What makes people work for free?

WikipediaWikipedia relies on volunteers all over the world to create an all-encompassing on-line encyclopedia which is free (gratis and libre) for anyone to use and to contribute. Wikipedia does not offer any money or other benefits to contributers, but still many people strive to make the project bigger and better. The question is, why do these people take their (valuable) time to contribute to such a project? An interview with three leading figures in the Wiki-community by Dirk Riehle gives some insight into peoples’ motivations and the way Wikipedia encourages its’ own growth.

Idealism needs Promotion

Apart from idealistic reasons of creating a self-organising resource for everyone to use in their own language, there seems to be a consensus between the contributers that it is also “fun” to work on it, especially with like-minded people. However, the leaders of the Wiki-community know that people are not completely altruistic, so they have several carrots-on-sticks to encourage researchers to contribute, and thus keep the encyclopedia growing. Awards and promotions, with the power and influence that comes along with it, are part of the reward system. However, the Japanese Wikipedia has had to ban people in the past as it was obvious they applied for promotions to acquire power without the aim of improving the worlds’ knowledge. A common phrase heard by people praising the system is that their articles have “become much better than they could have done on their own”.

Volunteerism needs Communities of Interest

Building up a small on-line community around a certain subject is also often a reason for researchers to get involved. Groups often form a debate about a certain theory, object, location, belief or anything else featured in the vast archives of Wikipedia. Looking at the ‘discussion page‘ of the entry about ‘Nano Technology‘, scientists of the highest order are discussing the exact definition of the term ‘Nano Technology’ and which sentences do and don’t make sense within the article. It is incredible to see how passionate people are reacting to religious subjects such as ‘Jesus Christ‘ in their spare time, quoting the bible and discussing various interpretations. These two examples show clearly how many volunteers are keeping an eye on developments within the network, for no reward but a few congratulations and the collective good.

According to the staff, Wikipedia thrives upon the friendly community of researchers it has created, who are ready to aide newcomers fit in to help keep the dream alive. The karma-style philosophy is easy: If you show goodwill, you will assume goodwill. With a few pats on the shoulder such as the ‘Exzellenter Artikel’ in German Wikipedia, people seem to be encouraged enough to create an free, open, worldwide and wonderful encyclopedia.

Further Reading:

For a detailed survey of Wikipedia contributers read the article by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman.

For a comparison between a metaphorical Cathedral (Encyclopaedia Britannica) and a Bazaar (Wikipedia) read the article on Openbusiness by Eric T. Raymond.

3 Responses to “What makes people work for free?”

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  1. [...] A post today on the Open Business Blog raises a critical question for all association leaders: what makes people work for free? The post, which takes Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven model as its subject, focuses in on a few factors that motivate contributors to invest their valuable time and attention into an uncompensated role. These factors include: [...]

  2. [...] Der Open Business Blog hat in seinem aktuellen Artikel “What makes people work for free?” zwei Erfolgsfaktoren für die freiwillige Arbeit ausgemacht: [...]

  3. Ben Zevenbergen says:

    There have been some interesting thoughts about ‘What makes people work for free?’ since it was published on openbusiness.cc. The idea of ‘micro-innovation’, the act of making very small contributions to a much larger. much broader innovation sprung op at principledinnovation.com. A reply to this idea was the idea of ‘micro-volunteerism’ i.e. you can put a touch on something and never spend time on it again. It would be interesting to see more organisations working on models of stimulating people to contribute with as much ease as possible, especially in times with low incentive to volunteer as identified by principledinnovation.com.

    German website best-practice-business.de have also taken an interest and shown another example of encouraging people to work for ‘free’. A german company, nachtausgabe.de, which reviews and comments upon German nightlife had set up a scheme where young gents got free VIP tickets to certain clubs, and in return they wrote a review. I’m not sure this is entirely free, but it does show people willing to do work in exchange for something fun and exciting.

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