So much of the web is powered by volunteer work it’s mind-boggling. The non-commercial ethos of the early days of the web, when people posted their thoughts to usenet groups and bulletin-board services, stuck around for years even as the web became more commercialized.
America Online’s chat room moderators, eBay’s user-generated ratings, and Flickr’s vast array of user-submitted photos all have added incredible commercial value to these for-profit companies, yet people continue to do this work for free.
So I’ve often wondered what motivates people to do this work without compensation of the monetary variety. And then there’s the growing army of citizen journalists and bloggers, 99.999% of whom don’t make enough money to quit their day jobs. So the question to you was what motivates you to do work online for no pay.
Before I get to your thoughtful answers — mainly on the topic of writing blogs — I want to quote a couple experts on the subject who were kind enough to share their opinions with me. Matt Haughey, pictured above, is the founder of the popular group blog MetaFilter, in which the community decides what to link to and comment on each day.
MetaFilter first launched in July 1999, but has grown to include Ask MetaFilter, where the community will answer your random question about anything. Haughey said that in the early days, he had to make many of the posts himself, until the momentum and growing community propelled the site forward.
“I did my best to make the place as welcoming as possible, and eventually a few hundred people showed up and we had something good,” Haughey told me via email. “Since then, I think the strong sense of community — the sense of belonging and getting something out of the participation is what drives people to contribute. There are no points or karma or awards, but I think members enjoy sharing interesting links and comments with each other and seeing their name mentioned on the site.”
One woman, who asked that I not use her name due to day-job concerns, told me about her experience as a forum moderator for CNN Interactive back in 1995 on Compuserve. At first she wasn’t paid, and then later she was paid a small sum when the boards became more commercialized. The online community was eventually shuttered by AOL Time Warner.
“My work on the Internet has always been a second job/hobby — by day I’m a self-employed pension administrator,” the woman wrote to me via email. “For me, the motivation was the same as my motivation for volunteering to build the marching band website for my son’s school and my daughter’s dance school — I saw the power that the Internet had to bring people together and wanted to have a hand in creating something that was meaningful in the larger scope of the term ‘community.’
For this online moderator, the interactive nature of the web has always been what held her interest.
“Many volunteers in online communities do it for the love of the conversation and the connections, and are willing to give up their time to make those communities more pleasant and interesting places to inhabit. I believe in the power of the Internet as an experience beyond just sucking up information — it’s always been the interactivity that gets me going, and whether I’m paid or not, that’s the part that keeps me interested.”
Community was a common thread in what motivated you to do work for no pay online. With blogs, that means the community you get from the instant feedback of comments below your blog posts — as well as the links from other bloggers to what you write.
“I blog to share information,” wrote Devlon, who blogs at Loaded Pun, “To hopefully help someone find something that they were looking for, or even find something they didn’t know they could use. My pay? Comments. Comments and feedback are the currency of blogging in my opinion. Comments and that precious link-love.”
Others had altruistic motives, believing their work would change the world for the better.
“I work to do good…because I care…because I believe in making a difference and leaving this world slightly changed for the better,” wrote O’Neil. “It sounds schlocky, but that is how it is…”
Donna Schwartz Mills, who blogs at SocalMom.net, retorted that she wasn’t out to change the world — but just wanted a creative outlet.
“There’s nothing altruistic about it,” Mills wrote. “I blog because it’s fun. I get to blather on about what’s intereting to me, without worrying about pleasing a boss or editor. If someone reads it and likes it, and lets me know about it, that’s an added bonus.”
A blogger named Ben, who helps run the Tech Savvy Educator, noted that it’s a slippery slope from non-commercial pleasure to business venture, because it’s so easy to just add some AdSense ads from Google. His motivation comes down to the reward of working together and learning as a community.
“Bloggers can start altruistically, but it takes a dedicated community to continue that purpose,” Ben wrote. “I started blogging because I believed that others could benefit from my thoughts on educational technology (again, is the egotistical viewpoint of others benefitting from my thoughts altruistic?). What I found was that so many others shared my ideas, that including a forum on the site was a more democratic, and easier, way of filtering through all of the thoughts and providing a place for a wide range of voices.
“That’s really what it comes down to: Working for no pay just isn’t engaging (at least not for me) without some communal or mutually beneficial reward that will not just benefit myself, but others searching for the same answers or looking for a forum to voice their own thoughts. The reward in blogging pro-bono is to find those that you can relate with beyond your own limited set of experiences, beyond your limited range of knowledge, and to create a whole that is much more stronger and longer lasting than its parts.”
I guess you all helped me answer two different questions, though the answers were basically the same. One question was about working for free when it benefitted a for-profit company, and the other question was why you would blog for free. In both cases, your motivation sprang from the online community, the feeling that you get when you help a group of people have a better experience or learn something new.