Why Do We Contribute to Online Communities? [Anticipated Reciprocity]

Why is it that few communities are so active, while many aren’t?

Online communities are difficult to build. Everybody wants one, but very few succeed in creating one. Instead of asking what’s the trick (of a successful community), lets ask a very fundamental question – why do people contribute to online communities? What drives them?

Researcher Peter Kollock has published a paper titled ‘Economics of Online Cooperation’ citing several interesting reasons behind community discussions:

Anticipated Reciprocity

One possibility is that a person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return; that is, the motivation is an anticipated reciprocity. This kind of network-wide accounting system creates a kind of credit, in that one can draw upon the contributions of others without needing to immediately reciprocate.

If each person shares freely, the groups as a whole is better off, having access to information and advice that no single person might match. A loose accounting system can also serve as a kind of insurance, in that one can draw from the resources of the group when in need, without need to immediately repay each person.

Members may eventually shun those who never give or conversely make an effort to help those who have contributed in the past (helping the “good citizens” of the group).online_communities


High quality information, impressive technical details in one’s answers, a willingness to help others, and elegant writing can all work to increase one’s prestige in the community. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person’s contributions. The inherent nature of online interaction already means that helpful acts are more likely to be seen by the group as a whole.

Sense of Efficacy

That is, a sense that he/she has some effect on this environment. Making regular and high-quality contribution to the group can help a person believe she has an impact on the group and support her own self-image as an efficacious person.

If a sense of efficacy is what is motivating someone, then contributions are likely to be increased to the extent that people can observe changes in the community attributable to their actions. It may also be the case that as the size of the group increases, one will be more motivated to contribute because the increasing size provides a larger audience and a potentially greater impact for one’s actions.

Recommended Read: Understanding User Needs – The Fundamental Motivation Theory


One may produce and contribute a public good for the simple reason that a person or the groups as a whole has a need for it. If someone’s or some group’s needs are what motivates an individual, then their contributions will likely be increased to the extent that the needs of the group are clearly known and communicated.

The key behind building (online) communities is to understand the latent need (of users) and convert them to tangible goods [point system/badges etc]. It ain’t easy and even though you have created an active community, the most challenging part is to keep the top users engaged (even Wikipedia has been facing issues of editor exodus).

What’s your take? Which online communities are you part of? If you have built a successful community, what has worked for you? Why do YOU participate in any discussion forum?

[Image credit:jeffmcneill]

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