While some freelancers are losing their gigs to ChatGPT, clients are being spammed with AI-written content on freelancing platforms. The result: increasing mistrust between clients and freelancers and mounting trouble for the platforms themselves.
Melissa Shea hires freelancers to take on most of the basic tasks for her fashion-focused tech startup, paying $22 per hour on average for them to develop websites, transcribe audio and write marketing copy. In January 2023, she welcomed a new member to her team: ChatGPT. At $0 an hour, the chatbot can crank out more content much faster than freelancers and has replaced three content writers she would have otherwise hired through freelancing platform Upwork.
“I’m really frankly worried that millions of people are going to be without a job by the end of this year,” says Shea, cofounder of New York-based Fashion Mingle, a networking and marketing platform for fashion professionals. “I’ve never hired a writer better than ChatGPT.”
Shea has not posted a job on Upwork since she discovered ChatGPT (though she still has five freelancers working for her). After it was released in November 2022, ChatGPT amassed more than 100 million users, sparked an AI arms race at companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon and has given rise to a flurry of AI startups. And for small businesses looking to trim costs, the free tool can automate swaths of their operations, providing a cheaper alternative to freelance workers. Built on recent advances in generative AI, ChatGPT and its image-based sibling DALL-E 2 can carry out work that spans most of the freelancing spectrum, from writing articles and compiling research to designing graphics, coding and decrypting financial documents.
Now, freelancers who are less experienced and don’t offer specialized skills stand to lose their gigs, according to five clients Forbes interviewed. But rather than steering clear of the AI tool that could make them obsolete, more and more freelancers are relying on ChatGPT to do some if not all their work for them. Clients on job marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr are being flooded with nearly identical project proposals written by ChatGPT. A bitter side effect: it’s making clients dubious of the authenticity of work turned in by freelancers and causing transactional disputes and mistrust in the freelancing community.
Upwork, which booked roughly $620 million in revenue in 2022, disclosed in its SEC filings that increased use of AI would be a threat to its business. “Any use of generative artificial intelligence by users of our work marketplace may lead to additional claims of intellectual property infringement,” Upwork’s annual report reads. The company declined to comment on how ChatGPT has affected the rate of transactional disputes or its bottom line during a Forbes interview.
“We want our clients and our talent to be doing all of their diligence to make sure that their work is secure and that things are trusted,” says Margaret Lilani, vice president of talent solutions at Upwork.
Buried in ChatGPT proposals
In early April, business consultant Sean O’Dowd uploaded two job postings on Upwork and within 24 hours he received close to 300 applications from freelancers explaining why they should be hired. Of the 300 proposals, he suspects more than 200 were done by ChatGPT, he says. Upwork doesn’t have an AI detection tool embedded into the platform and so he used enterprise-focused AI startup Writer’s detection software to evaluate proposals.
O’Dowd, who says that over the past decade he’s hired “close to 100 people who do work that ChatGPT could replace,” says he won’t hire freelancers who pass off ChatGPT’s work as their own because he wouldn’t be able to trust them, and it would indicate a lack of effort. “If I just wanted the basic ChatGPT-level answer, I would have just done that myself. When I’m hiring somebody, I’m looking for more detail, more depth and more thinking than ChatGPT.”
Evan Fisher, who is both a client and a freelancer on Upwork, ran into the same issue: low quality content written by ChatGPT. “The real problem on Upwork is the sheer volume of proposals. We’re talking pre-contracts where a client is just inundated with kind of generic, bland, no-thought-involved proposals,” Fisher, who has hired 80 freelancers on Upwork, tells Forbes.
As a response, clients on Upwork have started including disclaimers from the get-go. One job post begins with, “If you use AI for this job, you will not get paid.” Another reads: “I do not want ChatGPT or AI spun content. I will validate and make sure, so anyone who wants to use AI, please do not even apply.” Despite these efforts, some freelancers use AI tools without disclosing it. O’Dowd says he once received work he suspected was done by ChatGPT because the work only included information up till 2021 (ChatGPT’s cut off point) and missed some newer details that would have been easy for a human to find through a simple search. He never hired that freelancer again.
“When I’m hiring somebody, I’m looking for more detail, more depth and more thinking than ChatGPT.”Sean O’Dowd, business consultant and Upwork client
Georgia Austin, who made $2 million in two years copywriting for brands like Nike on freelancing platform Fiverr, says the overuse and over-dependency on the tool by some freelancers has given “a bad name to all freelancers,” even those who may not secretly use AI. In late February a freelancer posted on Upwork’s community forum that a client was accusing him of using ChatGPT to do the job and was demanding their money back. The contention resulted in a transactional dispute filed with Upwork. Upwork declined to comment on the dispute.
“Our platform is based on trusted relationships between freelancers, our independent talent, and our clients,” Lilani from Upwork says. “AI cannot replace these meaningful and personable connections.”
Freelancers say otherwise.
“Clients are much more wary than before. It creates an advantage for people with big accounts on Upwork as opposed to the newbies because they (newbies) will be suspected of using AI for their work,” says Orezi Mena, a Nigerian graphic design freelancer who uses ChatGPT to help him ideate.
All eyes on Google
For companies that are using freelancers to create content and increase traffic on their websites, it all comes down to how Google ranks ChatGPT-written content. In February, Google announced that it will prioritize high-quality original content in its search results even if it is written by AI and demote spam content. “Google has many years of experience dealing with automation being used in an attempt to game search results,” a blog post reads.
“If Google is somehow detecting that the AI-written piece is like less valuable and is de-ranking it then it defeats the point of what you’re paying for,” says Adelle Archer, a client on Upwork who hires 20 freelancers for various tasks of her memorial diamond startup Eterneva.
That’s why some freelancers aren’t worried AI could put them out of work.
“At the end of the day, 95% of my buyers who are buying blogs and articles from me, they’re using that for SEO on their website. They’re aware that a ChatGPT generated blog isn’t going to necessarily do them any favors with ranking on Google,” says Alex Fasulo, who has been freelancing for the past nine years on Fiverr and claims to be making a six-figure salary each year. “So they’re still happy to pay me and work with me to get a human generated one.”
If you use AI for this job, you will not get paid.”Job description on Upwork
ChatGPT is also creating new jobs, albeit at lower prices. Most people looking to hire freelancers want to get their work done fast and at minimal costs, says Jacobo Lumbreras, a former product manager at Upwork. Some clients are encouraging freelancers to use ChatGPT if that means they are able to be more productive and efficient. Freelancers on Upwork and Fiverr are selling their ability to use ChatGPT to create content and edit it for search engine optimization for as low as $5 an hour. Fasulo, who has 13 different freelancing gigs, just started a new one. “I actually opened up a service called, ‘I will edit and clean up your ChatGPT-generated content,’” she says.
The low price also reflects the quality of output generated by ChatGPT, says freelancer Austin. As the founder of a content marketing agency, she says she’s seen an influx of unhappy clients who have received AI-generated copy that is generic and drab. “In the world of AI specifically, there’s a lot of crappy content that’s coming to the surface.”
The proliferated use of AI is beckoning freelancers to upskill themselves by stepping beyond writing to editing or becoming a domain expert. Upwork offers freelancers coaching on how to find jobs and negotiate with clients and an invitation-based program to help them certify their software development and creative design skills. “Upskilling is going to continue to be the name of the game as tech continues to develop,” Lilani says.
“I actually opened up a service called, ‘I will edit and clean up your ChatGPT-generated content.’Alex Fasulo, freelancer on Fiverr
Fiverr, meanwhile, is embracing AI: In January 2023, the platform created a separate vertical dedicated to freelancers offering AI services, such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney artists and freelancers using AI to make music videos or for content editing. Yoav Hornung, head of verticals and innovation at Fiverr, says the company has seen an increase in searches for AI-based services. While there is no AI detection tool embedded into the system to help clients weed out AI-written content, the Israel-based company offers clients an online logo maker and a voiceover tool for artists. As for ChatGPT-written content, the onus to check and verify work currently falls on the sellers and buyers of services.
“We do communicate to our sellers that they must have, you know, the legal rights to use any elements that they use in their work,” Hornung says.
With freelancers in panic of losing their jobs and clients frustrated with AI-written work, ChatGPT has thrust the freelance world into disarray, and companies like UpWork and Fiverr stand to lose a lot. Fewer job postings for freelance workers could potentially mean less revenue for the platforms as well because they take about 10% to 20% cut from freelancers’ earnings, O’Dowd points out.
“If I was them (Upwork or Fiverr), I would be scared shitless right now,” he says.
This story was first published on forbes.com and all figures are in USD.
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