A recent article titled “What Motivates Wikipedians?” (written by
Oded Nov in Communications of the ACM, November 2007,
Vol. 50, No. 11, pp. 60-64) attracted my eye because I’ve been doing
similar research on why people write computer documentation. Back in
published the results of a survey
that over 350 people filled out. I wanted to see what more rigorous
research would turn up.
Professor Nov, an information systems expert, produced a nice data
point that seems to be methodologically sound, covering eight
different motivations for contributing to Wikipedia. But I thought of
one more (and when I wrote him, he was gracious enough to suggest it
“should be included in a future empirical study of contribution
The article is not available to the general public online, but I can
summarize the motivations Nov tested in his survey:
Altruism and humanitarian concerns
Responding to requests by friends or attempting to engage in an
activity viewed favorably by important others
Chances to learn new things
Preparing for a new career or signaling knowledge to potential
Addressing personal problems, such as guilt at being more fortunate
Ego needs and public exhibition of knowledge
Ideological concerns, such as belief that information should be free
This is a pretty comprehensive list of personal reasons for doing
something that doesn’t offer any immediate personal payback. But
what’s missing from this list? The motivation that means the most to
me personally, and probably to many people who write: they actually
have something to say!
I can see why the motivations in the previous list would be prominent
for a professor adding details about, say, the ancient Battle of
Salamis. It’s hard to imagine how the professor could benefit from
other people having the correct facts.
But there are lots of urgent social issues where someone
feels he or she benefits from other people having the correct facts:
political controversies, public health problems whose cures depend on
widespread compliance, and so on. In my own field, people are writing
computer documentation because they want to promote the software
they’re writing or using. The intrinsic motivations in the list may
add a bit of extra incentive, but the main goal is to get one’s point
of view heard. And the Wikipedia’s fame, along with the high rankings
it receives in web searches, ensures that lots of casual web users
will read its entries. If you care about people hearing your point of
view, you’d better damn well write for Wikipedia.
Wikipedia reflects a new information environment that flattens the
status of information providers. Whether you’re Encyclopedia
Britannica, the New York Times, or O’Reilly Media, you’re competing
with anyone who can fill out a form online or write an email message.
Millions of people who used to gripe over their beer glasses are
taking advantage of the medium to get their voice heard more
widely–and that’s enough motivation for many.