How can we account for the accomplishments of online collaborations? What motivates people to contribute to them? This exploratory study catalogues the features conducive to the success of such collaborations, focusing on the reduced costs of both individual contributions and the social organization of production, as well as the excessively large number of potential contributors attracted to focal collaborations.
Research shows that participants’ motivations for collaboration vary across projects, involving a mixture of self-regarding and other-regarding motivations. I argue that when contributions originate among a heterogeneously and non-heroically motivated following, their vast quantity is conducive to project success despite a high percentage of free-ridership. The key challenge for such collaborations is not how to motivate the reluctant, but rather how to find enough people predisposed towards cooperation, engage them and match their abilities to project needs.
Keywords: Collaboration, collective action, coordination, communication, Internet communication, Web 2.0, motivation, contribution, public goods, free-riding.
Over the past few years, we have been witnessing the unprecedented achievements of numerous instances of Internet-based large-scale collaborations. Examples range from online encyclopedias and dictionaries to open source software, from flash protest and petition drives to Internet-based social movement organizations and canvassing campaigns.
From a classical rational-actor perspective, the success of collaborations relying on small contributions by numerous participants appears puzzling. First, such collaborations are often unable to find an effective solution to the problem of free-ridership, which is in the core of every collective action. Indeed, they are typically characterized by high percentages of free riders and a highly unequal division of labor (see empirical data below). Second, they frequently lack certain features that could prevent collective action failures, such as continuing relations among contributors, expectations of future relationships that cast a “shadow of the future” or embeddedness of contributors in close-knit networks or communities (Hardin, 1995). Collaborations are vulnerable to several challenges involving provision of platforms for producing collaborative goods, attracting potential contributors, reducing the transaction costs of their contributions and organizing production (Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl, 2005).
The chapter is organized as follows: I begin by presenting several modal, Internet-based, collaborative endeavors in broad strokes. I then distinguish their essential features from non essential ones. In the principal part of this chapter, I inquire how use of the Internet as a hub for collaboration addresses the challenges surveyed above and portray a theoretical framework for analyzing the “logic of Internet-based collective action” that can be applied as a framework for subsequent investigations and for orientation of further research questions. Next, I discuss users’ motivations to contribute to such collaborations and conclude by suggesting future research avenues.
Exploring Internet-Based Collaborations: Some “Poster Children”
In recent years the ‘Web 2.0’ phenomenon has been gaining ground, with an explosion of sites and business models that harness users’ contributions for collaborative production of goods in a variety of domains (O’Reilly, 2005). Some of the more familiar and well studied instances –the “poster children” of collaboration, if you will – are now becoming household names. These developments have become so prominent that Time Magazine named Internet users who generate and share content online, or in short “You,” its Person of the Year for 2006. Let us begin exploring Internet-based collaborations by examining several familiar cases.
1. SETI@home: A UC Berkeley-based project for analysis of extensive quantities of radiotelescopic data, representing a particularly renowned and successful peer produced grid computing effort. Chunks of data are sent to volunteers’ personal computers for processing and the results are then returned to the hub and integrated into a database. This form of grid computing does not demand much from contributors other than software downloading and installation, as all other actions are conducted automatically in the background. With hundreds of thousands of individual daily contributions, SETI@home is considered a great success. Benkler (2005) argues that the project generated the infrastructure for the fastest supercomputer in the world. Furthermore, the platform used in this project, BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) is now applied in multiple initiatives that require massive processing power, replicating the original distributed business model for protein folding studies, long-term weather prediction and climate change, disease control and vaccination, pulsar searches and more.
2. Clickworkers: A NASA-based project for identification and mapping of craters on the surface of Mars. As in the @home family of projects, data is broken down into small chunks and then sent to volunteers for processing. In this case, however, volunteers need to perform some simple and straightforward tasks, typically of a few minutes’ duration, manually mapping craters on computerized maps (Benkler 2002). The organizers of this collaborative scientific effort suggest that it aimed at answering two metascientific questions: “Is the public ready, willing and able to help science?” and “Does this new way of powering science analysis produce just as good results as the traditional way?” (NASA Clickworkers Study 2005) They suggest that the answers to both questions are affirmative.
3. Project Gutenberg: Digitization of public domain texts offers an outstanding example of peer production of information-rich goods, entailing non-trivial contributions and some organizational work to integrate them. The addition of each new text to the collection is a collaborative work: Some volunteers scan texts or parts thereof, while others proofread the scanned pages. As of January 2007, Project Gutenberg had processed about 20,000 books. As in other peer-produced projects, the proofread texts are available for everyone to download with no charge. Another ambitious project aiming at popularizing the enlightenment spirit is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, with versions in numerous languages, in which entries are contributed, commented on, discussed, revised and edited collaboratively by volunteers. As of January 2007, Wikipedia included more than 1.5 million articles in English alone.
The same organizing principles apply in the production of various content-based projects such as dictionaries, topical peer-produced databases of photos, video clips, sports, tourist information, municipal guides and more. They are also typical of consumer sites at which people post, for example, the names of commercial establishments offering the best prices on given items, mashup maps that enable people to edit, add content and produce dedicated maps (of local attractions, transportation, places open late and so on), collaborative journalism in which “citizen reporters” contribute and comment on news stories and so on.
The hallmark of Internet-based collaboration is the production of massive and exceptionally complicated information-rich projects. Most famous among them is LINUX, an operating system considered highly reliable that dominates certain software markets. LINUX is a massive-scale project, integrated from numerous contributions of software modules, comments, documentation and bug fixes by a vast number of programmers worldwide. Rough estimations of the number of contributors to the development of LINUX come to several thousands, probably tens of thousands, although far fewer developers contribute the bulk of its code and are much more active than others in discussion forums supporting the project. The LINUX operating system is available for anyone to download, install, modify and redistribute under the terms of the GNU public license. These properties place LINUX and similar projects “at the worst end of the spectrum of public goods” (Weber, 2004, p. 9). Kollock (1999, p. 230) calls it an “impossible public good.”
LINUX production mechanisms constitute an intriguing topic that has been detailed elsewhere (Kuwabara, 2000; Moon and Sproull, 2002; Weber, 2004) and extends far beyond the scope of this study. In the present context, let me emphasize that unlike other peer-produced projects, that comprise mechanical contributions and relatively straightforward organizational functions, the LINUX Project and similar endeavors require contributions that demand some expertise, may be extremely costly and entail highly complex integration.
It is often argued that first and foremost, novel Internet-based organizing capabilities promote organization of the unorganized and disorganized. Still, Internet-based collaborations may be initiated by a myriad of other players such as media outlets, governmental organizations, labor unions, interest groups, political parties and even individual entrepreneurs. Note that the innovative SETI@home and Clickworkers projects have been orchestrated by UC Berkeley and NASA, respectively. The BBC initiated another famous project for climate change modeling. But although the content is contributed to such projects by ‘the many,’ they are often organized by ‘the few.’
Three essential properties are common to all projects described above: (1) Use of the Internet (particularly the Web) as a common platform for coordination and collaboration; (2) Reliance on numerous agents for contributions that vary in nature and scope both within and across projects; (3) Typically enabling participants to offer small-scale contributions. Obviously, many offline endeavors have also been produced using the small contributions of many volunteers, even centuries before development of the Internet, but global convergence on the Internet as a clearinghouse for collaborations enables many more such projects to materialize at dramatically reduced costs.
This study focuses on projects that incorporate the three “essential features” noted above, namely distributed, Internet-based projects integrated from many small contributions. Projects have additional features that, to be Hegelians for a minute, may be labeled “accidental”. Although sometimes conflated in the literature, for analytical purposes, these additional features should be kept distinct from the three “essential” properties.
Involuntary/paid vs. voluntary/unpaid contributions
Contributions to collaborative projects are often voluntary and free. In some instances, however, agents are paid for their contributions, while in others contributions are not even voluntary. For example, certain contributions to open source software are provided by employees of hi-tech firms with a vested interest in such software’s success. Alternatively, some distributed canvassing campaigns involve volunteer contributors, while others offer monetary compensation. The essential point common to paid and voluntary Web-orchestrated canvassing campaigns is the ability to divide the campaign into a large number of individual efforts, whether or not the contributors are financially compensated for their efforts.
Although the compensation issue is immaterial to the explanation of Internet-based collaboration success provided below, the discussion focuses on cases in which contributions are voluntary and free because they are more pervasive and more puzzling.
In many cases, individual decisions about contributions are made independently and privately; there is no authoritative allocation of tasks, nor are tasks assigned using market mechanisms. Instead, organizers post lists and contributors match themselves to tasks and choose where and to what extent they wish to contribute. In other cases, however, projects are organized in a rather centralized fashion, as in Internet-based campaigns or in the crater mapping project, in which organizers select which tasks to assign to contributors.
Open/closed final product
The final products of collaboration are often open and available to all. As no one may be excluded from using them, such products are essentially public goods, although they could be appropriated by a firm or a group (i.e. become club or private goods). For example, an organization could use the Web to solicit donations or to compose a knowledge database using the efforts of contributors while retaining rights to the final product. Alternatively, a governmental organization could ask the public to help develop vaccines or decipher transmissions “@home” (using methods similar to the ones described earlier) yet announce that the final product would be closed and unavailable to the general public, including the contributors. Because of their prevalence and status as public goods, this study focuses on collaborative instances in which the final product is open to all – contributors as well as anyone else.
In some cases, such as Internet-based encyclopedias and other collaboratively-produced databases, contributions are generally information-rich and do not require much legwork by contributors or organizers. In others, however, many or most of the contributions involve actual physical efforts, even if the organization of collective action is Internet-based, as in Web-organized marches and demonstrations, ride-sharing platforms and meetup groups. Although the last instances of collaboration are ostensibly distinct from the others, they share the same distributed organizing principles; the key difference is that they use the Web as an infrastructure for coordinating the minor efforts of numerous contributors that take place mostly offline.
Internet-based collaborations may not only involve much more action “on the ground” than online, but also may not even require inclusive or near-inclusive Internet access by the contributing agents. For instance, the Zapatista Movement in the state of Chiapas in Mexico had been the first in which the Internet played a central role, although Internet connectivity was almost non-existent in the region at the time.
Availability of Community
Many collaborative projects do not rely on managerial hierarchies or markets to organize production, nor even on communal conventions to encourage contributions. The last point is of particular interest, as peer production is sometimes contrasted with governmental and commercially based production but conflated with community-based production.
Community-regulated governance is based on norms of cooperation and trustworthiness towards “insiders,” rewards to followers and sanctions against nonconformists, made possible by dense relationships among members (Hardin, 1995). Although repeated interactions and even strong social pressures are behind certain collaborative projects, they are not to be considered inherent features of all such endeavors. Many projects are based on contributions by individuals who did not know each other previously and have no prospects of a shared future and no supporting community. Even when collaborative projects introduce discussion forums and social networking tools, a sense of community need not emerge. Hence the logic of communal-based governance cannot be applied as a rule of thumb to explain each and every successful Internet-based collaboration (Lev-On, 2007).
The accomplishments of Internet-based collaborations, especially the “difficult cases” characterized by voluntary, unpaid peer contributions, no authoritative task allocation, open access to the final product and no communal or organizational background, appears somewhat puzzling. Given the inherent difficulties of endogenously-organized collaborations and the clear incentive to free-ride, one would expect such projects to be marred by collective action problems. The concerns are that individual rationality and narrow self-interests would lead to mutual free-riding behaviors that in turn impede the success of collaborative projects. Such concerns are backed by empirical evidence of low contribution rates and highly unequal division of labor in many of the collaborative projects studied. For example, scholars report such findings in collaborative software production (Adar and Huberman, 2000; Mockus, Fielding and Herbsleb, 2002; Lerner and Tirole, 2002; Osterloh and Rota, 2004; Weber, 2004); Wikipedia (Voss, 2005); review, recommendation and reputation systems (Dellarocas, 2003), grid computing (Holohan and Garg, 2005), discussion groups (Butler et al., 2002; Wasko and Faraj, 2005; Sproull, Conley and Moon, 2005) and even guitar tab sharing sites (Chesney, 2004). A related and prevalent phenomenon is “lurking,” i.e. passive reading of discussion forums while contributing rarely or not at all (Kollock and Smith, 1996; Preece, Nonnecke and Andrews, 2004; Sproull, Conley and Moon, 2005).
Note that I do not argue that all collaborative online projects succeed despite such difficulties. The many that fail to get off the ground seem to fit the logic of collective action (Olson, 1965). This study seeks to understand the relatively few projects that defy the logic and succeed.
Analyzing Online Collaboration
Considering the above empirical evidence and theoretical concerns, the success of Internet-based collaborations is all the more remarkable and their study highly worthwhile. The following brief analysis of the mechanisms of collaboration is divided into four sections (cf. Bimber, Flanagin and Stohl, 2005), each addressing a distinct challenge facing Internet-based collaborations: (1) Providing platforms for collaboration; (2) Locating and recruiting contributors; (3) Creating an appropriate context for encouraging contributions and (4) Peer governance and regulation mechanisms that may be necessary for organizing the collaborative endeavor. The key components of this analysis are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Challenges to Large-Scale Collaborations
Large-scale convergence on Internet communication protocols and naming conventions generates a common public and global infrastructure for massive interaction and organization, with comparatively limited entry costs and gate-keeping possibilities. Such features enable the Internet to function as an ‘organizational hub’ for collaboration. Convergence on the Internet as a shared communicative space is necessary but insufficient to explain the success of particular projects, however. Moreover, it appears that the costs incurred by efficacious groups of entrepreneurs that establish collaborative platforms significantly decline in several respects, three of which are discussed below, namely the costs of setup, templates (collaboration software) and communication and organization among entrepreneurs:
Collaborative projects, like other informal Internet-based associations, benefit from the relative straightforwardness of establishing online presence. For obvious reasons, including avoidance of costly bureaucratic formalities and red tape (Geser, 2001), the costs of establishing associations that operate mostly online are dramatically lower than those of conventional associations.
Templates may be required for message boards, discursive spaces, mailing lists, search applications, calendars, photo galleries and so on. Organizers of collaborative projects do not have to create such templates from scratch, as they can capitalize on the work of others and use dedicated (and often free) software packages.
Coordination and communication among entrepreneurs
When a group of entrepreneurs uses the Internet to organize collective action, it also benefits from a dramatic reduction in communication and coordination costs, partly because communication is nearly independent of distance and often transcends traditional obstacles, although other factors are involved as well (see below). Consequently, the number of people needed to establish the collaboration infrastructure decreases significantly (Kollock, 1999).
Attracting potential contributors
Availability of clearinghouses for collaboration is not sufficient for immediate attraction of contributors. Entrepreneurs and advertisers realize that even if they build the infrastructure, the target audience will not necessarily come. Like any association, a collaborative project must attract and retain contributors. In the following section, I argue that a number of factors reduce barriers for entrepreneurs soliciting potential contributors to emergent Internet-based collaborations.
Emergence of focal collaborative sites
Given the vast scope of the Internet, it is a key challenge for users to find information of real value to them without being swamped by information overload. Next, I show that a small number of sites emerge as a “self-organizing index” to the huge online space and function as hubs for organizing collaborative projects.
Research shows that skewed distributions, such as power law distributions, are ubiquitous online. Such distributions have the property that a small number of instances are very common, while the overwhelming majority of instances are very rare. This regularity appears to obtain across a variety of cases. For example, Hindman, Tsioutsiouliklis and Johnson (2003) found that power laws characterize the distribution of inbound links to political Websites, having analyzed sites addressing six political themes: Gun control, abortion, capital punishment, Web pages focusing on the U.S. Congress and President, and general political directories. In all cases, they found a power law distribution of inbound links, i.e. a few sites linked from many sites, with the vast majority of sites remaining obscure. This distribution is explained as a consequence of ‘rich get richer’ dynamics, occurring primarily because of preferential attachment of new outbound links to already salient Websites (Huberman, 2001). Such distributions have profound implications for Internet-based organization, as they significantly alleviate the problem of finding one’s way in the massive online labyrinth. A narrow set of relevant focal sites emerges and users with similar tastes, economic interests or hobbies may easily converge onto them. The emergence of focal collaborative sites allows entrepreneurs to focus their attention on a small number of sites for purposes of mobilization and organization and enables potential contributors to locate relevant initiatives easily.
Easy location by interested parties through push technology
Once an organizational hub is located and accessed, users may subscribe to mailing lists or information feeds so that information gets pushed to them, i.e. sent to their E-mail addresses or distributed to them in some other Internet-based or offline fashion. Thus, individually-tailored information about relevant projects may be pushed and received easily and promptly by interested parties who, in turn, remain relatively passive.
Fast information flow
Finally, timely and relevant information received by interested parties may be forwarded to relevant third parties and reach them easily. Using the Internet, it is easier than ever to establish referral or social networks in which members create profiles and link them to those of other members. As people often link to others who share similar interests or concerns, information about emerging collective actions may reach not only people who demonstrate some interest in a particular topic but possibly those in their referral/social networks as well, rendering online information dissemination highly effective.
Next, I highlight two related factors as keys to understanding Internet-based collaboration: The transaction costs of contributions and the gains accruing from the ability to amass large and excessive pools of potential contributors to focal projects.
Reduced transaction costs of contributions
Several authors have commented on the changes in the costs and benefits of contributions to collective action brought about by the Internet, especially with reference to information rich goods (notably Kollock, 1999; Geser, 2001). The main points appear straightforward:
The Internet relaxes traditional obstacles for communication, often rendering it virtually independent of physical, topological, and national boundaries and cost-independent of distance, so that projects may attract contributors from various regions or countries. As a rule of thumb, weather conditions are irrelevant online.
Internet communication does not require face-to-face interaction, co-presence or geographic proximity.
Contributors can send messages simultaneously to a large number of individuals, using pre-compiled mailing lists, for example. The cost of sending a message is often independent of the number of recipients and the marginal cost of sending it to additional recipients is negligible.
Internet communication has both synchronous and asynchronous capabilities. Contributors may become involved, at will, in one-to-many or many-to-many communications.
These features simplify contributing to a cause one considers worthy. Furthermore, in some cases, the organizational or group contexts within which contributions are made further support the decision to contribute, especially to information-rich goods. For example, consider contributions to discussion groups. According to Sproull, Conley and Moon (2005) and Subramani and Peddibhotla (2004):
Assistance is solicited from numerous individuals predisposed to take an interest in the relevant topic. In many cases, people can consult lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and locally-compiled reference materials.
While the need for help is visible, the person on the receiving end may remain invisible, enabling people to seek help without risking public exposure.
At the sending end, contributors may often maintain their anonymity if they desire to do so.
Potential contributors may not be influenced by beneficiaries’ characteristics and are thus kept from acting on their prejudices and refusing to help others, as may happen offline.
People may choose to contribute as much as they wish to whichever aspect of the project they wish and may leave at any time without committing to additional contributions.
While the above presentation is highly abridged due to space considerations, the point is clear nonetheless: Factors such as invisibility of both help-seekers and help-providers and the organizational contexts within which assistance is provided render certain Internet-based environments especially conducive to contribution.
Attracting a large and excessive number of potential contributors to focal collaborations – The power of numbers
A second key factor in understanding contributions to focal projects is the large and excessive number of potential contributors attracted to these projects (Benkler, 2002). Collaborations may grow very large in size, involving very large numbers of individuals who choose to participate in exploring and discussing themes in which they share an interest. Collaborative projects may incorporate large pools of “local experts” (or “professional amateurs”) who function in various capacities. In open source software production for example, they contribute to development of the product, test it, integrate other contributions or generate documentation. The ability to attract a large and excessive number of potential contributors is critical to the success of collaborations in several different contexts:
Some projects (such as grid computing or distributed proofreading) require the cooperation of non-experts with minimal skills. In such cases, a large number of lay persons may indeed generate enough contributions to sustain the project.
Other projects involve more costly contributions by local experts or agents with private information (examples: collaborative journalism, movie databases, trip advisors, product recommendation sites). In such cases, the larger the contributor pool, the greater the possibilities of locating agents with local expertise or private information –not simply recruiting anyone but engaging the right people for the project.
Finally, some complex projects require a division of labor in which contributors are far from being substitutable, as different agents specialize in different aspects of the project (as in peer production of open source software). In such cases, the more contributors, the higher the probabilities of finding experts across various (or all) aspects of the project.
The availability of large and excessive pools of potential contributors enables collaborative projects to succeed despite the often highly skewed distributions of actual contributions and the high free-ridership rates. Such projects typically exhibit an increasing return to scale and the large number of people who take an interest in them – even without actively contributing – engenders a lock-in on the product (Weber, 2004). For example, a collaborative project like Wikipedia benefits from a large readership, even without insisting that readers contribute. Discussion groups gain attention and prominence when numerous lurkers access and read them, even if just a few actually contribute the majority of postings (Sproull, Conley and Moon, 2005).
Mechanisms of peer regulation and governance
What remains to be explored is the organizational mechanisms of such peer-based collaborative projects and the difficulties they address, such as division of labor among contributors, intake and integration of individual contributions and introduction of quality control (Benkler, 2002, 2005).
Although any attempt at mapping the organizational methods of Internet-based collaborative projects would essentially amount to proposing a new theory of organization, which is far outside the scope of the chapter, let me comment on a feature that is common to many Internet-based collaborative projects that engenders efficient organization, namely the enhanced self-regulation and governance capabilities of collaborative institutions that aggregate large amounts of individual selections and generate social choices. Such institutions allow agents to perform tasks collaboratively and seamlessly, such as generating reputations based on the performance of buyers and sellers, providing keywords to describe content (collaborative tagging), editing and rating content, moderating discussions and generating meta-moderation (moderating the moderators) and producing reviews and recommendations of products and services. For example, in collaborative information filtering, agents’ ranking choices have immediate design consequences, as user ranking determines collaborative project portal customization and presentation of opinion pieces, with portals according priority to articles that agents found especially interesting and relevant. In other words, the availability of content is determined by its popularity and people are first exposed to information highly regarded by relevant others.
One last theme that remains to be explored concerns the motivations behind contributions to collaborative projects. Recall that the elements of successful collaboration noted above sidesteps the motivation issue and highlights instead two related factors: the transaction costs of contributions and the gains accrued from the ability to amass large and excessive pools of potential contributors for focal projects. Such factors relax but do not eliminate the free-rider problem at the core of every collective action (as demonstrated by the empirical research cited above). Contributions still take time and effort; many people are waiting for their favorite collaborative project to get off the ground with the help of others, seeking to benefit without actively contributing. Apparently, the issue of motivation remains open for discussion.
In effect, the above analysis is blind to the question of motivations. I do not intend to make any assumptions about motivations or to generalize from the idiosyncratic features of particular projects. I also seek to avoid arguing that all motivations to contribute to collaborative projects are incentive-compatible or even directly or indirectly self-regarding. Such claims do not conform to our intuitions, nor are they confirmed by extensive survey work, that suggests a variety of motivations behind contribution to collaborative projects.
To explore motivations, let us first examine projects approximating the “impossible” (Kollock, 1999, p. 230), in which the costs of individual contributions are not trivial and organization of the final product is demanding, as in many open source software projects. Research has pointed to a wide range of motivations behind contribution to the production of open source software (Kuwabara, 2000; Benkler, 2002; Lakhani and Von Hippel, 2003; Osterloh and Rota, 2004; Weber, 2004, ch. 5). According to the most extensive survey so far, the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) Survey and Study of 2,784 practitioners worldwide, learning and developing novel skills are the key motivations of contributors to peer-produced open source projects (International Institute of Infonomics 2002). Investment in human capital is the primary motivation to begin contributing to open-source projects (78.9%), and to continue contributing thereafter (70.5%). Additional motivations involve sharing knowledge and skills (49.8% and 67.2% respectively), participating in a new form of cooperation (34.5% and 37.2%), improving the open source products of other developers (33.7% and 39.8%), participating in the OS scene (30.6% and 35.5%) and promoting the idea that software should not be proprietary goods (30.1, 37.9). In Lakhani and Wolf’s (2005) survey of 684 open-source developers, 58.7% rated work or non-work need for the software as one of their three top motivations. Other popular motivations were intellectual stimulation (44.9%) and investment in human capital (41.3%). Wu, Gerlach and Young (2007) surveyed 148 participants in three open-source projects and found that developers were primarily motivated by helping other developers, enhancing human capital and the need to modify OS software. Hertel, Niedner and Herrmann (2003) asked 141 contributors to the LINUX kernel about their motivations. Involvement was determined primarily by identification of members as LINUX programmers and users, the need to improve own software, norm-oriented motives related to the reaction of relevant others, “hedonistic” motives such as enjoyment of programming, ideological motivation to support free software and motives related to networking within the LINUX community. Lakhani and Von Hippel (2003) conducted a survey of 89 programmers who provided assistance in the help forum of the Apache OS server program. Frequent providers were motivated mostly by the importance of promoting open source software (5.14 on an ascending scale of 1 to 7), reciprocation of past help received by others (4.85), “because it’s fun” (4.81) and a desire to enhance one’s reputation in the OSS/Apache community (4.71). Hars and Ou (2002) surveyed 79 developers involved in various open source projects and found that key motivations were investment in human capital (88.3%), “self-determination” in dealing with the environment (79.7%) and peer recognition (43%).
Data on motivation to contribute to collaborative projects in other domains reveals a similarly nuanced and highly contextual picture. Wasko and Faraj (2000) surveyed 342 participants in three communities dealing with computer-related issues and received 508 valid comments regarding motivations to participate. Key motivations were obtaining information (14.6%), learning (13.4%) and reciprocation for previously-received assistance (13.4%). In another survey of 173 members of an electronic community of legal professionals (Wasko and Faraj, 2005, p. 53), they found that people contribute knowledge “when they perceive that it enhances their professional reputations, and to some extent because it is enjoyable to help others. They contribute when they are structurally embedded in the network, and when they have experience to share with others.” Butler et al. (2002) surveyed 385 members of various discussion groups conducted through listservers, emphasizing the importance of socially oriented motivations to participate, such as meeting people and making friends, having fun, having others appreciate one’s participation, gaining a sense of accomplishment, becoming known to list members and building relationships with list members.
Schroer and Hertel (2007) studied 106 contributors to the German language Wikipedia and found their principal motivations to be improving the quality of collective work (6.36 on a scale of 1 to 7), grounding freedom of information (6.20), and learning (5.84). In another study of 151 contributors to Wikipedia, Nov (2007) discovered that the top motivations were fun (mean of 6.10 on a scale of 1 to 7), and ideology (5.59). Holohan and Garg (2005) surveyed 323 contributors to distributed computing projects (including SETI@home) and noted that 63.5% cited the project’s scientific contributions as a very important reason for participating. The second most commonly mentioned very important reason was contributing to the statistics / friendly competition (a social game among contributors). Finally, Chesney (2004) found that the top motivations to contribute guitar tabs online were the desire to share them with others (35%), ego boosting (13%), reciprocity (11.5%) and improving guitar playing (11.5%).
This relatively long series of surveys shows that motivations to contribute to collaborative projects online are extremely diverse and probably highly contextual. Individuals may participate for a variety of reasons, such as pure or warm glow altruism, reciprocity, helping a community or even advancing science. Other motivations are more self regarding, including personal gain (employees of private firms who get paid to develop open source products, for example), solving personal problems, reputation, human capital, experimentation and fun, ego boosting and cultivating self-efficacy.
The specifics of collaborative projects vary and exhibit a variety of features. In all likelihood, we should expect considerable variation in the distribution of motivations across collaborative projects, as different peer-produced projects demand different levels of contributor efforts and costs. For example, proofreading scanned pages for Project Gutenberg is not too time-consuming or demanding and contributions to reputation management systems demand checking a few boxes and possibly writing a short textual comment. Writing encyclopedic entries or contributing software modules, by contrast, may require investment of a great deal of time. Taking part in the coordination and integration of a peer-produced project is even more demanding. Other collaborative initiative parameters also vary across projects: Some projects have an ideological orientation, while others do not; different projects demand differential levels of computer literacy and so on. Hence we are unlikely to find similar motivation distributions across a wide range of collaborative projects. As motivations are not a primary driver of the exploratory model above, however, we may consider the model sufficiently generic to apply to a variety of projects irrespective of specific distribution of motivations.
Conclusions and Future Research
The organizational logic of production that uses the Internet as a hub to attract and synthesize many small-scale contributions is applied gradually by many actors and organizations to produce a variety of goods and services. The key advantages of the Internet in such collaborations are the ability to assemble a large number of potential contributors at focal sites and reduce the transaction costs of their contributions dramatically. It appears that the principal challenge for entrepreneurs interested in establishing such collaborations is not the classic problem of motivating the narrowly self-interested, but rather the creation of a sufficiently large pool of agents displaying some initial interest in a project and the construction of an environment conducive to contribution.
We have begun exploring the fascinating world of online collaboration, but there is still much to be discovered. Researchers tend to study single projects, with little to no comparative work available on collaborative efforts. Future studies may not only examine the distribution of motivations within particular projects but also include a comparative dimension, demonstrating how and why motivation distributions vary across different types of projects. It is also interesting to learn how the identity of a project’s organizer influences participants’ motivations by comparing similar projects initiated by different agencies, such as commercial firms, government institutions and civic organizations.
Most studies have focused on projects involving software development and on a few “poster children,” with almost no academic attention to collaborations in areas especially intriguing from a social scientific perspective, such as health care, local community action, environmentalism and crime fighting. Lessons learned from such successful Internet based collaborations may enlighten us about the possibilities of establishing and sustaining participatory democratic governance through the Internet, inform us concerning strategies to encourage contributions and allow us to predict which projects are most feasible and how the wisdom of the many may be channeled towards socially beneficial goals.
Adar, E. & Huberman, B. A. (2000) ‘Free riding on Gnutella’, First Monday, 5(10). Available at: http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue5_10/adar/, accessed June 6, 2007.
Benkler, Y. (2002) ‘Coase's penguin, or Linux and the nature of the firm’, Yale Law Journal, 112, 369-446.
Benkler, Y. (2005) ‘Sharing nicely: On sharable goods and the emergence of sharing as a modality of economic production’, Yale Law Journal, 114, 273-358.
Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. & Stohl, C. (2005) ‘Reconceptualizing collective action in the contemporary media environment’, Communication Theory, 15, 365-388.
Butler, B., Sproull L., Kiesler S. & Kraut R. (2002) ‘Community effort in online groups: Who does the work and why?’ Available at opensource.mit.edu/papers/butler.pdf, accessed June 6, 2007.
Chesney, T. (2004) ‘’Other people benefit. I benefit from their work’: Sharing guitar tabs online’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(1). Available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue1/chesney.html, accessed June 6, 2007.
Dellarocas, C. (2003) ‘The digitization of word-of-mouth: Promise and challenges of online feedback mechanisms’, Management Science, 49, 1407-1424.
Geser, H. (2001) ‘On the functions and consequences of the Internet for social movements and voluntary associations’. Available at http://socio.ch/movpar/t_hgeser3.htm, accessed June 6, 2007.
Hardin, R. (1995) One for All: The Logic of Group Conflict, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hars, A. & Ou, S. (2002) ‘Working for free? Motivations of participating in open source projects’, International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 6, 25-39.
Hertel, G., Niedner, S. & Herrmann, S. (2003) ‘Motivation of software developers in open source projects: An Internet-based survey of contributors to the Linux kernel’, Research Policy, 23, 1159-1177.
Hindman, M., Tsioutsiouliklis, K. & Johnson, J. A. (2003) ‘Googlearchy: How a few heavily-linked sites dominate politics online’. Available at www.princeton.edu/~mhindman/googlearchy--hindman.pdf, accessed June 6, 2007.
Holohan, A. & Garg, A. (2005) ‘Collaboration online: The example of distributed computing’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4). Available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/holohan.html, accessed June 6, 2007.
Huberman, B. A. (2001) The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hunt, F. & Johnson, P. (2002) ‘On the Pareto distribution of Sourceforge projects’. Available at www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/people/fhh10/Sourceforge/Sourceforge%20paper.pdf, accessed June 6, 2007
International Institute of Infonomics (2002) ‘Free/libre and open source software: Survey and study.’ Available at: www.infonomics.nl/FLOSS/report/, accessed June 6, 2007.
Kollock, P. (1999) ‘The economies of online cooperation: Gifts and public goods in cyberspace’, in M.A. Smith & P. Kollock (eds) Communities in Cyberspace, New York: Routledge, 220-239.
Kollock, P. & Smith, M. (1996) ‘Managing the virtual commons: cooperation and conflict in computer communities’, in S. Herring (ed) Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 109 128.
Krishnamurthy, S. (2002) ‘Cave or community? An empirical examination of 100 mature open source projects’. Available at opensource.mit.edu/papers/krishnamurthy.pdf, accessed June 6, 2007
Kuwabara, K. (2000) ‘Linux: A bazaar at the edge of chaos’, First Monday, 5(3). Available at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_3/kuwabara, accessed June 6, 2007.
Lakhani, K. R. & Von Hippel, E. (2003) ‘How open source software works: “Free” user to user assistance’, Research Policy, 32, 923-943.
Lakhani, K. & Wolf, R. (2005) ‘Why hackers do what they do: Understanding motivation and effort in free/open source software projects’, in J. Feller, B. Fitzgerald, S. Hissam & K. Lakhani (eds) Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 3-22.
Lerner, J. & Tirole, J. (2002) ‘Some simple economics of open source’, Journal of Industrial Economics, 50, 197-234.
Lev-On, A. (2007) ‘Why do virtual communities induce collaboration?’ Manuscript submitted for publication.
Lev-On, A. & Hardin, R. (2007) ‘Internet-based collaborations and their political significance’, forthcoming in Journal of Information Technology and Politics.
Mockus, A., Fielding, R. T. & Herbsleb, J. D. (2002) ‘Two case studies of open source software development: Apache and Mozilla’, ACM transactions on software engineering and methodology, 11(3), 309-346.
Moon, J. Y. & Sproull, L. (2002) ‘Essence of distributed work: The case of the Linux kernel’, in P. J. Hinds & S. Kiesler (eds.) Distributed Work, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 381-404.
NASA Clickworkers Study (2005) ‘Mars Clickworkers FAQ’. Available at clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov/faq.html, accessed June 6, 2007.
Nov, O. (2007) ‘What motivates Wikipedians, or how to increase user-generated content contribution’, forthcoming in Communications of the ACM.
Olson, M. (1965) The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
O’Reilly, T. (2005) ‘What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software’. Available at http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html, accessed June 6, 2007.
Osterloh, M. & Rota, S. (2004) ‘Open source software development - Just another case of collective invention?’ Available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=561744, accessed June 6, 2007.
Preece, J., Nonnecke, B. & Andrews, D. (2004) ‘The top 5 reasons for lurking: Improving community experiences for everyone’, Computers in Human Behavior, 20, 201-223.
Schroer, J. & Hertel, G. (2007) ‘Voluntary engagement in an open Web-based encyclopedia: Wikipedians, and why they do it.’ Available at http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/Schroer_Hertel_Wikipedia_Motivation.pdf, accessed June 6, 2007.
Sproull, L., Conley, C. A. & Moon, J. Y. (2005) ‘Prosocial behavior on the net’, in Y. Amichai-Hamburger (ed) The Social Net: The Social Psychology of the Internet, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 139-161.
Subramani, M. R. & Peddibhotla, N. (2004) ‘Determinants of helping behaviors in online groups: A conceptual model’, Paper presented at the Academy of Management Conference, New Orleans.
Voss, J. (2005) ‘Measuring Wikipedia’, Proceedings of the ISSI 2005 Conference.
Wasko, M. M. & Faraj, S. (2000) ‘It is what one does’: Why people participate and help others in electronic communities of practice’, Journal of Strategic Information, 9, 155 173.
Wasko, M. M. & Faraj, S. (2005) ‘Why should I share? Examining knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice’, MIS Quarterly, 29, 1-23.
Weber, S. (2004) The Success of Open Source, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wu, C., Gerlach, J. H. & Young, C. E. (2007) ‘An empirical analysis of open source software developers' motivations and continuance intentions’, Information and Management, 44, 253-262.
The chapter is an abbreviated and revised version of Lev-On and Hardin (2007).
For current data, see www.boincstats.com.
Empirical work on open source software (OSS) production displays skewed distributions not only within but also across projects. Krishnamurthy (2002) has demonstrated that while a few projects attract a lot of attention and contributions, the majority receive very little of either. Hunt and Johnson (2001) show that most open source projects listed in SourceForge, the repository for OSS projects in development, fail to attract sufficient support for implementation. Whether this finding applies to non-OSS projects as well is still to be determined.
For a more comprehensive discussion, see Lev-On and Hardin (2007).