Motivations of Contributors to Wikipedia

August 11, 2008

The Motivations of Contributors to Wikipedia by Stacey Kuznetsov takes a sociological approach to explain which incentives drive people to contribute to the World’s largest collaboration project.

The empirical research she conducted illustrated:

  • 48.89% of respondents indicated that the main reason they are willing to contribute to Wikipedia is to “educate humanity/raise awareness”
  • 17.78% “feel like I’m making a difference”
  • 15.56% “to give back to the Wikipedia community”
  • Remaining participants selected selfish reasons such as the desire to “establish a credible online reputation for myself” or to “brag to my friends”.

Thus, Stacey draws the next conclusion:

“This data indicates that respondents are willing to contribute to Wikipedia because they want to share information, as well as to reciprocate to the Wikipedia community and acquire a sense of satisfaction from contributing”.

She also explains the values that underlie these motivations:

  • Altruism
  • Reciprocity
  • Reputation
  • Autonomy
  • Community

Stacey points that willingness to contribute to Wikipedia correlates with respondents’ frequency of Wikipedia use. Less than 15% of respondents who rarely used Wikipedia (once or twice in their lives) indicated that they were willing to add information to an existing article or create new articles. However, as many as 50% of the weekly and daily users indicated that they were willing to add information and create articles.

As for me, this survey represents the behavior of the specific narrow group of respondents and cannot be considered as a general rule for all the audiences. According to Clay Shirky there is a huge imbalance of contributions-per-user to Wikipedia (Here comes everybody, p. 124-125). He claims that fewer than 2 percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute. The same power law distribution applied to modern economics by Chris Anderson works over here…

Looks like there is a contradiction between the article and Shirky’s book, especially at a first glance. However, most likely, there is just a huge distinction between the number of users claiming their willingness to contribute and the number of users doing the actual editing and creating articles.

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7 Responses to “Motivations of Contributors to Wikipedia”

  1. rossophonic Says:

    I think that Kuznetsov and Shirky could both be right. Kuznetsov is looking at the reasons people contribute. Shirky is looking at what percentage of users contribute. Kuznetsov examines Shirky’s little 2% piece of the pie.
    I spent twelve years working community listener sponsored radio. I was one of handful of paid staff members. All of the dj’s and radio hosts were volunteers. They devoted hours to preparing music, researching, reporting, interviewing and producing. Of the 150 or so regular volunteers, about one in five had worked in community radio for more than two years.
    If I asked why they wanted to donate their time, they would give all the reasons Kuznetsov mentions. They could raise awareness of bluegrass music or inform the community about business and government. They got an ego boost when someone told them “hey, I heard you on the radio”. They felt the mission of community volunteer radio was vital in a medium dominated by commercial radio.
    But one motivation I rarely heard out loud, and I don’t see in Kuznetsov’s data, is the desire to be heard. I think there is a basic human need to communicate and be listened to. That motivation was once altruistic (they worked hard for no money) but also egotistical (what I have to say or play is so important everyone should hear it).
    I would like to see research on how many people participate to Wikipedia to be read. Unlike radio though, how many Wikipedians relish the contact with others, either in collaborating with others or in battle for supremacy in contentious articles.

  2. ivsyd Says:

    I think the reason why Kuznetsov doesn’t mention the desire to be heard among the motivations to contribute is the nature of Wikipedia itself. The approach it takes is just too impersonal, – you can’t put your name under the article you wrote and you have to comply with general guidelines (summary style, formal tone, written from a third person perspective, etc). The fact which makes a real difference is that people can hear you, but they don’t know it’s you speaking. I think that doesn’t go well along with the egoistical motivations. Wikipedia just isn’t a right tool for it.

  3. Rubi Romero Says:

    I agree with you about this study being only a representation of the participants of the survey and cannot be considered as a general rule. However, I wonder if we did this same research in different universities from different parts of the world if we will obtain the same or similar results?
    I have never contributed to Wikipedia, because I don’t know how. But I will do it just to gain new skills, just as the 67.2% of the respondents who stated they will do it to “learn and develop new skills” in the empirical investigation of the FLOSS study. Some other reasons why I would like to contribute are: to help others (altruism), as a way to thanks to those who had already contributed to Wikipedia (reciprocity) and for the sense of community.
    In regards to Clay Shirky’s claim about fewer than 2% of Wikipedia users ever contribute, I agree with you about the power law distribution. We all apply this power law distribution to many aspects of our lives, for example, 80% of the time we only use 20% of the vocabulary.
    I also agree with you about the difference about the users who claim their willingness to contribute and the number of users who are actually editing and creating articles. Many will say they are willing to do contribute to Wikipidia, just as I stated before about willing to do it to gain new skills, but that doesn’t mean that I will actually do it!
    On another note: I would like to learn more about these Wikipedians, like who are they? What about the motivations behind vandalism in Wikipedia? And why many professors won’t let their students use Wikipedia as source? But I guess that is another research…

  4. Sidnee Says:

    Wikipedia is a resource I use almost daily and depend on, but other than editing sections connected with my (real) work, I’ve never contributed.
    I think it’s interesting that so many people in Stacy Kuznetsov’s study indicated their willingness to contribute to Wikipedia when such a miniscule percentage of users actually do. There is probably more of what I’m guilty of—using Wikipedia’s services without giving back due to pure laziness—than Kuznetsov’s analysis reveals.
    Wikipedia ‘s success—especially as a knowledge and community-building enterprise—is used to describe the charms of the Internet by just about every one of the authors we have read in the MCDM program. That said, I found Kuznetsov’s analysis to be less an analysis of Wikipedia contributors than an affirmation of the beauties of Wikipedia: “Such unprecedented success undoubtedly stems from the commitment and enthusiasm of Wikipedians –“ I notice she chose not to include harmful motivations: “focusing only on contributions made in a constructive manner,,, edits that add to the integrity of Wikipedia…” Obviously she’s a fan. As a researcher, her biases get in the way of neutral analysis.
    Of her five motivations: Altruism, Reciprocity, Community, Reputation, and Autonomy, what resonated most for me is her conclusion that many people contribute to Wikipedia, and other endeavors like SETI@home, FLOSS, and Free/Libre, out of a desire for community. I’m not sure I agree that Wikipedia, “effectively creat(es) a near-utopian society in which individuals voluntarily collaborate and learn together,” even though it’s a fair bet that Benkler would.

  5. ivsyd Says:

    Rubi,
    her is my small input on why many professors won’t let their students use Wikipedia as source.

    I personally use Wikipedia a lot in a research. Yes, you can’t completely rely on information over there, because you never know who wrote it, a professor or a 12-year-old kid. That’s why you have to be cautious in using it. That’s the reason why professors don’t want their students to reference Wikipedia.

    However, you can always check the sources. Even more, when I study a certain subject, I search for the prefiltered sources in Wikipedia.

  6. kegill Says:

    Ivan – this is the key for me:

    Less than 15% of respondents who rarely used Wikipedia (once or twice in their lives) indicated that they were willing to add information to an existing article or create new articles. However, as many as 50% of the weekly and daily users indicated that they were willing to add information and create articles.

    The ‘drive-bys’ are not engaged — with no sense of value or connectedness, it’s no wonder they are unwilling to “play.”


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