Why Do People Contribute Stuff for Free?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you want to see two worlds collide, introduce a Wikipedian to a bunch of journalists.

I’ve been doing this quite a bit recently, partly for fun, and partly because I’ve decided a key part of training journalists to be ready for online media is understanding what they’re up against. “This is your competitor,” I say, introducing them to a slightly pudgy PhD candidate in ancient Greek and Latin, still sweating from his journey and a couple of hours of fencing lessons. “This person works for the single biggest media property on the web.”

Needless to say, they all look askance at the man, and me, and I can see them thinking to themselves, “Well that’s something we don’t have to worry about.” Especially when the guy, called Edward, tells them he does all his work for free and largely, he says, because he’s a pedant.

Of course Wikipedia—that online encyclopedia that now boasts 2.5 million articles in English alone—doesn’t pretend to compete with traditional newspapers or media. It’s an encyclopedia, after all, although it’s updated far more frequently than most encyclopedias, and, dare I say it, many traditional media websites.

But it’s the fact that all this is done for free that gets the journalists in my class all riled up. Edward tells them he spends about 20 minutes a day working on pieces, either adding something to a page on an obscure Chinese bridge, or tidying up someone’s grammar on a page about a kind of Southeast Asian bread. Why? they ask? Why would you spend all this time doing all this?

Well, first off, I can tell he spends way more time on it than 20 minutes. In class you can see him get distracted by an article and then start tweaking it. We’re speaking serious compulsive tendencies here. But the truth is, he does it because he enjoys it. He really is a pedant, in the nicest sense. He can’t stand to see things online that aren’t, in his view, correct. Whether it’s a serious error or a more esoteric one (he’s the first person I’ve met who can talk about ligatures until the tripthongs come home.)

Edward may be unusual, but he, and people like him, are the bedrock of sites like Wikipedia. In fact, while Wikipedia is the seventh most popular website on the planet, only 0.2% of visitors contribute anything, and only a tiny fraction of that do most of the grunt work.

This isn’t just true of Wikipedia. The history of the Internet is about the few creating, the rest doing what is usually called lurking—sitting within earshot but not actually saying anything. The ratio is called the 1% rule, meaning 90 percent lurk, 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% account for most of the contribution.

This is probably true offline as well; anybody who’s tried to get volunteers to help out on committees or at events know all about freeloaders. The web just makes this more obvious—that a lot of people tend to freeload, and a handful of people just seem to keep on giving.

But that’s not exactly true. Everyone is motivated somehow, and the Edwards of this world are motivated too. Studies have been done to show how a Wikipedia environment is very much like an academic one: those who do contribute find themselves in a weird sort of social hierarchy. Some recognise their work—there’s a merit system within Wikipedia where contributors are given barnstars by other grateful contributors. Others complain they get no recognition and that the whole thing is political anyway.

Sound familiar?

For most websites like this, I suspect the story is similar. People get involved because they’re interested, and then they find it’s a community, and then they want to be a useful member of that community, and then they seek recognition in that community, and the rest is history. That’s not to denigrate it; a lot of fine work has been done for worse reasons.

The same is true of open source software, of Amazon book reviews, of comments on obscure ornithology websites about the lesser-spotted rabbit catcher. The Internet is a great leveler, in that anyone with an Internet connection can join in, but then human nature kicks in, and hierarchies form. In this case it tends to be around what you know, and how much you hang around and contribute.

But there’s a bigger point here. Just as each online community depends on these power users, so do they depends on ordinary folk like us. Editing a Wikipedia entry is remarkably easy, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get for correcting even the smallest error is a a heady one. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to get addicted.

Indeed, websites make it so easy for us to play a role that in a way the model is changing. We can add our voice while doing nothing more tiring than listening to music on our computer. Software will feed our choices of songs to others who may share our tastes and are looking for new artists to listen to. We can easily add websites to social lists of bookmarks with just a mouse click. Increasingly we do this kind of thing with our friends via social networking sites–partly because it’s fun and partly because we like to be useful.

And maybe, in the end, that’s all it comes down to. My Dad used to walk around the village picking up bits of litter—some of them so small my toy microscope wouldn’t have spotted them—just because he wanted to be useful. I suspect Edward, and all those other Wikipedians out there, are doing something similar. Which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling about the future of the Internet. Of course, a couple of barn stars wouldn’t go amiss either.

Strangled by the Grassroots

 Steve Outing writes a bittersweet eulogy to his failed startup, the Enthusiast Group, which tried to build a business around grassroots media. His conclusion: with the exception of one or two sites that make it big (YouTube, Flickr) user generated content is not strong enough to stand on its own.

In my view — and based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project — user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it’s powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted.

It’s an important lesson to learn. Steve found that while quite a bit of content came in, it was of such varied quality that it just didn’t hold users’ attention. YouTube and Flickr made it big, and so while there’s tons of rubbish on both, there’s still enough to engage and entertain users. The fact that both make it easy to find the best stuff (usually because it’s the stuff a lot of people are looking at) helps.

What Steve found is that on smaller sites, however good your good stuff is, if you’ve got bad or mediocre stuff for most of your content, you’ve got a mediocre publication. Unless it’s highly targeted, hyperlocal content it just won’t hold the reader’s/viewer’s interest.

Of course, the bigger lesson here is that quality matters. Which means good writing/photography/video/reporting/editing still matters. Which means that despite all our fears, journalists still matter. What we’ve yet to do is find out how best to merge citizen journalism with professional journalism. Or, as Steve concludes:

I depart my latest venture nevertheless convinced that grassroots or user content is immensely powerful. We just have to figure out how best to leverage it.

An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media

Enthusiast Group enters deadpool reflectively

The Unsocial Web

A piece by Donna Bogatin on why many more people read web sites liked digg.com rather than contribute to it has in itself spawned enough responses to become something of a summary of why the social web, citizen journalism, user-created content etc may not be quite the revolution it appears. Here’s how I see the responses:

  • I just want to watch. The more stuff is out there, ironically enough the less incentive there is to contribute. There’s probably a graph for this somewhere. People will contribute if they think their contribution is worth it. That means a) other people like it, b) it doesn’t take up too much time c) the stuff isn’t there already, or likely to be and d) that contributing to a site comes after browsing a site. (see Not On My Own Time, Thanks, below.) The logical conclusion of this is that while contributions may rise exponentially, gradually the number of contributors dwindles until a hardcore of contributors remains (see The Weirdo Factor below).
  • The Weirdo Factor. We newspaper journos have known this for a while. The kind of people who contribute, or contribute most, don’t represent a good cross section of ordinary readers/users. Readers’ letters are always great to receive, and they may contain useful and interesting stuff, but they tend to come from the same people, or group or kind of people. And that means an editor would be a fool to treat his mailbag as a cross section of his readership. Same is basically true of the Net.
  • Not On My Own Time, Thanks. Digesting Time isn’t the same as Creating Time. Most people probably browse sites like YouTube.com and Flickr.com at work. This means that the more content there is on these sites at work, a) the less productive workers will be, and b) the less likely they’ll actually upload their stuff — since that will probably have to be done at home, in a separate session. If you’ve already spent a couple of hours on YouTube.com at work, why would you spend more time on it at home?
  • People Don’t Like Hanging Out With Weirdoes Taking the above a step further, many users are going to be discouraged by the general tenor of discussions at places like Digg. Flaming and generally being rude may seem like a life to some people, but most people don’t like it very much, and are not going to expose themselves to ridicule by posting to such sites. (They are also not going to want to expose themself to being ignored: what happens if you Digg something and nobody comes?)
  • Freedloading off a freeloader Then there’s the reality that the social web is largely a Commenting Web, not a Creating Web. Not all of it, of course: Flickr.com is a very creative place. But photos are always of things, requiring only that someone have a camera and be there, and take a good picture. Writing is different. Writing is not just about commenting on what other people are writing. (Well, OK, this post is.) Writing is also about reporting  – about actually going out and finding information, digesting it, writing it up and then distributing it. Blogs, the foundation of Web 2.0, were built on the idea of commentary. But commentary always has to follow content, since without it there can be nothing to comment on. We shouldn’t confuse sites like Digg.com as content sites, since they simply aggregate links and comment. In the end, this freeloading element will have to be added to by something more substantial for it to grow. Netscape’s new site understands this, although I’m not convinced making a couple of calls to add to a wire story constitutes news gathering (but then again, a lot of journalists have done that for years, so who am I to quibble?)

The bottom line may be, just may be, that after huge bursts of participatory interest, that may even last a few years, the kinds of people who keep Slashdot going are going to be the people who keep Digg.com and every other user-driven, Web 2.0 site going. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I love Slashdot, and there are some extraordinarily intelligent people on there (as well as some who could spend some time in the open air) — but it’s not a group that’s, er, broadly representative of the citizenry at large. They’re hugely dedicated, very focused, very knowledgeable about their sphere and have opinions coming out of their ears. A bit like folk who wrote letters to newspapers, come to think of it.