"Why do people spend their time on it for free?", I am asked by senior executives I'm briefing about social media from time to time, about Wikipedia / blogs / social networks / etc.
They usually are wearing curious and befuddled or worriedly cynical expressions when they ask these questions. And they genuinely want to know: why would people create content, edit content, fact-check and take part in open source projects of any description for free?
The simplest way to explain it is to talk about different motivations for doing anything in a social setting - social rewards, like the pleasure of interaction, learning, recognition among your peers for your skills, knowledge and efforts. If they are still looking scared, I tell them how these activities can support your paid-work, your career or business, by boosting your reputation, attracting clients, building your knowledge and contacts that can help your work. That usually does the trick.
Naturally the whole answer is a lot more complicated than that. Very clever people are spending a lot of time working out why people effectively give away their labour and their time for "non-monetary rewards". One of my favourite very clever people is Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Yale who has written a book called The Wealth of Networks (free to download).
Following a post by professional Devil's advocate (a job he does extremely well - that's not an insult in my book) Nick Carr about how big social media projects like Wikipedia were adopting traditional bureaucracies Mr Benkler left an extensive comment on Mr Carr's blog and accepted a wager with him about the state such projects would be in two years' time.
I really liked this section of Mr Benkler's comment:
There is an abiding skepticism, born of many years in the industrial age, about the sustainability and plausibility of nonmarket-based cooperation and productive collaboration. We have now, on the other hand, almost two decades of literature in experimental economics, game theory, anthropology, political science field studies, that shows that cooperation in fact does happen much more often than the standard economics textbooks predict, and that under certain structural conditions non-price-based production is extraordinarily robust.he same literature also suggests that there is crowding-out, or displacement, between monetary and non-monetary motivations as well as between different institutional sytems: social, as opposed to market, as opposed to state. It just is not so easy to assume that because people behave productively in one framework (the social process of peer production that is Wikipedia, free and open source software, or Digg), that you can take the same exact behavior, with the same exact set of people, and harness them to your goals by attaching a price to what previously they were doing in a social process.
Non-monetary rewards are interesting - they begin to infect your thinking on marketing too. But more about that another time. Well, a little about it right now. If you think of being an effective brand or media owner in a network, not all of your efforts are going to directly result in monetary reward - in sales for instance. You are going to be rewarded in other ways - attention, respect, linkage - that will support your business, your organisation, your brand, but not necessarily on the bottom line, not necessarily on the bottom line for that quarter. That's going to be a problem for some people - for some organisations (publishing, for instance, which needs the networks just to survive) it already is.
: : : If you have some favourite very clever people on this subject please let me know. I'm reading a Whole New Mind and The Long Tail at the moment but keen to add some more tomes to the reading list for August.