Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why contribute content and what is the Gross Contributed Product?

I recently learned about Levelator, a new program for audio processing. I tried it and found it to be effective and easy to use -- a terrific addition to my audio tool kit.

Levelator was written by Bruce Sharpe and his son Malcom, and, like much Internet content, it is free. What motivated the Sharpes to spend the time to develop Levelator and why did they contribute it to the community? I don't know, but one clue is the fact that they are distributing it through the Gigavox network, which grew out of IT Conversations, a volunteer organization for podcasting IT-related conferences. IT Conversations editors and audio engineers were all volunteers, so it may have seemed natural for the Sharpe's to contribute their software.

My personal reaction to Levelator may also help with the "why" question. I spent about two hours testing Levelator and creating a teaching note -- an example of its use. I will use the note in teaching, and I also posted it on the Levelator Forum so others could use it. What did I gain from that effort?

The teaching note has no monetary value (the program surely does), but it is "capital" since I can use it on my job. Someone else using it would make me happy -- I would get a kick out of that at no additional cost. Creating the note was also fun. Even small creative acts are enjoyable, although there is usually some tedium in the execution. Reputation building provided another motivation -- in a small way, I am now a contributor to the community of Levelator users.

The bottom line is that the payoff was sufficient that I contributed two hours of my time. In return for creating and contributing the teaching note:

  • I had it for my own use.
  • I had the pleasure of knowing some members of the community might use it.
  • I had the fun of creating it.
  • My reputation was slightly enhanced.
But, I am not unique. The Internet is a platform for millions of small contributions like mine as well as large ones like that of the Sharpes. At the low-effort end of the scale, people click "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" on a video or song, forward an interesting email to a person or list, or vote in an online poll.

More effort is required of those who post millions of reviews of books, restaurants, movies, videos, and other products every day. Others, like the Sharpes or the Wikipedians or the Linux and Apache developers, contribute much more. These large and small contributions add up. How many millions of hours did Internet users contribute to the online community yesterday? What is the economic value of those millions of hours -- how does the Gross Contributed Product compare to the Gross National Product? What will it be in ten years? Might this non-market economy one day rival the market economy in importance? (Stay-at-home mothers and grandmothers might ask the same thing). If so, what are the implications for organizations or management or the entertainment industry? (Writing a new teaching note is more fun than watching most TV programs).

This is reminiscent of the Wikipedia. Neither the government nor the market economy could create and maintain the Wikipedia, it could only be done for free -- a cool paradox. If this sort of thing seems interesting, check out The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler or listen to his talk on IT Conversations or at UC Berkeley. Of course you can read about him and his ideas on Wikipedia too. Going further back, I talked about incentives to cooperate in a 1992 academic journal article called Systems for Finding People.

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