Beware Geeks Bearing Gifts

What motivates people to contribute to open source projects?

Posted Mar 04, 2008

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.

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.

Better punchlines will be accepted in the comments.