The win-win of crowdsourcing

The motivations of participants in crowdsourcing projects has been something I’ve touched on numerous times on this blog down the years.

Traditionally, it was regarded to be for one of fame; money; the challenge; or doing something worthwhile.  That’s fine, and it covers most of the bases pretty well, but as the concept has grown in popularity, so too have attempts to understand it.

Why we participate

Lets look at a few in turn.  First up we had a paper from Georgia Tech whereby researchers delved into the Zooniverse world.

They found, perhaps not surprisingly, that intrinsic factors were key, which  included “enjoyment of solving challenging problems, from curiosity about the object or task, or from anticipated feelings of competence once a problem has been solved.”

A paper from Carnegie Mellon researchers looked at the role of extrinsic factors. They found that whilst a cash incentive, in this case a $1,000 prize, resulted in a doubling of overall effort levels, it had no impact at all on levels of collaboration.

A third study, led by Karim Lakhani, looked at the role data release played in motivation of participants.  It found that when regular information about the status of the project was disclosed, it resulted in less participation, but the quality tended to improve as greater recombination occurred.

A fourth study, from researchers from Duke and LSE, looked at the motivation behind the core participants in an open source software project.  It suggests that the most productive contributors to a project were attracted by the amount of control they were given over that project.

The latest study into this examined participants in Threadless, the clothing company whereby participants submit designs that can then be manufactured if they prove popular enough.  It found there are typically four distinct kinds of people on the site:

  1. People who look to build community bonds
  2. People who look to sharpen their skills
  3. People who lack both of the above but hope to acquire them
  4. People who visit very infrequently and thus don’t care too much about the above

“For some members, the bonds established through these communities matter most. Others simply participate in co-creation projects to sharpen their Photoshop skills or get better at design in general,” the authors explain.

Of course, whilst each group is different, the presence of them all benefits not only Threadless, but the individual members themselves.  Rather than functioning in silos, the groups can, and often do, work effectively together.

The sharing economy

As the sharing economy has grown, this insight into why we participate in crowd based projects has intensified.  A paper published a few years ago examined whether motivations consistently found in crowdsourcing also appeared in the sharing economy.

It turns out that participants in the sharing economy share many of the same motivations as those in crowdsourcing.  Things like sustainability and enjoyment are important motivational factors behind participation, and are at least as important as making some extra cash.

The top factors were revealed to include a sense of community, the environmental benefits of sharing, enjoyment derived from doing so and a saving of time and money.

The environmental motivations should perhaps be no surprise given that this was one of the founding principles of the sharing economy.  A sense of paying it forward was also present in the movement from the outset, so seeing both motivations persisting is to be expected.

Indeed, it is fairly common for consumers to link their purchases with their sense of self-identity, although the study finds that there is sometimes a disconnect between how we think about the sharing economy, and how we actually act within it.

As the sharing economy grows in size, it seems inevitable that many different consumers will be drawn to it, with very different motivations for participating.  It also seems inevitable that it will attract more and more researchers looking to explore what those motivations are.  A space to watch with interest, especially as many policy makers continue to believe sharing economy participants are exploited.


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