Why do people volunteer to edit Wikipedia?

Wikipedia IconSome economists have long been a bit puzzled at the astounding success of Wikipedia. Standard economic theory wouldn’t predict that such a project would thrive without some form of remuneration for the participants.

There are other projects based on peer production that seem to fit economic theory better. For instance, contributors to open source software who are seeking jobs in the computer industry can list their contributions on their resume. But what, if anything, do people get back when they contribute time to Wikipedia?

Since I regularly encourage skeptics to contribute to Wikipedia, either on their own or through organized projects like Guerrilla Skepticism, the answer to this has interested me. Understanding motivations that work would help us understand how to motivate others.

Recently some researchers at Sciences Po, Harvard Law School, and University of Strasbourg created a series of experiments to get to the heart of this problem. What they found is pretty interesting.

Several Hypotheses

There are of course many possible reasons why people might contribute. Pure altruism is one – contributing to the good of society just for the sake of it. There are various forms of reciprocity that could come into effect as well – if you contribute, I’ll contribute. And social image within a community – bragging rights and so on – is also a possibility.

The researchers attempted to distinguish between these three motivations by having 850 current Wikipedia contributors (people with a registered account on the service) participate in some online games. The games were variations of standard public goods games, and the tactics players could use (such as freeloading on the work of others versus contributing within the game) would indicate their preferences. The researchers also measured how each user managed their own personal user pages on Wikipedia, such as displaying awards they have received there.  The number of times each editor had contributed to the project was also logged.


The study has achieved some preliminary results, which are described in a draft paper (PDF).  They found that motivations varied depending on whether the person was a normal contributor versus an administrator of Wikipedia. For regular contributors they summarized their results as follows:

  • Reciprocity and social image – but not altruism – appear as underlying social preferences that predict the trajectory of Wikipedia users from a non-contributor to an engaged contributor.
  • In this process, reciprocity and social image seem to be substitutes rather than complementary motivational drivers (i.e. each motive is at play, but in different subsets of the population of contributors).
  • A taste for reciprocity does not continue to predict the trajectory of those Wikipedia users who become super-contributor, while a taste for social image does.

They also found that Wikipedia administrators were more motivated by social image than regular contributors.

One of the authors is Jérôme Hergueux, who gave a presentation on the paper at Harvard on December 3, which you can watch online below.

This presentation is CC licensed and available in several other video and audio formats. You can also read about the Wikipedia community’s reaction to the study here.


Because the study suggests reciprocity and social image are motivators for regular contributors, our recruitment efforts for skeptics might be wise to focus on these motivations. Efforts like Guerrilla Skeptics clearly feed the reciprocity motive, by allowing contributors to communicate directly with each other. Such projects should also be sure to reward top contributors, so they can reap social image rewards in their own community and the larger skeptic community as well.  As I’ve suggested before on this blog, perhaps some gamification of the contributions could provide some social image motivation as well.

If you are interested in becoming a Wikipedia editor or in recruiting others, the project earlier this month issued a newly revised version of their guide to new contributors, “Editing Wikipedia”. It gives a great overview of how to get started as an editor.  It is downloadable as a PDF and printed copies can also be requested from the Wikimedia foundation.

3 thoughts on “Why do people volunteer to edit Wikipedia?

  1. Randy

    I scanned the study and the community response, but did not watch the video.

    I am motivated by self-interest. Maybe this is what they mean by reciprocity, but I don’t think so. I don’t think I see myself in the results.

    I draw a distinction between editing Wikipedia (policing content, deleting articles, and generally being annoying) and contributing to Wikipedia (writing new articles, updating existing articles). The two work against each other. Like US government, that might possibly be a good thing. Or not.

    When I contribute, I do not expect to get any recognition, and I prefer that I do not. I simply like things to be correct. If I am using a service, and I see that it is telling me something false, or not telling me all that it could, or is poorly-formatted, or is not marked up, and if I have an opportunity to fix it, then I’ll fix it. I see Wikipedia as an extension of my own workspace. I may need to come back to that article later, and I want it to be as complete and correct and readable as it ought to be. While it can be a social environment, that aspect of it rarely interests me.

  2. Michele Willis-Rosso

    I’m currently reading “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday, who suggests another motive for contributing to Wikipedia. “Wikipedia acts as a certifier of basic information for many people, including reporters. Even a subtle influence over the way that Wikipedia frames an issue – whether criminal charges, a controversial campaign, a lawsuit, or even a critical reception – can have a major impact on the way bloggers write about it. It is the difference between “So-and-so released their second album in 2011” and “So-and-so’s first album was followed by the multiplatinum and critically lauded hit…” You change the descriptors on Wikipedia and reporters and readers change their descriptors down the road.”

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