Internet trends: marketing research & predictions

Free riding is taking place at web 2.0

December 27th, 2006 by

Free riders in web 2.0

It is indeed wonderful that we have created a mechanism of wisdom based on sharing and contributing. Many of us do enjoy it. But how many of us actually contribute efforts to this self created human system? How many do participate actively by publishing their own ideas, by rating the issues discussed, or by commenting to others?
A quick tour to digg, dzone or even to the very successful web 2.0 site- youtube, shows a statistically poor picture of contributors among viewers.
While the math is easy, it is hard to accept that youtube’s popular list presents over 2 million views per video with only 3,000 votes.

As for digg, holding an impressive number of visitors (1.3 million a month) only 500 k were joined users with the ability to digg. For the most popular post of the last 365 days ? an outstanding number of diggs can be found (14,590 diggs). And yet ? is it a satisfying ratio considering the number of views with none active diggs? Is it a satisfying ratio for a random front page story to receive not more than 500 diggs and 65 comments?
The ratio data (views per voters or per rankers, viewers per comments; viewers per members) found at other sites is even poorer and reach about 3-5% at most.
In the psychological-economical field of interest where I come from, we address a public sharing mechanism as “public good” and we refer to the problem of contribution as “the free rider problem”.

free riding receives much attention in the scientific literature:

My contribution to the wonderful web2.0 sharing mechanism is to try and set us a new perspective and enjoy scientific research accomplished over the last 50 years.
The concept of web 2.0 fits the characteristics of a public good.
We can have a good start at
The public good dilemma represents a variety of real-life decision problems, such as the decision to buy a television/radio license, donate to charity organizations, become a member of a labor union, or participate in volunteer work. In each of these instances individuals are better off if the good or service is provided without their contribution as everyone can profit from its existence. However, if hardly anyone makes a contribution these facilities will cease to exist and everyone is worse off.

It is important to understand that public goods are characterized by two properties: jointness of supply and non-excludability (Hardin 1982). The impossibility to exclude group members who didn’t contribute to the provision of goods from sharing its profits gives rise to the possibility that rational members (this is the game theory perspective) will prefer to withhold their contribution of effort and free ride on contribution of others (Marwell and Ames, 1979).
This prediction is supported by experimental results showing that free riding is the major motive for not contributing in public goods situations (Simmons et al 1984; Rapoport and Eshed-Levy, 1989). Although many public goods succeed, many other do not.

This brings us back to the web2.0 structure. We all have access to this form of “public good” but only a few of us contribute efforts.
One can suggest that this is acceptable and that we can pay this price of free riding, but imagine what our web will look like if we will be able to enhance contribution behavior?we will definitely have a better and richer “good” to enjoy from.

Why should we try to minimize the free riding phenomena?

Imagine that the norm of non contribution will dominate over time, either by users or by current loyal contributors getting tired or disappointed by the fact that so many others do free ride? We would all probably have a poorer good.
I call you, the web 2.0 veterans and believers to address your thoughts and ideas concerning this problem. We all know that web 2.0 can be more successful if we will enhance the basic norm of contribution. It is really up to us to shape our environment and to set the necessary norms. Only by participating and taking action (even a minimal contribution of time and effort for adding our ideas and thoughts or ranking and commenting others) we can ensure that sites we like will flourish.

What’s next?

The good news is that there are in fact extensive studies showing contribution behavior can be increased. On my next post I will present experimental findings for different solutions to this public good situation.


Most of the references I used are open for university libraries subscribers only. Though, you can google some of them or freely use the wikis for the terms: public good, free rider problem, collective action, “the tragedy of the common”.

In this post – I used the following sources:

  • Hardin, R. 1982. Collective Action. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Olson, M., Jr. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Marwell, G. and R. Ames. 1979. `Experiments on the Provision of Public Goods. I. Resources, Interest, Group Size, and the Free-rider Problem.’American Journal of Sociology84: 1335-1360.
  • Rapoport, A. and D. Eshed-Levy. 1989. `Provision of Step-level Public Goods: Effects of Greed and Fear of Being Gypped.’Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes44: 325-344.
  • Simmons, R., R. Dawes and J. Orbell. 1984. `An Experimental Comparison of the Two Motives for not Contributing to a Public Good: Desire to Free Ride and Fear of Being Gypped.
  • Suleiman, R. (1997). ‘Provision of step ? level public goods under uncertainty a theoretical analysis’ Rationality and Society, Vol. 9, No. 2, 163-187.

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7 Responses

  1. nun3 Says:

    I couldn’t agree more…

    It is very important for all of us to keep on contributing and encourage others to do the same.

    if we would all do just one contribution act (comment, rank,upload content…) each time we surf the net we will all benefit.

    good luck

  2. shildkrot Says:

    Wow. this is a great analogy.
    it is refreshing to see that academic reserach can be made relevant.
    So what are the practical implications? will we be able to change our cyber social society? better than our daily life?

    If we consider the web 2.0 as a new social arena, then we have to try harder and create a better (cyber) world.
    particiaption and contribution is an important issue.

    I call upon every web 2.0 surfer who reads this to contribute. starting from right about now.

  3. Eliezer Says:

    We are all social creatures. Eventually everyone wants to contribute and be part of something else.
    The only problem is that (like in the off-line space) we are afraid. Or just lazy.
    The social free riding is much like social avoidance. We are talking about an endowment that is a comment, and the uncertainty is of exposure.
    In any case, I believe that web 2.0 users have a potential to be an active part of this action. It is the websites role to enable contribution, let visitors feel comfortable and their contribution ? a worth while effort. Like in every social setting there is a housing atmosphere that makes it different, hospitable and worthwhile.

    I find this observation quite interesting and inspiring. It makes us reflect explicitly on our social cyber behavior, compare it to the off-line behavior and better define who we are in the web 2.0 perspective.

    In enthusiastic anticipation for more?


  4. shiva Says:


    free riding is what the internet (and web2 even more) all about. it’s a free “country” and if you want to take part or be a viewer is up to u, and only u.
    people will – one day – realize that it is better (even for their own good) to share their opinions rather than not. then u will see the ratios getting closer to 1!

  5. Ophir Says:

    I don’t know. Should everyone really contribute? What about quality standards? Seems to me like the web is already inundated with content – everyone is uploading pictures, videos, blogs, blah blah blah blah blah. Who has time to read it all? How do you sort through the crap to get to something that’s actually interesting? If we post something everytime we surf, how much more crap will there be?

    I vote for restraint. Post when you have something REALLY interesting or relevant to say. Otherwise just surf silently. There’s nothing wrong with just reading. Contributing crap isn’t really contributing. I think.

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