Minutes after Kara Jones wakes up, she's glued to her desktop computer, filling out surveys or being interviewed about website design. After her toddler goes to sleep at night, she pulls out her phone and sends videos to market research companies.
Hardly a minute of Jones' free time is not spoken for or meticulously analyzed on an elaborate spreadsheet where she tracks dozens of side-hustle websites.
"I'll apply for a whole bunch of tasks in a week that I'm really passionate about. Before I realize it, my whole week, every available minute, is taken up by paid studies," she said. She said she uses the spreadsheet to keep records of which sites offer "the highest ROI," or return on investment.
Jones, 35, was laid off in May and quickly began spending hours each day scouring websites for ways to scrape together a few dollars at a time by giving her opinions on products, participating in studies and offering feedback on how to improve products such as a smart TV app that she and her husband use.
She is part of an almost invisible and growing community of online survey takers, opinion givers and product samplers who have figured out how to eke out livings through humdrum online work.
What was once more of a hobby that generated some extra spending money has for some people become an essential source of income during the recession and the coronavirus pandemic.
Call it virtual work, on-demand jobs, internet odd jobs or side hustles: It represents a reshaping of how some Americans are employed as more of life moves online — and as more tech companies imitate the largely unregulated business model of Airbnb and Uber to create massive platforms, pairing people who are trying to a earn a couple of bucks with those willing to hire them.
It has an undeniable upside during the pandemic. The work is accessible from home, although participants said it can sometimes be bleak and comes with a host of complications that underscore inequality in America: low pay, tough competition and a maze of little-known apps that requires people to develop complicated strategies to get the most out of their time.
Increasingly, there's a hierarchy to the apps, with the best-paying ones coming closer to full-time jobs in the pay and the demands. The selection process can be rigorous, with live video chats to screen potential subjects.
And rejection is a way of life, as corporate researchers often look for specific traits, screening for things like age, location, medical condition or income.
"Sometimes, if you're too low-income, they won't pick you," said Becky Robinson, who's been relying on the income from online market research since having been laid off from both of her part-time jobs in southeastern Pennsylvania.
An invisible workforce
The world of online gig work is expansive. It ranges from sites such as Mechanical Turk, where people can perform menial "microtasks" for pennies, to mystery shopping offers, app testing, transcription services, sites to teach English as a second language and services that pay for participation in academic studies, often for psychologists or other social scientists.
No one really knows how many people are doing work on such sites, because companies rarely disclose data and the jobs don't fit into existing categories for labor statistics kept by government economists, said Mary Gray, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and an Indiana University faculty member.
"Economists don't have a way of measuring the world that doesn't look like a factory floor," Gray said.
There are dozens of companies behind the services, mostly obscure except to the people who spend hours on them. Making money means constantly recalibrating which platforms and tasks to concentrate on and being wary of potential scammers.
They have a growing labor pool to draw from. Unemployment has soared since the pandemic began to take hold of the economy in February and March. The unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in July, a drop from its peak but still indicating that 1 in 10 people in the labor force couldn't find work. Some gig workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, are among those hit, and some have sought unemployment benefits.
That's led people to look for new ways to scratch out some income. But online gig work isn't quite as easy as signing up and clicking away. Information about the different services can be hard to come by, so communities have popped up on social media and elsewhere for newcomers and veterans to swap tips.
In January, just before the pandemic, a teenager posted a video on TikTok saying he had made more than $900 on Dscout, a market research and survey service, and encouraging others to download the app. The video spread widely, getting about 400,000 favorites on TikTok, and Dscout said it saw a jump in interest.
The Reddit community r/beermoney features regular earnings reports from users who meticulously track their income, as well as warnings about sites that aren't worth the time. One person said they spent time on more than 30 sites and made $1,700 in five weeks, even after what they called wasted time on couponing websites.
"Part of the work is searching for work," said Miriam Cherry, a Saint Louis University law professor who has studied virtual work and written a textbook on the subject.
"And the more people that come on to these sites, the more competition there is," she said. For that reason, elaborate planning makes sense. "You've got to be pretty clever to outsmart the 300 other people around the world," she said.
Jones did online surveys as far back as college, and she turned back to them in May. She had been laid off from her job as a purchasing director for a company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and she dived into researching and strategizing which websites offered the best opportunities.
"For those two weeks, I did nothing but research this stuff," she said. She has since found another full-time job, but she's still spending her mornings and nights online to build up her family's rainy day fund.
She said she spends 15 to 20 hours a week just on research, seeking out about three new sites a week. "Every day I'm tweaking this list," she said. And then she spends eight more hours a week on the actual hustles.
Jones has also begun to post YouTube videos with tips, hoping to build a following there and on other social media sites as more people look to make money online.
Almost like a video game, hustle websites steer people through different levels, with a reward coming usually at the very end. There are initial screening tests. Then there are applications for particular studies or "missions." And finally the task itself.
And even within each stage, there are pitfalls. Research companies boobytrap some of their projects with "attention checks" to catch people who speed through without reading closely.
The possible rewards aren't entirely monetary, as with any job. Robinson said market research offers a kind of affirmation that opinions from people like her can matter.
"Something where you can influence a brand or a product, it's cool, and you feel like these people who interview you actually listen to you. It makes you feel important," she said.
The best-paying surveys offer up to $200 and may require a lot of time, asking people to submit photos and videos from their homes. Others take a few minutes and pay much less.
There's little public data on the average wage for online work, but a study in 2018 from the U.N. International Labor Organization found that on Mechanical Turk, the service owned by Amazon, the median pay was $5.63 an hour. That's lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Robinson, despite being disabled, had two part-time jobs until the coronavirus pandemic shut down large parts of the economy: one at a museum and another at a retail craft shop. She was laid off from both.
But the costs of daily life have continued to pile up. Her Volkswagen Jetta needed repairs, the dishwasher broke, and she needed a couple of fillings from the dentist for $120.
For a while she was relying on unemployment insurance, but a $600-a-week federal bonus has ended, and she said her state cut off her regular insurance — for reasons she can't understand, because she hasn't been able to get anyone on the phone.
So lately, some of the only money she has coming in is from the surveys, and she's found herself doing many more of them.
"It's not the best way to live, but I don't know — it helps, and it's not that hard of work," she said. She said she tries to save as much as she can from online work, "because I feel like I'm going to need it."
'The beauty of the hustle'
Dscout, one of the research apps, said it has seen surges both from people taking surveys and from the other side of the equation: corporate researchers who want to find out how consumer needs have changed during the pandemic.
Dscout and other apps often involve live video chats, so researchers can see into people's living spaces or watch them using products in context — a cost in privacy for participants, but maybe for a higher fee. The company says it has 100,000 regular participants, or "scouts."
"Now is probably the best time for research, because you need to understand what people are going through," said Abby Hunt, a Dscout spokeswoman.
The need to submit videos means survey takers sometimes need to dress up or at least do something to make a good impression on researchers. Pajamas are frowned on.
"You definitely need to be a put-together person who can articulate their ideas,'" said Vince Major, an actor in Los Angeles who does surveys and tries out product prototypes in his spare time. Among the latest products he's reviewed: a mask for running.
Major said he watches out for services that he thinks are exploitive, paying the equivalent of spare change for 30 minutes of work. And he said a certain competitiveness kicks in when he sees a task that he really wants to do, almost like a video game.
"There is something in my World of Warcraft-molded brain that is 'Yes, do this quest!'" he said.
On the other hand, Jones said there's also something about it that's low-pressure compared to working in an office environment.
"The beauty of the hustle is you earn as hard as you want to try," she said. "If you don't want to try for a couple days, you don't have to. There's no one breathing down your neck. You're not going to get fired if you don't show up for a couple days."
That also means virtual work is missing one of the defining characteristics of modern careers: a ladder, or the opportunity to advance some day.
And in many ways, virtual workers are still at the beck and call of online platforms. The companies often require unpaid labor to advance to paid work: "applications" to take surveys. They rate the jobs workers do without any system for appeal and can withhold payment with little recourse.
Cherry of Saint Louis University said she would like to see more parity for remote workers in terms of protections or higher wages. She said it's an echo of a debate playing out with Uber and Lyft in California and elsewhere: Where is the line between contractor and employee?
"It's not like this isn't being closely supervised. It's the opposite. There's a lot of supervision," Cherry said of virtual workers. "How is that different from working for a company remotely? It's not. It's the exact same thing."