Sounds odd, I know. I think information should be free, but I am also wondering about the self-sustainability of those who offer up their time for free, for SE sites and open source developing. Is the goal attained to spread knowledge, finish a project, etc.?

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    For me it’s fun. Even the linux kernel itself started as fun and fooling around: “just a hobby, won't be big and professional” – dessert Jan 23 at 7:44
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    What goes around comes around. I think sometimes I'm selfish here. I'm here to increase my knowledge. – Kulfy Jan 23 at 8:22
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    The goal is mentioned on the tour: "With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about Ubuntu." so.... just like any forums out there, Quora, Reddit, Yahoo! Answers, we are just doing our "job" :) – Andrew T. Jan 23 at 9:45
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    I'd like to add that, for me at least, I learn more stuff by seeing other people's problems and trying to solve them. I'm not as active as other people on this site, but a lot of my answers are things that I didn't know before I actually saw their respective questions and answered them. – Dan Jan 23 at 10:06
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    My reason was "self-salvation". I installed Ubuntu when I was really frustrated and stuck in the mentality that I can't do coding, and decided "Either I'm going to learn something new, or fail completely". 4 month after that or so, I joined this site after lurking and finding answers useful. Eventually, it became a push and pull - I answered what could, learned from others, realized where I can improve. So I was helping others to help myself, and so the cycle continues. And it's also whole lot of fun and excitement – Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy Jan 28 at 11:08
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    I enjoy it! I love learning new things and then sharing that knowledge with others. I am very grateful to find that others benefited from my answers. Finally, unlike other pursuits earlier in my life, I can do it indoors and drink beer! – chili555 Jan 28 at 14:17

Journalist George Monbiot reminds us that there are actually four sectors of the economy. Only two of these, business ("private sector") and state ("public sector") receive attention. Actually there are two other neglected sectors; the household (which is taken for granted for reasons addressed by feminist movements) and the commons. The concept of the commons receives so little attention that many people even in the Linux community are not aware of it, but Linux is actually an example of the commons. The commons means resources owned, managed and shared equally by a community. More elaborately:

A commons consists of three elements: an inalienable resource (it cannot be sold or given away), a community that controls and manages it, and the rules and negotiations developed by that community to ensure that the resource is sustained in perpetuity. The wealth arising from its use is shared equally by the members of the community.

The reasons people have for maintaining and contributing to a commons are quite simple; they derive some important benefit from it, and realise that without the participation of people like them, it will not exist. I believe this is a strong motivation, both emotional and rational. Not everyone will feel the need or have the skills/time/means to contribute, but if enough do, the commons will survive and thrive, as Linux has.

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    +1 for quoting Monbiot. – Jos Jan 28 at 16:10
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    But you can't underestimate the ego factor as well. Some people do things because it makes them look/feel important. – Thom Jan 31 at 15:51
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    @Thom The feeling that one is doing something important, that has meaning, that matters to somebody somewhere, seems to me basic and essential. I mean, how do you get out of bed otherwise? I don't know why people view this as somehow blameworthy. Anyway, my answer, if you like, attempts to suggest how contributing to a project without renumeration might satisfy that need. – Zanna Feb 1 at 14:30

Don't tell anyone...

I think I can only speak for myself, and "right" or "wrong" is not applicable here. Although I strongly believe in the reasons @Zanna posted and elaborated, and I'd love to think my single motivation would be to do a "good thing to the world", to me personally, that is a meta thought. I only feel that looking from a distance. An excellent one, but still. Don't get me wrong, I am happy to contribute, and if I feel an answer or solution helped someone, I am thrilled.

There are however many things in life I can do, of which I feel they are useful and helpful to people, but I don't do them. To spend many hours here helping people, we need more than to believe in something or an altruist's mind. Then what is my motivation, on a "primitive" level?

I need to be creative, and I love jumping into issues that seem unsolvable. They are the crossword puzzles I need to feed my mind with. Furthermore, I love coding, and I think I can say I actually learned it for the greater part here and on SO. No clue if it ever will be part of some kind of a "professional" life (in the sense of "paid" professional), but to me, that is irrelevant, I think I got the level. Furthermore, I got many, many other things from hanging around here and contribute. Things I value.

The thought that it helps people is the additional justification for spending so many hours here (or any other community that serves open source activities), and a sweet bonus.


As much as I'd love to say I contribute because it helps the greater good, honestly it comes down to badges and points a lot of the time.

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    Hehe, You do know that it's only internet points, right :) ? Appreciate the honesty. I think it counts for many people here, hence the reputation system. Make sure not to get obsessed with it. – Jacob Vlijm Jan 29 at 10:02
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    While it may seem silly, there is a reason gamification works. It's hard to zoom out and see a bigger picture, whereas gamification, points, badges, allow you to micro focus on your next little goal and drudge on. – Kristopher Ives Jan 29 at 14:01
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    I find it helps me work on skills too, specifically for the tag badges. I wanted to get better at a particular SDK and I found answering other people's questions helped me with that, and the badge progress gave me some form of reward, even if it is just internet points :) – Mark McDonald Jan 30 at 3:06
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    That green icon in the notification bar can be so satisfying! – Robert Riedl Jan 31 at 16:00
  • You how can you be serious I am so confused – Adam Feb 2 at 0:19

Since you ask about Stack Exchange (SE) sites in general: Many companies are using Stack Overflow Teams as a way to internally help their programmers with knowledge. For example, there are companies using C++ that have complex templating questions to answer and in the process of doing it they use Stack Overflow to find existing answers and there aren't any they add high quality answers that otherwise might not exist.

With regards to Ask Ubuntu in specific, I think a lot of people have had a random question related to Ubuntu at one point and found a great answer here already. This saved them a lot of time and headache. Many experienced Linux users also know that it's very unlikely they know everything about Linux, but the parts they do know they are glad to help out with. It's not uncommon to spend a few minutes, but in the process save someone else hours of their time. It's kind of like carrying the groceries for an elderly person.

Like Mark McDonald said it's also because the points. I'd be lying if I said I didn't like increasing the points and earning the badges. Over time, I think that effect fades, but by the time it's diminished you've already seen the impact you can have and will likely keep doing it.

It's also worth mentioning I actively shame lots of people in the "real world" for not contributing to Stack Exchange sites and in the past if an employer questions my time spent on a SE sites I will simply ask them if they want me to stop using SE sites to resolve questions. Obviously, they don't want me figuring everything out in a bubble so they desire I keep using SE sites, at which point it illustrates the point: How do you think a system of exchanging knowledge can work if everyone only takes and never gives?


My reasons are:

  1. If I help others, others will help me when I need their help, like karma, and in fact in the early days of stackoverflow, people refrained from answering someone if he doesn't accept answers, correct me if I'm wrong but there was a percentage under the username showing how many accepted answer someone has, and a moderator used to leave a comment asking the user to accept answers. In fact I was blocked from asking on ServerFault and probably still am and the only way for that site to forgive me for asking stupid questions as a teen, is to answer questions, if I give good answers my account will be normal
  2. A good reputation is great on a CV, I know brilliant programmers who don't have an SE account nor a github account, but a good looking SE account will catch attention when you apply for a job, in fact I'm have a job interview tomorrow and yesterday evening I discovered that I know the CTO, how? Simply because he a top stackoverflow user in my country.

Those reasons are more than enough to guarantee the future for SE, people will always want these things, sites might die, other sites will be created, old people might not be so active, I was much more active 5 years ago, but there will always be new users younger and better than me, who will take my place.

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    Good SE account may be useful for some job applications and definitely depends on the company, but remember - it's just a number without much meaning behind it. At very least this number shows an ability to write clear instructions and communicate. It is not representative of experience nor it represents quality. Also remember recruiters have very little time - they may not even look at the answers/questions at all. Among other things, there have been discussions on the topic: softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/q/20407/296518 , meta.stackoverflow.com/q/367108/3701431 – Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy Jan 29 at 3:34

It's already obvious from the other answers that there are multiple modes of motivation for people to contribute on Stack Exchange sites. I can subscribe to some, but also there's one more that was not yet mentioned so far:

I have this drive to document and archive knowledge. In the middle ages, people like me probably worked as monastery librarians, now we work on Stack Exchange :) Genetics might play a role, as I've always been a writer, thinker and hoarder. I just don't like knowledge to be lost, so when I figure out one of my problems I like to put in a bit of extra effort to document it in a format that feels satisfying because it can be useful in the future.

The helpful people were around before Stack Exchange, of course. People would just put the knowledge on their own blogs (so did I), write on mailing lists and newsgroups etc.. Now with Stack Exchange around, we have a nice new format to publish and archive bits and pieces of knowledge. I often do by answering my own questions. And as long as people feel the deal1 is fair, it will continue to be a major "outlet" for knowledge and assistance.


1 Roughly, the deal right now is: Stack Exchange (the company) cares for the hosting and platform development, gets the advertising revenue but lets us use ad blockers. And all our content is licensed under an open license. Sounds good to me …

  • Excellent point :) – Zanna May 14 at 12:25

I try to answer questions and earn points. These points help me to offer bounties on my own questions so that they get answered quickly.


I honestly don't think I have single reason I can point to, Zanna and Jacob answers ring true for me. As far as sustainability is concerned I've been in the business long enough that at this point I'm what my father called semi-retired. I do what interests me, help who I can, and find that I often further my own knowledge in the process. The "unicorn points" are pretty meaningless to me.

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