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Motivations for contributing to online communities

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There are several motivations for contributing to online communities. Such media (i.e. Wikis, Blogs, Chat rooms, Internet forums, Electronic mailing lists) are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture. They also involve significant time from contributors with no monetary gain. Some key examples are the following:

  • Usenet: Established in 1980, as a "distributed Internet discussion system," it became the initial Internet community. Volunteer moderators and votetakers contribute to the community.
  • The WELL: A pioneering online community established in 1985. The WELL's culture has been the subject of several books and articles. Many users voluntarily contribute to community building and maintenance (e.g., as conference hosts).
  • AOL: The largest of the online service providers, with chat rooms voluntarily moderated by community leaders.
  • Slashdot: A popular technology-related forum, with articles and readers comments. Slashdot subculture has become well-known in Internet circles. Users accumulate a "karma score" and volunteer moderators are selected from those with high scores.
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia is now the largest encyclopedia in the world. Its editors, who voluntarily publish and revise articles, have formed an intricate and multi-faceted community.

These are examples of successful online knowledge sharing infrastructures. What motivates this incredible contribution and how did these and other online knowledge-sharing infrastructures encourage this voluntary contribution?

Motivations for Contribution Edit

Peter Kollock (1999) researched motivations for contributing to online communities. In "The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace", he outlines three motivations (Kollock:227) that do not rely on altruistic behavior on the part of the contributor:

  • Anticipated Reciprocity
  • Increased Reputation
  • Sense of efficacy

There is another motivation, implicit in the above, which Mark Smith mentions in his 1992 thesis: Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons:

In the following section we will examine each of these motivations and describe how they have played out in online communities.

Anticipated ReciprocityEdit

A person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses faster to questions than unknown participants (Kollock 178).

Increased ReputationEdit

Reputation is important to online contributors such that, in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions. Kollock outlines the importance of reputation online: “Rheingold (1993) in his discussion of the WELL (an early online community) lists the desire for prestige as one of the key motivations of individuals’ contributions to the group. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person’s contributions. … the powerful effects of seemingly trivial markers of recognition (e.g. being designated as an “official helper”) has been commented on in a number of online communities…”

One of the key ingredients of encouraging a reputation is to allow contributors to be known or not to be anonymous. The following example, from Meyers (1989) study of the computer underground illustrates the power of reputation. When involved in illegal activities, computer hackers must protect their personal identities with pseudonyms. If hackers use the same nicknames repeatedly, this can help the authorities to trace them. Nevertheless, hackers are reluctant to change their pseudonyms regularly because the status associated with a particular nickname would be lost.

Profiles and reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. is a case in point, as all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are measured by the community, their reputation increases. encourages elaborate profiles for members where they can share all kinds of information about themselves including what music they like, their heroes, etc. In addition to this, many communities give incentives for contributing. For example, many forums award you points for posting. Members can spend these points in a virtual store. eBay is an example of an online community where reputation is very important because it is used to measure the trustworthiness of someone you potentially will do business with. With eBay, you have the opportunity to rate your experience with someone and they, likewise, can rate you. This has an effect on the reputation score.

Sense of EfficacyEdit

Individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and high quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person.

Wikipedia is a prime example of an online community that gives contributors a sense of efficacy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which uses online software to enable anyone to create new articles and change any article in the encyclopedia. The changes you make are immediate, obvious, and available to the world.

Sense of CommunityEdit

People, in general, are fairly social beings and it is motivating to many people to be responded to directly for their contributions. Most online communities enable this by allowing people to reply back to contributions (i.e. many Blogs allow comments from readers, you can reply back to forum posts, etc). Again, using, other users can rate whether your product review was helpful or not. Granted, there is some overlap between increasing reputation and gaining a sense of community, however, it seems safe to say that there is some overlapping areas between all four motivators.

Online Community DesignEdit

Given these findings as a base, below are some guidelines that can be of use when trying to design an online community or foster a better knowledge sharing environment in your organization:

Design Guideline Contributor Motivation(s)
Trust the member’s input. Make it easy to contribute to your knowledge base and make it accessible to others.Sense of Efficacy
Enable your knowledge base to evolve as processes and concepts change.Sense of Efficacy
Allow the member to be known and get credit by measuring their contributions.Build Reputation, Anticipated Reciprocity, Sense of Community
Allow other members in the community to measure and respond to contributions.Sense of Community, Build Reputations

Online Community Virtuous CycleEdit

Most online communities grow slowly at first due, in part, to the fact that many of the motivations for contributing are proportional to the size of the community. For example, what is the point of posting to a forum if you do not think anyone will read it? Because of this reason and the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, you can expect slow progress at first. On the flip side, as more people begin to participate, the before mentioned motivations will increase creating a virtuous cycle where the more participation begets more participation. Many online community members describe their participation as "addictive".


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