SCIENCE DECEMBER 19, 2013
You scoured countless outfits on eBay before finding the perfect 1975 geometric DVF wrap dress. You logged on every hour for days, sneaking away from meetings and meals to check that ragzthingz04 hasn’t outbid you. The package finally arrives, and you open it apprehensively: Even though emily685 has 98 percent positive feedback, you can never be sure. You breathe a sigh of relief when you open the package and see that you haven’t been scammed.
And then, instead of running to the mirror to try it on, you log onto eBay and leave a comment for emily685, letting her and all her future customers know that the dress really is in excellent condition. Why? You’re almost certainly never going to interact with her again, either online or off. You already have the dress; you have nothing to gain. Is this an instance of altruism?
Social scientists have been grappling with the question of what motivates instances of online altruism ever since the Internet’s early days, when do-good websites like Feed Your World and The Hunger Site started cropping up alongside gossip sites and trolls. A new study, published in the December issue of the journal American Sociological Review, argues that altruism plays a major role in eBay users’ decision to leave public feedback for other traders after a sale. Sociologists from Oxford, ETH Zurich, and the University of Bern analyzed hundreds of thousands of eBay sales of cell phones and DVDs over a thirteen-month period from 2004 to 2005 and found that a surprisingly high number of users publicly review the interaction: “Sixty percent of transactions in the mobile phone market and 80 percent in the DVD market were rated by both sellers and buyers,” wrote the authors, “and only a small fraction of transactions had no rating at all.”
It’s highly unlikely that the commenters themselves receive any direct benefit from providing feedback; the authors estimated that only about five percent of users would ever interact again after a sale. Their feedback does benefit the community at large, though, improving the chances that other users will do business with honest traders. “A selfish person would not bother to spend their time giving this sort of feedback,” said Dr. Wojtek Przepiorka, one of the study’s authors. “After all, what is in it for them as an individual?”
Furthermore, users were more likely to write positive comments for traders who had been rated less often; the researchers believe that users go out of their way to help trustworthy sellers whose reputations are less established. “In commerce, trust problems have been ubiquitous ever since humans started trading commodities,” wrote the authors. Trust problems could be even more contentious online—but the feedback system mitigates the anonymity and makes for a pretty functional online marketplace.
Without altruism, the web would be a very different place. Wikipedia’s emergence as one of the most highly trafficked—and trusted—destinations on the web is a case study in human goodness. It’s hard to imagine what benefit the site’s hundreds of thousands of anonymous writers and editors derive from their effort. “As volunteers, many contributors invest a considerable amount of time and endeavor into researching and writing articles, maintaining the technical infrastructure, or participating in community discussions without receiving any financial compensation for their efforts,” wrote psychologists Joachim Schroer of the University of Wuerzburg and Guido Hertel of the University of Munster, who studied the motives of so-called “Wikipedians” for a 2009 paper in the journal Media Psychology. Not only do Wikipedians receive no financial compensation; they also forgo the professional and social recognition they might achieve by taking part in more traditional forms of altruism. Participants in rallies or fund-raisers, for instance, stand to gain the approval of family and friends and make social and professional contacts through their efforts.
Schroer and Hertel conducted an online survey of 106 contributors to the German Wikipedia site and found several motives, including a desire to help Wikipedia make information freely available, to learn more about subjects they cared about, and to derive pleasure from the experience of writing articles. When Schroer and Hertel compared the costs incurred by contributors—lost income and opportunity due to time spent on the site—with the benefits—learning, self-satisfaction, enjoyment—they found that most contributors lose more than they gain as individuals, though their work benefits the greater community. This is pretty much the definition of altruism.
Review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List also depend on commenters giving away their time and work. For a 2009 paper in the journal New Media & Society, Dr. Sonja Utz, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, surveyed 343 regular users of the German product-review site Yopi on their motivations for contributing. She had users rank statements like, “I want to gain status within the community," “I feel obliged because I profit from the reviews of others” and “I like to communicate with other consumers,” and found that users were motivated primarily by altruism, followed by pleasure of interaction, moral obligation, and finally reputation. Utz went a step further, analyzing motives by demographics. Altruism, she found, was correlated with factors like duration of membership on the site, social identification with the Yopi community, age, and gender.
The bottom line? We may be kinder than we give ourselves credit for.