Fostering Cooperation on the Internet: Social Exchange Processes in Innovative Virtual Consumer Communities

Andrea Hemetsberger, Innsbruck University
[ to cite ]:
Andrea Hemetsberger (2002) ,"Fostering Cooperation on the Internet: Social Exchange Processes in Innovative Virtual Consumer Communities", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 354-356.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 354-356


Andrea Hemetsberger, Innsbruck University


It has been argued that consumers’ involvement in value creating activities is still underestimated and constitutes a gap in marketing theory (Wikstr÷m, 1996; Tzokas and Saren, 1997; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995; Gummesson, 1998). With the communication facilities of the Internet at hand consumers homesteaded new platforms for social interaction and their creative activities have become more visible and extensive. An outstanding example is the open-source community. Collaborating via Internet, thousands of expert programmers and millions of users worldwide voluntarily develop and improve on open-source software.

The purpose of this research is to conceptualize and explore the specific contents and process of cooperative exchange relationships on the Internet. Exploratory evidence is based on more than 1400 responses to a Websurvey among the members of the open-source community.


Marketing literature offers various conceptualizations about how to design exchange relationships (Bagozzi, 1975; Hirschman, 1987; Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Gr÷nroos, 1999). The 'economic model’ assumes that things are exchanged for their utilitarian value, whereas according to the 'social model’ exchange takes place on the basis of the symbolic value attached to things (Ekeh, 1974, Bagozzi, 1975). Whereas most economic transactions are simultaneous exchanges, social exchanges are rather based on a general hope for future favors and social approval. Reciprocation is regulated through the establishment of injunctive and/or descriptive social norms (Cialdini et al., 1990; 1991) resulting in moral obligation (Ezioni, 1975) or doing what is done in a particular social context, respectively. Belk and Coon (1993) challenged the paradigmatic assumption of reciprocity in exchange models and introduced an altruistic explanation for gift-giving behavior. Pure gifts are given without expectations of anything in return (Mauss et al., 1970).


Schouten/McAlexander (1995, p.43) argued that "activities and associated interpersonal relationshipsthat give life meaning" are "The most powerful organizing forces in modern life". The more central an object or activity is to a person, the more likely the person will be to pursue and value membership in a virtual community. (Kozinets 1999). Depending on the degree of involvement with the activity and the strenght of social ties, member participation in virtual communities will vary.

Anderson et al. (1999) further argue that we enter into interaction with others in an effort to control the conditions of our own life. Voluntary work provides the means to struggle against " the inability of individuals to significantly alter the state of the world around them" (Thompson and Bono, 1993, p.328).

Gaining knowledge and increased career prospects constitute important motivations for volunteering (Thompson and Bono, 1993; Lerner and Tirole, 2000). However, on the Internet it is the delivery rather than the possession of resources which is decisive for exchange to occur. Giving valuable resources away may be explained by the collaborative ethic of a community. A more direct reward is provided by recognition and social approval (Blau, 1964; Fisher and Ackerman, 1998; Raymond, 1999). However, individuals differ in their expertise and the social rewards received. It is proposed that the cognitive and behavioral model of exchange and gift-giving and thus, its selfish or altruistic quality is determined by the degree to which individuals own a surplus of those 'assets’.


A Websurvey - designed and administered by a core member of the open-source community - was analyzed. Respondents were asked to report freely about their involvement with open-source, their motivations to participate and what kind of projects they are involved in. Structuring content-analysis was used for categorization of the responses. Analysis of the exchange process was done by cross-analysis specifically focusing on relationships between categories.


Content analysis revealed five categories of motives for voluntary engagement in a collaborative on-line project. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, especially the joyful and challenging task performed, and gaining knowledge are prevalent among respondents. Common goals and values, communal relationships and an individual’s meaning of exchange determine the extent of contribution.

Interestingly, the most selfish as well as the most altruistic motivation to contribute rank highest and equal in the main contributor group. Notwithstanding the importance of "The thrill of the hack", they nevertheless put equal emphasis on the achievement of the common goal. Although main contributors are experts, gaining knowledge represents one of the main motivations, however, without career concerns. The social reward for their engagement and help is the reputation gained. Strong social ties and a liberal and/or humanistic ethos provide the emotional background for their commitment. A generally more selfish attitude is expressed by individuals who contribute less. A stronger concern for personal gain, career concerns, expected reciprocity and weaker social ties and values characterizes them. The motivations to contribute are to 'return the favor’ as well as to 'help others’. Although seemingly different constructs, there exists no incongruency in individual’s minds. Gaining knowledge is the common motivation that unifies contributors of all kind.


Several key elements of exchange are decisive for creative on-line communities to exist and survive. Firstly, exchange is equally based on selfish, equity-based as well as altruistic attitude. Contrary to findings in research on volunteering feelings of moral obligation rarely occurred. However, a strong descriptive norm to give back the favor in the long run and helping others provide the basis for sustained generalized exchange. Secondly, and decisive for exchange to occur is a community’s knowledge base. The community’s innovative power results from accumulating member-generated expertise and multiplying it by giving it away. This constitues a self-sustaining educational system. Thirdly, contribution behavior is highly rewarded with social approval. In contrast to 'real-world’ volunteers, contributors in on-line projects can see their efforts come to fruition quickly and harvest positive feed-back from users all over the globe. This enhances feelings of self-worth, contributing to a worthwhile cause and confirm the community’s ability to alter the state of the world. It is these social rewards combined with a liberal and humanistic culture that ensures a steady flow of contributions and keeps the self-sustaining system of exchange alive.


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