Companies do it all the time. Perform a Google search for “outsourcing,” and an advertisement for freelance marketplace/content mill oDesk pops at the top of the page: “Outsource to freelancers.” During Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, many a pundit brought up his private equity firm’s history of investing in companies that outsourced American jobs. According to a 2006 estimate from McKinsey Global Institute, “$18.4 billion in global information technology work and $11.4 billion in business-process services have been moved abroad.”

And governments do it, too. In an article from 2009, The Economist explored what it calls “outsourcing’s third wave”: the practice of governments and “politically influential companies” buying or leasing farmland in other countries to effectively outsource food production, rather than buying crops on the global market. According to this article, the International Food Policy Research Institute believes “between 15m and 20m hectares of farmland in poor countries have been subject to transactions or talks involving foreigners since 2006. That is the size of France’s agricultural land and a fifth of all the farmland of the European Union.” And that was five years ago.

As prevalent and generally accepted as outsourcing is at the macro level, it isn’t so common or kindly looked upon when individuals do it: last year, a company discovered that one of its American programmers was outsourcing his own job to a programming firm in China, paying the firm one-fifth of his salary so that he could spend his days posting on Reddit and browsing eBay. Upon discovering the arrangement, the company fired the U.S. programmer.

But was he really doing anything drastically different from what companies and governments do when they outsource? Some might argue yes: he was not doing his job; he was paying other people to carry out his responsibilities. What about the American company that outsources its customer service call center to a third party overseas? Aren’t they also paying someone else to carry out their responsibilities? The company isn’t offering customer service – it has someone else to do that for them.

What I’m saying is, I’m having a hard time seeing the difference between what the programmer did and what organizations do every day. If the programmer’s outsourcing was deemed shady and morally reprehensible, shouldn’t we be able to draw the same conclusions about outsourcing at higher levels?

Socially Sanctioned Outsourcing: Virtual Assistants

A less extreme form of personal outsourcing is gaining popularity, however. I’m talking about the rise of virtual assistants. Companies like Zirtual and Fancy Hands offer access to a new form of personal assistant, one that you’ll likely never meet in real life. Virtual assistants, spread all around the world, represent a network of crowdsourced laborers to whom people can turn – for a fee — when they want something done, but don’t want to do it themselves.

If you visit the website of a virtual assistant service, you’ll generally see these services using the same sort of example tasks to illustrate what virtual assistants can do for you: booking flights, comparison shopping for big purchases, responding to email, managing calendars, etc. All things you’d associate with a traditional physical personal assistant.

I had never really thought of virtual assistants as a form of outsourced labor until a couple of days ago, when I came across a post from a relatively well-known LinkedIn Influencer extolling the virtues of Fancy Hands. This Influencer mentioned a few of the things his virtual assistants have helped him do, including one task that stuck out to me: conducting research.

This Influencer does a fair bit of writing on the Internet, and he has his virtual assistants conduct research for him sometimes. As a fellow writer, I think of researching as part of my job – in much the same way that programming was part of the outsourcing programmer’s job. This task stuck out to me because it seemed like a case of low-level outsourcing: the Influencer pays another person to do part of their job for them.

From a social standpoint, paying a personal assistant to conduct research for you does not seem to be on par with paying a Chinese firm to do all of your work for you. Partially, this is an issue of magnitude: the Influencer whose assistant does research is not outsourcing every part of his job, but only a small piece, whereas the programmer outsourced everything. He literally did nothing.

Is this the only difference? Is this what makes some forms of personal outsourcing okay and other forms egregious transgressions? And, if it is the only difference, why? Is outsourcing okay so long as one maintains at least some of his responsibilities? Is organizational outsourcing okay as long as the company outsources production to China and customer service to India, but still sells its products in America?

One has to wonder: is selling an organization’s only responsibility, or should it do more? If our Influencer outsourced both the researching and the writing process to his assistants, but still posted articles under his name, would it be okay? I don’t think it would – it’s disingenuous and lazy (not to say that this Influencer does this; just positing hypotheticals). So then, why is it okay for organizations to do the same thing?

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