Do generous attitudes underlie contributions to user-generated content?

User-generated content on the Internet provides the basis for some of the most popular websites, such as Wikipedia, crowdsourced question-and-answer sites like Stack Overflow, video-sharing sites like YouTube, and social media platforms like Reddit. Much (or in some cases all) of the content on these sites is created by unpaid volunteers, who invest substantial time and effort to produce high quality information resources. So are these volunteers and content contributors more generous in general than people who don’t contribute their time, knowledge, or information online?

We (Floor Fiers, Aaron Shaw, and Eszter Hargittai) consider this question in a recent paper published in The Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media (JQD:DM). The publication of this particularly is exciting because it pursues a new angle on these questions, and also because it’s part of the inaugural issue of JQD:DM, a new open-access venue for research that seeks to advance descriptive (as opposed to analytic or causal) knowledge about digital media.

The study uses data from a national survey of U.S. adult internet users that includes questions about many kinds of online contribution activities, various demographic and background attributes, as well as a dictator game to measure generosity. In the dictator game, each participant has an opportunity to make an anonymous donation of some unanticipated funds to another participant in the study. Prior experimental research across the social sciences has used dictator games, but no studies we know of had compared dictator game donations with online content contributions.

Sharing content. GotCredit via flickr.

Overall, we find that people who contribute some kind of content online exhibit more generosity in the dictator game. More specifically, we find that people producing any type of user-generated content tend to donate more in the dictator game than those who do not produce any such content. We also disaggregate the analysis by type of content contribution and find that donating in the dictator game only correlates with content contribution for those who write reviews, upload public videos, pose or answer questions, and contribute to encyclopedic knowledge collections.

So, generous attitudes and behaviors may help explain contributions to some types of user-generated content, but not others. This implies that user-generated content is not a homogeneous activity, since variations exist between different types of content contribution.

The (open access!) paper has many more details, so we hope you’ll download, read, and cite it. Please feel free to leave a comment below too.

Paper Citation: Fiers, Floor, Aaron Shaw, and Eszter Hargittai. 2021. “Generous Attitudes and Online Participation”. Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media 1 (April).

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