A couple of weeks before Christmas last year, Peter – a high school student from Queens, New York – got an unusual new job.
Peter's job required him to text 15 people twice a day, regardless of whether they told him to "STOP" or tried to "UNSUBSCRIBE". Every day, Peter earned $0.50 for each person he texted, netting him over $40 (£31) in his first week of work. But Peter didn't work for a telecommunications company, or a spam text agency. He worked for Redditors – each of whom paid him a modest sum to text their friends, family and acquaintances pretending to be a service called DAILY HIPPO FACTS.
As far as pranks go, it's a pretty Reddit-y one, but rather than earning ultimately worthless Reddit "karma", 16-year-old Peter earned cold, hard cash. He offered his services on r/SlaveLabour, a subreddit where people perform small tasks for even smaller sums of money. The sub's 135,000 subscribers both post tasks they wish to be fulfilled ("I need someone in Italy to buy some food items and mail it to me in US"), and offers of work they themselves can do ("Do you have social anxiety? Need to call a store? Maybe order a pizza for you? I will do it! $1").
A Reddit user known as "cannabilisticmidgets" is now the main moderator of the six-year-old sub, though they only began moderating it this May (the original user who created the sub has since deleted their account). Cannabalisticmidgets says that 75 percent of posts on the sub are serious, while 25 percent seem to be jokes (two months ago, a user offered €10 (£8.50) to anyone who could play Smash Mouth's "All Star" on the didgeridoo).
"I think on some level they're almost all serious," cannabilisticmidgets says over email. "They all want to actually get paid to do the stupid joke thing, and think offering it dirt cheap in this sub is their best chance."
Most people don't get rich posting on Slave Labour – the clue is in the name. Nick, a 21-year-old factory worker from Michigan, was the user who offered to make phone calls on behalf of socially anxious Redditors. "I wanted a few extra dollars," he explains. One lady paid him $20 (£15.50) to call him and let off steam about her bad day at work. Another time, he made an appointment for someone and pretended to be their assistant. Someone else asked him to ring carpet stores for them, and other people requested prank calls. "I did all this within about three weeks while work was slow, [and] stopped when it picked back up," Nick explains. In total, he estimates he made about $50 (£39) before the requests began petering out.
Yet one woman's fortunes have been completely changed by r/SlaveLabour. Six months ago, Chloe, a 23-year-old psychology graduate student from New York, lost her job as a nanny overnight after the family she looked after moved to Australia.
"I went from having a job to having no job in 12 hours, and I couldn't find work quick enough to pay my rent," she says. Fearing she would lose her apartment, Chloe stumbled upon Slave Labour after googling ways to make money online. She researched the demographics of Reddit in order to create a post with maximum impact, and decided to offer dating advice for $5 (£3.90) an hour. One of her posts is now the most popular in the sub's history.
Chloe (who is identified here by a pseudonym) calls male Redditors and scrutinises their online dating profiles, giving brutal but much-needed criticism of their pictures, bios and approach to women. She's slowly increased her rates on the sub, going from $5 for an hour-long call to $8 (£6.20), to $10 (£7.80), to today's $25 (£19.50) charge. She's had so many responses that she has now built her own website, advicebychloe.com, where clients can schedule calls.
"Depending on how busy the week is, I have anywhere between 30 and 40 appointments, and half of those appointments are two hours long," she says. "I'm still in shock. I am excited and scared and really, really busy. It's amazing. It's absolutely changed my life in a really, really huge way."
Chloe now has a savings account for the first time, and no longer has to live paycheque to paycheque. When working as a nanny she was "exhausted" and felt under-appreciated, with the family often requiring extra, unscheduled hours, which impacted her university work. "I have such a higher quality of life now," she says.
That said, Chloe wouldn't necessarily recommend Slave Labour to others as a way to get rich quick. "It's complicated," she explains, "because Slave Labour is slave labour, right? You're doing work for very little pay. There are other subreddits that offer more fair pay. I think where slave labour is really helpful is if you are broke and you need money fast."
While teenagers and students are drawn to Slave Labour for quick money, the moderator cannabalisticmidgets says, "Some people who post here live in very poor countries where $1 USD goes a very long way." This fact makes the subreddit's name – already questionable, considering that, in 2016, 40.3 million people worldwide were estimated to be modern slaves – potentially more unfortunate. Cannabalisticmidgets says they receive angry messages from poor people who are banned for violating the sub's rules, as "it's an interruption to their ability to make money or feed their family" (thankfully, most of the sub's bans only last three days).
Cannabalisticmidgets takes their moderating responsibilities very seriously because they themselves have been victims of scammers on other subs. "Most cases of scamming are very cut and dry," they say, explaining that scammers on Slave Labour will mass-message people who post tasks, offer to do the work, take the money and never complete the task. "People fall for it every single day, even though there is a warning on the top of the subreddit," says the moderator. The sub also directs users to another subreddit, which lists known and banned scammers, the Universal Scammer List (USL).
Beyond banning scamming, the subreddit has 12 rules. You can't offer to do someone's homework, companies aren't allowed to use the sub and piracy is forbidden. Most of the time, however, no two posts are alike – from personalised meal plans to making origami animals, there is a huge variety of tasks on offer.
This January, Andrew, a 25-year-old healthcare executive from Alabama, posted on the sub offering to pay people $10 to chat to him over the phone during his 45-minute commute. He doesn't enjoy music and was sick of listening to podcasts, so became bored on his long drive. In total, he spent $50 paying five people to chat with him, and his experiences highlight the highs and lows of the sub.
"A bunch of people saw my post and were like, 'Yeah, that sounds like fun, I'll do it,' but then when it came time to actually schedule it, it fell through rather quickly," Andrew explains. "Several times they'd say they’d call at 7:30AM, then 7:30AM rolls around and either I call them and they didn't answer, or they never called me. The flakiness of strangers was difficult." Andrew says he scheduled 15 calls but only five actually took place.
Those who did end up speaking to Andrew were people who really needed his ten dollars. One man lived in a small Indian village and was attempting to raise money to move to a larger city. Another was sleeping in an airport in Singapore after spending his money travelling Southeast Asia, while another was a student. "They were good conversations," says Andrew. "I got to talk about and think about things that I wouldn't have otherwise."
Like Chloe, Andrew can't necessarily recommend Slave Labour – pointing out that specialist sites like Fiverr also offer low-paid work with extra safeguards and more reliable users. When it comes to earning money or getting necessary work done, the subreddit is not a hugely reliable source for many, with Chloe's experiences remaining anomalous.
But the subreddit does have a unique selling point: it's a place for strange, simple or funny tasks that don't fit anywhere else in the gig economy. Between the gags and the scams, people are spending and making money in remarkably unusual ways. Sometimes, a throwaway $1 from one Redditor can be a lifeline for another. Other times, your dollar lets a teenager earn pocket money by sharing his hippo facts.