The science of psych

Beware Geeks Bearing Gifts

What motivates people to contribute to open source projects?

Open source projects are like high-tech barn-raising. There's been some recent and salacious speculation on the motivations of Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, but what motivates us mortals to contribute to open source enterprises? And do people who write code for software projects like Firefox have different drives than people who contribute content to projects like Wikipedia?

A paper to be published in Computers and Human Behavior (and covered in the March/April issue of Psychology Today) explores what moves the open source movement. The paper describes three types of incentives for contributions. First, there's street cred: People want to garner approval from their peers and build their reputation. Second, there's self-actualization: Working on these projects is enjoyable in and of itself, and it also provides the opportunities to practice your skills, collect feedback, and grow as a geek. Third, there's pure altruism: Let's save the world, one squashed bug or "[citation needed]" at a time.

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The researchers collected questionnaires from 185 code monkeys found on (unsurprisingly 97.8% male) and 110 wikiwonks found on Wikipedia. The sourcerers rated personal development as a stronger motive than the Wikipedians did, possibly because they receive more direct feedback on their work from their peers. They also rated reputation more highly, perhaps because open source software is more closely aligned with their professional lives (it's lots of IT guys) than writing content is for the Wikipedia contributors. The content developers, on the other hand, are more driven by altruism than the software developers. For the most part, they're sharing things they already know, and they have little to gain personally by performing a brain dump onto the wiki page for theatrical jousting.

In both groups, reputation was reported as the weakest motivator, but the researchers suggest it's possible that people didn't want to admit its true value. That is the case, at least, with Blake Yardley, the Area Man Honored To Be One Who Added Death Date To Heath Ledger's Wikipedia Page, who insists, "I just want to continue doing what I do, far from the national spotlight."

Motivations for lending a hand lined up predictably with personal values. People who highly value achievement are more motivated by reputation-building, those who value benevolence (concern for the welfare of those close to them) and universalism (concern for the welfare of everyone) are more strongly driven to contribute by altruism, and those who highly value self-direction (independence and creativity) consider self-development a big incentive for chipping in.

The researchers argue that understanding the carrots people seek in collective projects can help managers figure out how best to recruit and retain contributors. Project coordinators should also note that the appropriate rewards for an actual barn raising are, well, actual carrots.

Better punchlines will be accepted in the comments.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.


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