The free-rider hypothesis
Marshall assistant professor Feng Zhu, along with Michael Zhang of HKUST Business School, started with the research question, "What drives user contributions to online platforms like Wikipedia?" According to the free-rider hypothesis, which was first proposed in 1965, "If the platform is small, you may feel like your contribution makes a difference, which might make you more likely to contribute," Zhu said in a Marshall press release.
Under this hypothesis, Zhu explained, a reader might not be compelled to fix a typo he catches on Wikipedia, because he knows someone else will, due to the large number of readers.
To find out whether or not size affected contributions as the free-rider hypothesis predicts, the researchers studied the case of Chinese Wikipedia. When China's government blocked Wikipedia, mainland China could no longer access the site. Of the contributors who were left, their output to the site shrank by 40 percent.
So much for the free-rider hypothesis. So why did the community's shrinkage lead to the decrease in contributions by those who could still access the site? According to Zhu, "Contributors may derive utility from interacting with other contributors and also feel a stronger sense of meaningfulness of their contribution from a broader audience."
Conclusion: Social benefits, not size, matters
The researchers write, "Contributors really care about the social benefits. And with the block, the shrinking group size weakens these social benefits. Our study suggests that the importance of social benefits ultimately dominates the free-riding incentives."
The study is forthcoming in the American Economic Review.
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