Exploring Contributor Motivation

Why does understanding motivation for open source matter? This allows community builders to design more fulfilling experiences for contributors. It allows a contributor to be recognized in way he or she prefers. It allows community builders to advocate for projects that would be exciting to contributors.

The challenge of studying motivation (and thus recognition) is that our internal biases are strong. I can easily assume that the things I am motivated by are what others are motivated by and the ways I want to be recognized are the ways others want to be recognized. These ideas are deeply engrained – it is our internal motivation mechanism after all.

To find some objectivity in this area, I took from academic writing and did my own user research. The results are were synthesized from Organizing for Open Innovation by Wallin (2010) and countless contributor interviews and interactions I’ve had during my exposure to Mozilla. Some of these interviews were done during Summit 2013 and my Europe trip in early 2014.

Six main areas arose (in no particular order):

  • Intrinsic – This is an internal motivator focused on personal growth and self-actualization. Here people contribute because it is fun for its own sake and because they grow personally from it.
  • Extrinsic – This is an external motivator focused on material recognition such as a badge that a person can point to as a representation¬† and/or certification of their contribution.
  • Community – This motivator is based on our human need to feel part of a larger group that shares our view of the world – having a sense of belonging. (See Why Do People Join and Stay Part Of a Community for a deeper exploration here.)
  • Preemptive Generosity – This motivator is about giving something before it is asked for. It could be anything and it’s tied to our feelings of reciprocity. In a broad perspective, open source itself often follows this rule by releasing code before others know to ask for it.
  • Social Value – Motivation here is about feeling as if your contributions create a better world. There needs to be a clear and strong sense of impact. As Jimmy Wales once put it, “Usually, when people have an eight-hour binge of editing Wikipedia they think, well, I made the world a little bit better place than it was when I started.”
  • Helpfulness – This motivator is based purely on the desire to help others and give back. This is less about changing the world per se and more about having an impact in a person’s life. Similar but different.

When we can be explicit around these motivators, we can design contributor experiences that support them. That creates a more fulfilling experience for contributors and allows a project to grow while remaining meaningful.

Below is a PDF I put together to explore these motivators as they relate to Mozilla (it’s certainly incomplete). However, these should be relevant in all community driven projects and be non-unique to Mozilla.

contributor motivation

[Post also appeared on Sean Bolton’s blog.]