Thursday, February 2, 2012

Open Community Participants

I am linking an article I found in the Information & Management journal (Okoli & Oh, 2007).  The article discusses the motivations for participants in the open community (using participants in Wikipedia) and considers the social capital that they obtain through that participation.  See the link here.

The article points out that those not familiar with the community, who are more familiar with the traditional economic models and motivations are often puzzled by those willingly participating in the open source community.  They surveyed 465 active Wikipedia participants to assess their motivations using social capital theory for perspective.  

Discussing the principles of motivation that appear to be prevalent in the literature the authors wrote:

One notable motivation is the participants’ desire to be recognized in their virtual community of open source participants. This occurs when a participant receives informal praise and acknowledgment from their fellows, and also by tangible tokens such as recognition in the open source communities by the granting of administrative, or “insider”, rights that permit high-quality contributors to add their changes directly with minimal prior review, and to have an important role in deciding the direction of the project. Thus the action is equivalent to promoting an employee to manager status in a traditional organization and thus is a recognition of achievements.
The literature further identifies incentives for participants in open source communities that included: 
  • pragmatic motivations to improve an application that they were using
  • social motivations to support the work of other volunteers
  • hedonic, or intrinsic motivations
As one considers the development of an effective open community effort, the article states that 

. . . since most are volunteers with individual motivations for participation. Aligning performance measures with motivations would be helpful to organizers and evaluators of OSS projects [19]. According to the resource-based model of social structure sustainability, online social structures should provide members with positive benefits, such as the opportunity to be influential [55], to affiliate or champion [37], and the ability to disseminate ideas rapidly [27]. While not absolutely necessary for participation, it is very important for open source participants to be recognized for their contributions [48]; thus they gain status and respect in the community. To better encourage participation in open source projects, research is needed to understand the dynamics of recognition as an incentive, and how the attainment of this motivation serves as an indication of a participant's performance, in the sense that they have achieved a desired individual goal. (footnote links will take you to the footnote in the article)
I found the consideration of these motivations enlightening.  I also think that these descriptions could be applied to those creating content that they intend to publish as open resources.  That may be why the Creative Commons licenses all require attribution.  This allows the egalitarian goals of sharing to match with the motivational goals of recognition.

This article discusses two "types" of social capital: that which comes within a closed network (or network closure) and that which comes and that which comes from open or loosely-structured networks (or structural holes).  The "closed, dense or cohesive network view, such as [proposed by] Coleman and Walker et al. [54], . . . argued that closure or density of social relations is the primary ingredient for the generation of social capital."

Counter to this view, proposed by Granovetter and Burt is

the structural hole view, assert that “true” social capital can be efficiently produced and maintained under open or loosely coupled networks, in which members can access the resources available in heterogeneous sub-networks. They have stated that loosely developed networks rich in structural holes allow the individuals to access and mobilize social resources and that bridges, structural holes or weaker ties are the building blocks necessary to construct or configure the network and thus produce “fresh” information while “social redundancies” are minimized. Thus the diversity and uniqueness of information become the crucial aspects of social capital, and they require a network rich in structural holes.
Both of these views have validity in the previous research.  The research in this study tried to assess which view was most effective at motivating participant performance.  Their findings showed that the network closure type of social capital (direct and indirect ties within the network) "had a significant positive effect on increasing participants’ recognition-based performance."  The structural holes type of social capital (loosely structured or more open networks) "had mixed effects on participants’ status, but were generally a source of social capital."

Reflecting on the findings of this study I wonder about it's application to the OER community.  The findings from this study seem intuitive to me.  When you participate in a community motivated towards a shared goal, with participants known to you, and with whom you communicate, there is an energy to keep the momentum going.  We read the Cathedral and the Bazaar earlier in the OER course and Raymond shared the experience of the torch for his popmail/fetchmail application and noted that were he not there to accept the role of championing additional development, the application may have stalled at the point where he took it over.  I believe that a closed network would be more likely to keep its subject maturing and developing than a loose network would.  I believe that any substantial effort to advance anything requires a committed and dedicated group that feeds off of itself and enhances motivation and performance. 

From my outsider perspective I have seen this in the OER movements.  There is a group of champions who are evangelical in their zeal to motivate positive change in society.  I do not use evangelical or zeal in the negative ways that they are sometimes terms of mockery in our society.  I believe that the efforts, based on strong moral convictions of the need to bless our fellowmen, have enabled this collection of individuals and growing network to motivate each other as they call for change.  We see evidence of their success in initiatives being advanced in institutions of learning and the halls of governments.


  1. I enjoy reading about Wikipedia and open source, and find the motivation / incentive part of that literature to be the most fascinating. However, as Benkler argued in the article we read, for some type of educational resources, a Wikipedia model of development is somewhere between extremely difficult and not possible at all.

    While the open source movement is clearly one of the inspirations for OER, I wonder how close the relation really is. I often see people get stuck in conceptual loops because they try to think about OER and how it works as "open source content." I don't think it works that way.

    I have often wondered about this... It seems to me that many high quality OER are generated by a single person or team, and then SHARED openly. They're not DEVELOPED collaboratively. And for good reason they're not really IMPROVED collaboratively - because what constitutes an improvement for you may be a step backwards for me. This makes shared, global improvement impossible. Just what, exactly, is the nature of an appropriate OER development and improvement model?

    1. I think Benkler makes an appropriate distinction in the difference between the peer model and the other form(s) of commons-based production. Some lend really well to the model of LINUX while others will fail.

      I agree 100% with your observation that most significant works in the open-sharing development model are largely the work of a champion if they are completed and functioning. You see the same thing in group projects in school. There is usually a member of the group who assumes the lion's share of the effort either through greater personal motivation than the others, or through greater expertise than the others.

      Benkler correctly describes motives other than the financial recognition that people have for performing. I believe it is clear that most open development efforts are driven by non-financial motivations, some of them the social rewards that are mentioned in this article. But I think back to the Cathedral and the Bazaar and the experience that Raymond describes of his adoption of the email program from its original creator. That effort would have died, or at least laid dormant for some time, if Raymond had not picked it up. I think this matches the description of the failed efforts at open texts (wikibooks) that Benkler mentioned.

      It is not a peculiar thing that things like recipes and genealogy would be so popular on the internet. They are things of intense personal interest. Pre-Calculus . . . not so much.