What Motivates Online Social Participation?

Can the motivations that drive individual behavior towards online collaborative production be explained entirely by enlightened self-interest? More generally, in this new culture around collaboration and online participation, what motivates people to share? This was (essentially) the question posed by a research associate of Yochai Benkler at Clay Shirky's talk at Harvard last week. Enlightened self-interest can be defined as individual motivations that are neither purely selfish nor altruistic, but are ultimately based in the knowledge that helping the group might ultimately help oneself. This is exemplified in the shopkeeper who is only generous to customers so that they might ultimately profit in the long run through future business. Can this alone explain why people cooperate online? Shirky's response to this question was, essentially, "no". He evoked the outcome of the ultimatum game as an argument that individuals do sometimes behave outside pure economic self-interest. The predictable outcome of the ultimatum game is that all humans will behave irrationally (i.e. not in a purely self-interested fashion) in order to punish society's cheaters (defectors). Within an online participation environment, this would translate as an individual's willingness to, say, expend unrewarded effort policing a discussion group for trolls and spammers. However, it turns out that monkeys are also inclined to punish defectors. So can this highly-specific, seemingly-autonomic response be considered as evidence against pure self-interest? Others have also argued that choosing to not defect can be explained economically as the cumulative value of reputation. The enlightened self-interest question being asked in such a public forum is particularly interesting because it signals two things:

  1. Recognition of the importance of individual motivations in considering participatory systems, how to build them, and what they mean for the future. Determining how to effectively inspire people to create has (finally) become an important and popular area of study.
  2. Progression of thought beyond simple, categorical explanations of individual motivation towards an increasingly rich understanding of social and cognitive factors as seen in emerging fields such as behavioral economics.

So the argument wages on... Why do individuals choose to collaborate so aggressively, yet are also highly particular in how, when, and why? What are the factors that drive effective social participation and are there predictable patterns in human behavior that we can use to help facilitate collaboration?