A Review of oDesk.com – Kris Gutknecht

Sometime between my 105th sent resume and 35th rejection letter as a freelancer, I’ve become a cynical, hate-filled spinster who doesn’t even have a cat to fill me with love. It’s a perfectly sensible attitude to adopt when you’re an unemployed writer looking for work on the Internet. I’ve been burned by an “employer” on Craigslist so, when I heard about oDesk from a friend, its double-checking system sounded pretty safe.

Anyone can register with oDesk, but you can’t work or hire without verifying that you exist, and have entered a bank account. You get paid for hourly oDesk gigs by running a small tracking app the entire time you’re working. It tattles on your activity level by your mouse and keyboard clicks, so it’s better to just turn it off than, say, answer the phone or go to the bathroom. You’re guaranteed to get paid for hourly jobs; oDesk holds the money in escrow, and allows for a four day review period (there’s also a 5-day administrative hold on funds, so it actually takes 7 days to get paid after you’ve finished the job).

Clients are free to audit your timesheets if they think you weren’t working hard enough but, if you allow the software to take randomly timed screencaps of your desktop, you should be able to make a case to oDesk’s dispute team.

The screencapper is nerve-wracking until you get used to it — it pops up in the corner of your screen and hovers for about ten seconds, like a teacher popping their head in the room when you aren’t doing anything wrong. Before you start work, don’t forget to change your desktop wallpaper of shirtless Benedict Cumberbatch, and minimize that blog about cats. The software can also snap a photo of you through your webcam, but you can turn that off.

When I started job searching, I found the majority of listings were actual, legitimate work. In the writing section, they were asking for bloggers, article writers, and website content copywriters. Great! I thought. Getting paid for writing. I started applying.

Then I looked at the fees: $2 per hour. $4. I’ve heard people reporting they have found real work through oDesk, but the site is glutted with these lowball jobs, asking for 20-60 hours a week at scab pay. I understand that there’s overseas workers to whom $2 per hour USD is a lot of money in their currency, but it’s irritating that oDesk doesn’t offer a decent search tool to weed out these useless, low paying jobs.

Then there’s the weird “invitations to apply.” Something I’ve learned in my long unemployment and underemployment is that if someone is giving a job away, there’s a reason why nobody wants it. Weekly, I am emailed an invitation from a generic looking company, sometimes with no profile or history, saying in broken English that they are impressed with my skills. Sometimes it’s a job that you just know is horrible, like graveyard shift CSR for a dollar an hour; often they’re plain, inappropriate message, asking for a skill set that isn’t mine. I don’t know if they’re legit, but the spam makes me question the legitimacy of other postings. I wonder what percentage of oDesk clients are for real.

I haven’t seen many obvious scams like I did on Craigslist, where I twice applied to convincing job adverts that turned out to be elaborate fronts to gain my social security number. More commonly on oDesk, you have the delusional: write my memoirs for $100. One guy wanted me to write his company’s Wikipedia bio, but would only pay if and when the entry “stuck.” I’m a writer, not a defender against the obsessive Ork hoard that has colonized Wikipedia. I’ve only seen one “send us samples” free work scam but there’s a button to mark those people as scammers and the system seems to work.

If you’re used to freelancing the old fashioned way, where you send out queries and are respected as a professional writer, then oDesk will be a shock. One of the best jobs I’ve gotten wasn’t exactly the professional magazine experience, but more like a cross between a mob gig and the college newspaper experience.

The advertisement looked good: it was a website service provider with a trade-oriented blog, and the hourly fee was just over US minimum wage.

First, I didn’t know I was ghost blogging until I checked the website and saw my manager’s name on my articles. Second, they said it would be “some editing, some writing,” as if I’d be part of a writing team and they needed help editing their other bloggers’ work.

Lies. All lies.

They were clearly desperate for a writer so they made the job sound better than it was. After I signed, they changed the quota to ten original, 500-word articles per week. By “some editing”, they meant I’d edit my own articles.

But, I needed the money and the clips and it wasn’t exactly a scam, but a vague contract written by — it became clear over several conversations — a manager who had no idea how freelance writing worked.

I’m not advising anyone stick with a client who lies because that’s a pretty glaring sign you’re about to get screwed – even with the protections from oDesk. But, I needed the money, so I was very, very clear with my requests. I explained that the job was “different than described”, that 10 articles was just insane, and got my sentence commuted to 8.

I worked for a few weeks, asking for a review whenever I submitted articles, and my manager always said they were “great.” The blog highlighted my articles consistently, and she seemed to really rely on me. Awesome: time to negotiate. I pointed out that they had liked all my articles, and that I was a featured blogger for several weeks. I subsequently received a raise to $6 more per hour!

It’s still not a great job, of course. I’m writing at a pace that precludes great clips, but I’m writing and getting paid for it, and I have time to pursue other work. In a rotten economy, it’s a place to start.

Kris Gutknecht was born in Philadelphia, PA, and attended Seton Hill University’s unique Writing Popular Fiction writing program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and novelist based in San Francisco, CA. She Tumbls politics and pop culture at kristigutknecht.tumblr.com.