While going through my old Google App Engine apps and killing them, I stumbled across an old project, and thought I'd take a screenshot to remember it by. The project was called HENIAC (Human - ENIAC). The idea was that there would be a pool of assistants standing by at all hours of the day, and you could create a new chat session, and then "summon" one of them by clicking the "summon to current session" button.

To incentivize having a worker online at all times, workers were paid 20% of their normal hourly wage just to be available. Or rather, when you're available, you would be in a queue, and the person at the head of this queue would be making 20% of their wage, while the next person in line would only be making 10%, then 5%, and so on.. so if the queue already has a few people in it, you might not bother to join.

You could also reserve time at the bottom. If you reserved an hour, then you would automatically be bumped up to the top of the queue during that hour, so you could reserve time and know that you would be paid at least 20% of your wage during that time, even if there was no work.

So what happened with HENIAC? Well, the main problem was that people didn't use it. Here are some speculations about why:
  • Our pool of people were not expert enough for the sorts of tasks people would want to hire them for.
  • Many "personal admin" type tasks were hampered by not wanting to give passwords and such to this pool.
  • People felt uncomfortable telling these people what to do -- one person mentioned that he always felt like he was apologizing before asking for something to be done because he knew that the thing he wanted done was very boring (which is why he was asking someone to do it in the first place).
  • Related to this, this same person felt a bit uncomfortable with the social interactions that seemed necessary before and after asking for something to be done, e.g., he felt like he should say "hi, how are you?" rather than start straight in with "do X".
  • Because people were not using the system very often, our pool of people were not always there. They would often mark themselves as available, but then essentially leave their computer, assuming nobody would ask them for work, so when people would ask for work, the system would ask each person on the queue, and nobody would respond. This wouldn't happen all the time, but I've seen it happen, and I think the fact that it could happen decreased confidence in availability, leading in a vicious cycle to less use.

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