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Study Explores Motivations for Contributions to Public Goods

By Steven H. Tenzer, Contributing Writer

An unpublished study conducted by Berkman Center fellow Jerome Hergueux suggests that reciprocity and social image are the most significant social motivations for new volunteers who contribute to public goods, such as Wikipedia.

Hergueux presented his findings of a study that explored why people voluntarily contribute to public goods during Tuesday’s installment of the Berkman Luncheon series. According to Hergueux, his study is the first comprehensive test that applies a variety of theories on the topic to real life examples.

During the course of his research, Hergueux took particular interest in Wikipedia, which stands as a paradigm of the “collaborative model,” wherein production is mainly based on voluntary contributions. The model stands in contrast to “incentivized firm production,” wherein people are compensated for their work.

Hergueux said that he believes there are “social preferences that can push people to contribute to those public goods.” In his study, he examined social motivations such as altruism, reciprocity, and social image in determining why and how much volunteers contribute to public goods.

The study coupled experiments and observational data. Hergueux recruited Wikipedia contributors to participate in various experiments that tested social preferences. He then studied the relationship between volunteers’ social motivations and their number of contributions.

Wikipedia contributors were divided into three categoriesnew users, engaged users, and administrators. Hergueux found that altruism played an insignificant role in predicting contribution level for all types of contributors.

While Hergueux said that reciprocity and social image “appear as the underlying social motives” in the transition from a new to engaged contributor, reciprocity did not help explain the continuing contributions from those already engaged in Wikipedia.

The category of administrators referred to users who police Wikipedia pages and remove disruptive users. Hergueux said that social image did help predict administrator activity, but that administrators were less likely to have a preference for reciprocity. The study found that the less trust administrators had for strangers, the more likely they were to actively police pages.

Attendee Doug O’Flaherty, a product manager at Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, said that the study “reveals real underlying social motivation…from a depth of understanding that is not possible” other than from statistical analysis.

Hergueux noted that the study is still in progress and more data needs to be collected. After the event, O’Flaherty commented that the study will be useful for businesses looking to use the collaborative model.

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