, but have not heard back. That offer remains open, and I welcome a ShortTask response either as a comment on this post or in a guest blog post.

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