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Why Do People Write Free Documentation? Results of a Survey
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Is Efficiency the Right Goal?

As my exchange with the policy researcher about the importance of community showed, I began my inquiry into online documentation by asking how it could be delivered more efficiently. I took the utilitarian view that the faster people got information, and the fewer folks they bothered along the way, the better off everyone would be. Thus, I hoped to improve documentation by reorganizing what was already available, enhancing search tools, providing professional editing, and beefing up background information.

But if people actually like helping others--if, as results suggest, they get satisfaction out of answering questions--these goals can be modified somewhat. I wouldn't rush to the other extreme and look on happily while knowledgeable list members answer the same basic question for the 800th time. There is still good reason to save people time and trouble by writing better documents and making them more visible. But the community can be expressly drawn into the educational task.

Human interaction is powerful and precious. While answering a need from someone on the other side of the world, a forum participant can convey learning strategies as well as a positive culture for community participation. I have seen participants try to do this, but the forums are not set up to encourage intensive educational experiences. The tenuous connection each participant has to a technical list makes it hard to sustain true engagement around a troubleshooting problem and turn it into a motor for personal growth.

Perhaps, if we recognize lists as communities--as more than instruments for solving technical problems--we can make them more effective at solving those very problems.

Respondents in Their Own Words

Having offered all the insights I can by aggregating data, I now turn to what is in some ways the most fascinating part of the survey: the 109 responses given when survey takers were offered a text box in which to express their passions. [Full text of "other factors" field]

If anyone viewing the charts earlier in this article believes people support community merely for the rewards it returns to them, and that altruism plays a minimal role in participation, a perusal of the "other factors" field would dispel such cynicism. A burning desire to help others runs through the responses, although other interesting personal motivations also arise.

Empathy was a powerful force for some respondents:

The biggest motivation to me is making technical information clear and readily understandable so that people that come after me don't have to waste the same amount of time trying figure out how to do something that could have taken much less time if the documentation had been clear and complete.

Filling gaps in documentation so that people in the future do not expirience the frustration that I did while trying to solve the same problem.

Many respondents referred to the international reach of forums, web pages, and chat sites. This appealed to them for either political reasons or personal ones:

helpful for society--free documentation helps poor people especially in developing countries

Curious to see what joining an international project would be like.

Work with people around the world with similar interests.

I enjoy communicating with people that live in different cultures. I like learning about other ways that someone might use the software.

Other expressions of altruism showed that respondents felt it was a fundamental part of their being:

It's part of my personality to give advice.

I guess I am a person who just wants to help if she can: I although volunteer in other, not computer-related fields like community work ect. - I enjoy being helpful and helping other people to finde solutions and alternatives for themselves

Helping out is spiritually important to me. Also, the more people, institutions, corporations, schools, etc. use free and open source software the better it becomes which is better for everyone (including me)

As the previous quote shows, altruism mixes comfortably with self-seeking goals. The observation behind my personal growth question--that teaching enhances one's own knowledge--turned up in many responses, along with other personal goals:

To provide information to potential developers in the hope that they will improve the software in future

Promoting the use of my language.

Needed to learn how to use the technology, so I wrote documentation (so I remember what I did)

Further reference when I need it! I often bang my head against a problem for hours, so when I finally figure out what's going wrong I write it down in my blog/web pages/whatever. The next time I come across the problem, I either remember that it happened before and look for it on my site, or Google points me to my site. :-)

It provides a way to have the technical data *I* can use later. Sometimes I forget the details.

To illustrate the relevance of personal growth as a reason for contributing, several people aired the idea that teaching forces one to deepen one's grasp of a subject:

When I decide to write on something, I have to prepare even more thoroughly.'s all very well to learn something. But I find that to truly understand it it helps a great deal if you've written about it. The act of structuring your thoughts about something before (or during) writing about it forces you to make sure that you do actually understand what you think you understand.

Self-Education - I learn the software during the documentation phase - that is - I use "while explaining, I understood myself" technics.

Sometimes helps me to understand something better. It often prompts me to look at the source code for the item in question and understand how it works.

The word "fun" appeared in quite a lot of responses. The respondents apparently considered it a broader and more appropriate expression of their pleasure than my term "thrills."

A few indulged in a bit of levity while filling out the field:

avoidance of other work

I want to contribute something back and I do less damage writing than hacking

That last quote revealed, in a humorous vein, a motivation often voiced by contributors: they don't have the skills to write software for other people's use, but can make themselves useful through support and documentation.

I believe that behind the idealism, the empathy, and even the experience of fun cited by respondents lies a basic human imperative to educate others. This imperative allows children to pick up the skills and cultural traits they need to mature. How, otherwise, could the human race survive from generation to generation? Even after the invention of formal education, many of the most important skills have been passed on the way that human cultures have always done it: by people mentoring and guiding those who are just a few years younger.

If (as I believe) quite primitive drives toward power and magic fuel a lot of software hacking, the drive toward passing on facts and cultural norms fuel the burgeoning area of online documentation.

Ideas I Couldn't Follow Up On

I started the survey with scads of ideas for comparisons and tests, but the ungainly and fragmented data did not permit me to follow through with most of them.

I hoped I could run sophisticated tests between the three types of information I collected: types of work, types of projects, and reasons for contributing. None of these ideas proved worthwhile, not even the comparison of free and proprietary software.

There turned out to be no point to comparing types of documentation (wikis, etc.). For one thing, I couldn't get many independent samples because nearly everyone contributed to more than one form. (A full 86% listed more than one form of documentation they contribute to.)

More fundamentally, I can't expect to learn anything useful from the comparison. For instance, one person may prefer to contribute to a wiki but be working for a project that doesn't provide a wiki. The available forms of documentation are not always under the control of the respondents.

I think this question was worth including because it informed the respondents about the range of behavior I wanted to track, and perhaps let them count as "documentation" things such as postings to mailing lists that they might have discounted otherwise. Because such postings serve as solutions to technical questions, and often hang around permanently in archives to be read much later, they definitely qualify as online documentation.

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