The siren call of free sharing

…Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening…*

It is commonly believed that the economic value created by the FOSS developers, Wikipedia editors and other types of volunteers, benefit everybody. In this post I argue that the value is not available to most people, and flows instead to for-profit firms and the better off segment of the world population. The liberal attitude of volunteers toward the economic value of their work also leads to chronic lack of resources necessary to sustain the volunteer projects.

To an economist, volunteering is a strange animal. Professional computer programmers working in their free time on free-to-all software, OpenStreetMap mappers paying own money to run a public map tile server, cycling enthusiasts building singletrails for everybody to use freely. According to the mainstream economics theory, this is not supposed to be happening . Self-interest should guide people to monetize their work and use the economic value to satisfy their needs and wants, instead of freely giving it away.

The willingness to work without regard for a monetary reward is not a characteristic exclusive to volunteers. Many commercial enterprises trace their origins to their founders addressing a personal need, with the idea to monetize the product of such effort being an afterthought. Scientists also in general do not work for the money, as evidenced by the estimated 30% hit to their wages when compared to equally educated workers of the private sector. The important aspect these activities share with volunteering is that they are autonomous — a person performing them can choose when, where and what to work on. According to the Self Determination Theory (SDT), autonomy is one of our basic psychological needs, fulfillment of which is essential for personal growth, providing explanation for why people might want to use their off-regular-work time for hobbies, or volunteer activities.

The SDT identifies two additional basic needs —  for competence and relatedness — existence of which can help us also understand, why volunteers want to share the results of their work freely. The competence need is commonly manifested by people wanting to learn new skills, or master existing ones, but an integral part of the behavior is also to seek information confirming their mastery. The source of such signals can be internal, for example in the form of a sense of accomplishment, perceived by a computer programmer when a program they created performs as intended, but it is seeing their work being useful to others that is salient for shaping the desire of volunteers to share freely. More users indicate competence and the best way to make the indicator stronger is to make the products of their work available for free.

The need for relatedness — for close, personal relationships with others, or belonging to a group — might further amplify the desire to share freely. People commonly address this need by talking to each other, or by physical contact, but also by exchanging gifts. Giving the product of their work away for free therefore provides the volunteers with a sense of belonging and fulfills their fundamental need for relatedness.

The psychological perspective might suggest that all is well with volunteering; volunteers are fully autonomous, and by giving away the product of their labor, receive strong signals of competence and belonging. According to the SDT, people with their basic needs addressed are motivated intrinsically, making them more focused, driven and inventive. The massive economic value volunteers generate (estimated to exceed one trillion USD/year) should be seen as a testament to the exceptional power of intrinsic motivation. Yet, regardless of the psychological benefits to its participants and the utility it brings to the consumers, the “volunteer economy” has a problem that limits its potential — it can’t produce the goods and services it needs itself.

Take for example — an interactive web map of central Europe, with functions like routing, drawing, or gpx track viewing, built on geographic data created by the Openstreetmap volunteers. The project is being developed almost entirely by a single programmer and runs on servers maintained by a small non-profit, established to support volunteer mapping. The project delivers a product that is unique from the usability point of view and evidence suggests, that the service would be desirable also in countries outside of the area it currently covers. The potential geographical expansion however runs into a problem with resources. First, the project would need more computing power. It needs servers connected to the internet, which of course can be acquired only for money. Volunteers do not manufacture computers and no free internet hosting exists, suitable for the Freemap needs. The hosting expenses are currently covered by contributions from the non-profit members and some users of the Freemap application. Without fundraising, the existing income is sufficient to serve only a relatively limited geographical area.

The difficulty of Freemapers with finding a volunteer-fundraiser, or a volunteer-manager willing to find one, brings us to the second and more difficult resource constraint most volunteer projects face: the chronic lack of people. There simply are not enough intrinsically motivated people, willing, or able to do specific tasks. Capitalism solves the problem by incentivizing people with money, but that tool is unavailable to volunteers, as they give the product of their work away for free. The lack of people and money is consequently constraining potential of the volunteer projects. The desire to address their psychological needs is so strong that volunteers have hard time to bring themselves to reconsider the free status of their projects. That position is to a large degree enforced by a belief that everybody benefits from the work they give away.

Let’s take a closer look at how much substance is this belief based on. Who is actually benefiting from the economic value the volunteers generate? At a first sight, the answer seems to be “everybody” — given their products are freely available to all. However, upon closer inspection we find that the standard pattern, governing the flow of economic value we see in capitalism, is repeated here as well. The volunteer-created economic value is captured by the people who need it least and in reality most of it goes to the small, richest segment of the population.

To illustrate this point, let’s first take a look at who is NOT reaping the economic benefits of volunteer work. To use any good or service, a person must generally have two things — the need for, and also the means allowing them to consume a product. For example, to be able to read an article in Wikipedia, one needs to understand the language the article is written in, have a computer, and know how to use it. Implicitly, the type of a good or service accessible to a person is to a large degree determined by their socioeconomic situation. A person from the lower end of the wealth and income distribution needs different products and services than a wealthy, secure and well educated one. If we consider that volunteers recruit mostly from the developed countries and these tend to produce goods and services directly useful to people like themselves, it is not surprising that services needed by the over a billion multi-dimensionally poor are under-supplied. Most “free to all” volunteer-made products are of no use to these people. The main beneficiary of the volunteer work are the middle and high-income inhabitants of the most developed countries instead.

The one entity that freely extract the most economic value however, are commercial companies, who are literally cashing in on the volunteer work. This is the case for crowdsourced information products like Wikipedia or Openstreetmap, but most visibly for volunteer-made computer programs (FOSS). Software has high per-labor-hour-invested economic value and that makes this product increasingly attractive to for-profit companies. The interest brings a peculiar dynamics into the more popular FOSS projects. Take for example the Linux operating system. Started by Linus Torvalds as a hobby, the project is now running on millions of devices, many operated, or manufactured by the biggest technology firms. Over time, these firms started encouraging their employees to contribute “free” code into the project. The result is a transformation of what once was a pure volunteer affair, into a kind of hybrid public-private partnerships, where most of the new code contributions come from paid programmers. The unpaid volunteers are in effect becoming free laborers in the for-profit sector. Similar pattern can in fact be discerned everywhere a volunteer product attracts certain level of attention from consumers. Some commercial entity usually finds a way to monetize the work, without adequately contributing back to the “commons.”

To sum the argument, volunteering today — especially the non-rivalrous goods-producing — by and large works not only against the volunteers’ economic interests, but also fails to deliver the value it generates to people who need it most. The situation is largely ignored by the volunteers, and attempts to change the status quo, by — for example — making the consumers of volunteer products pay, are generally refused, often vigorously. There are however rare exceptions to this pattern. In some cases, creators of projects that reach certain level of popularity undergo a kind of transformation — from often staunch defenders of free sharing, to its opponents. The metamorphosis does not seem to have a single cause, but burnout, personal economic situation, or a sudden realization of the true destination of the economic benefit of their work are all likely suspects. The phenomenon suggests that volunteers are capable of demanding reciprocity after all, but the “threshold of pain” when they start considering such an action is usually high. In any case, the fact can be read as a sign of hope. The instinct-like free sharing behavior can be controlled.

The question is, how to do it, without diminishing the motivational forces and communal spirit driving volunteer work. What is the way volunteers can listen to the alluring, Siren-like call for sharing, without giving up the economic value they produce? A timeless advice Circe gave to Ulysses, still holds: constrain the instincts leading to doom. We need a system that will allow volunteers to share widely, but not freely. In a separate post I will suggest how these contradictory requirements can be reconciled.

* Homer - The Odyssey (translated by Buttler)