Why do people contribute to social media?

Oct 5, 2008 19:22 · 524 words · 3 minute read

[Crossposted from the Headshift blog]

On the face of things, it’s a tricky question - why would someone spend valuable time and effort contributing to something like Wikipedia? In a work environment, how can you persuade people to contribute their hard-won expertise and knowledge into a corporate wiki when they’re already doing perfectly well at their jobs with that knowledge secure inside their heads?

These are key questions when trying to maximise the chances of a successful social media implementation.Fortunately there are a few academic theories that might go some way to explaining the potential problems - although most date from the mid-Fifties and have varying degrees of evidential backing, they’re superficially attractive and provide some quick “rules of thumb” about some of the factors in play.

The best-known theory of human motivation is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basically this states that as humans, we’re motivated firstly by the need for food and shelter, then security and protection, then acceptance and friendship and so on. There are five “needs” in the hierarchy, and as the lower ones are satisfied, so you’ll move onto the higher orders. At the top are the needs for esteem - internal factors like self-respect and autonomy, and external ones like status and recognition. Then at the pinnacle of the hierarchy there’s self-actualisation - the drive to become what one is capable of being.

So what could this tell us about the effectiveness or otherwise of social media? Drawing parallels into the work environment, this suggests that one of the key motivators is recognition and attention. By contributing to, say, an organisational wiki or a group blog, you’re advertising your knowledge and expertise - hopefully leading to recognition and reward.

But if your lower-order needs are threatened - inadequate pay and rations, or the threat of restructuring or redundancy, say - then the theory suggests that you don’t care about upper-order needs like recognition and self-fulfillment. In order to get the most out of a process which depends on esteem and recognition factors, the organisation needs to focus first on the basics.

And there’s also an interesting diagnostic opportunity here if you subscribe to this theory - if you’ve got healthy and dynamic social media in your organisation, it suggests that you’ve cracked the lower-order issues of reward and security.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a simple and apparently attractive theory that’s easily understood - the problem is that there’s an unfortunate lack of hard evidence to back it up. It’s been expanded and revised over the years, however, so in another post I’ll take a look at a couple of other later models to see how they might improve on understanding of why people contribute to social media.

_[There are a number of classic references on motivation - and any amount of appalling airport pop-psychology such as Who Moved My Cheese. The hierarchy of needs is explained in depth in Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, and another tome which covers a similar area is Edgar Schein’s Organisational Culture and Leadership. There are good synopses of both, and many others, in the Ultimate Business Library edited by Stuart Crainer.]_