Why Do People Contribute Stuff for Free?

By | August 12, 2008

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.