Investigating instances of collective action that have solved an old dilemma: why should people contribute to collective goods (eg online collaborative platforms) when, by being public, they can be enjoyed without making a contribution to their provision?

One of the key questions that have puzzled social scientists for decades is what makes people contribute to collective goods when, by being public, they can be enjoyed even when no contribution to their provision is made. The problem takes root in the assumption that individuals are rational actors that act out of self-interest and have strong incentives to free-ride.

The logic of rationality often leads to social dilemmas: actors know they would be better off if the public good were produced, but they would rather have others making the effort to actually produce it, so in the end no public good is provided and everybody is worse off. This problem, ubiquitous in the social realm, has received attention from a number of disciplines; in sociology, the focus has usually been placed on the conditions required for this social dilemma to be broken, with the solution often implying a deviation from rationality and its predictions, like acting under the effects of norms, group pressure and social influence. These approaches often assume that social interactions are based on densely knitted networks that allow the efficient enforcement of norms and the spread of reputation.

The Internet, however, offers a wide range of examples of mass collaboration that do not meet the conditions of social proximity and closure assumed by these approaches: users participate voluntarily in the creation of a public good (the web, its contents, and many of its tools) without an explicit reward that justifies the costs of their contribution; they also interact in groups that are significantly larger than those usually deemed efficient for reputation and social control to play their role.

This project aims to investigate how successful instances of collective action work, by analysing online collaborative platforms that have solved the original volunteer’s dilemma and have managed to remain viable over time.


This work is supported by a grant from the John Fell OUP Research Fund at the University of Oxford.

John Fell OUP Research Fund