Social motivations for online participation

Listening to the conversation last week at the Lunch for Good event last week, Tom Coates’ mini-rant against explicit incentives for social software participation was running through my head. The overarching question posed to the participants over lunch was about how to increase people’s contributing content to online sites. But that’s fundamentally the wrong orientation.

In a recent Twitter conversation about leaderboards, Tom had the strongest perspective in favor of intrinsic motivation.
Flickr doesn’t need leaderboards to motivate actions, no need for competition. Nor Facebook. Or most blogs.”

Now, the specific topic on the table was a good one – about how to handle identity and reputation in a way that doesn’t *discourage* participation (about which more in a separate post). Reducing barriers to participation is important.

But participation itself isn’t about “contributing content” much of the time. Wanting “users” to generate “content” is the perspective of the site-host that wants to build a repository of content and perhaps generate revenue from site visits. But this is not the perspective of the participants.

Wikipedia itself – one of the grandparents of community content sites – really does build on people’s motivations to building a repository of information. But other types of sites build on a variety of motivations. When people contribute to tech support FAQs, they are adding to a knowledge edifice like Wikipedia; they are also increasing their personal reputation as an expert and investing in karma in the old-fashioned sense, contributing good will to the universe, in a way that may be repaid indirectly. When people are discussing politics on sites like DailyKos and Calitics, they are engaging in advocacy and organizing, not just submitting neutral “content.” Reviews of books, movies, music draw on people’s motivation for self-expression and cultural affiliation. Sharing observations and links on Twitter and Facebook is about social exchange as much as about the content itself.

People participate for self-expression, to make social connections, for social reciprocation, to enhance reputation. It’s not about the content, or it’s only partly about the content.

So enabling participation is about creating an activity that’s engaging in itself (per Tom Coates); removing barriers such as hostile behavior, and fostering the relational, expressive, and/or reputation aspects of the experience.

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