Knowledge is power and this is why we share

Think about the last time you shared something with someone you weren't related to. Whatever the item was; a sweet, a biscuit or maybe a book, the likelihood is that at the time, you performed an evaluation of the sharing process. You might not have realised you were thinking, you might have tapped your chin or scratched your head, but according to Hamilton’s rule you performed a small task in deciding whether to hand over your item.

The process looked a bit like this:


Or in non geeky terms; the probability of having common genes (R) and the benefit of sharing (B) outweighs the cost of sharing (C). Ok so it may seem a bit excessive, but the gist is if it doesn’t cost you a lot and the person looks familiar and owns something you need (this could be an item, or it could be knowledge), the likelihood of you sharing your property increases.

Across this and subsequent articles I plan to investigate the practise of sharing information in UX and ultimately understand the true motivations behind sharing. This article intends to provide an overview of the sharing process and identify both significant and superficial elements that could determine why someone shares.

The last rolo

UX knowledge is like the last rolo, the cost of giving it away is potentially putting the contributor in a worse position. Developing a new concept or idea that revolutionises usability for a user is the bread and butter of UX. But from a business perspective does sharing information online make financial sense? Logically by giving away information, blog writers are increasing competition, they are increasing the UX ‘gene pool’. What is fascinating is that on the surface, this is not representative of human nature. This process of providing information with little return undermines the concept of reciprocity as there is seemingly little or no return for a contribution of knowledge. Technically this makes it more difficult for UX to advance because there is a larger distribution of wealth. Less wealth means less funding, less funding means more competition and less money for research and development on the whole.

To many, the why may seem simple to answer. They share because sharing knowledge predicts the advancement of UX and ultimately:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest –Benjamin Franklin

Sharing your knowledge displays your expertise and by displaying large quantities of information suggests to potential clients that your knowledge is vast. However in UX, knowledge is a commodity and if knowledge was entirely free and readily available, then the role of a UX consultant would be undermined. I’m not suggesting that if every piece of information about UX was on Wikipedia we’d all turn into UX geniuses, far from it. But what I am suggesting is that there must be some sort of process that determines not only who shares, but how much they share. Because sharing by our human nature must produce benefits that outweigh cost. Often when sharing we have an agenda, whilst this may be hidden; chances are there is some element of a vested interest.

Sharing Model

Figure 1: The sharing model

Whitlock, Davis and Yeaman conducted research from an evolutionary viewpoint on why humans share resources with people they aren’t related to. From a business perspective this is the act of sharing your information with other UX companies. They say that there are three main types of people; altruists, cheaters and discriminators. I shall call these types UXP’s (user experience personalities);


Altruists: They have large levels of experience and they share because their need for money is low and therefore their ‘cost’ of sharing is very low;

Cheaters: Their position is not specific but they have a large desire to absorb information but are resilient to supply information, often the cost of sharing is very high to them;

Discriminators: They contribute, but the amount they do is determined by who they share with (they dislike cheaters) and their status i.e. the more knowledge they have the more they are willing to share.

So how do these ‘labels’ translate to real life. Well if we focus on figure one; there are key elements that contribute to sharing information. Humanisation relies on the transfer of knowledge, for it to become intuitive, technology needs human cooperation.  For example, the field of psychology has developed quickly, solely because information is shared widely and like UX, sharing represents a core activity within the field. Without it the field might stagnate.

The model interprets the conscious and subconscious struggle faced by writers, whether psychological or financial. People will share but the level of activity is determined by their explicit desire to do so. This desire is determined by UXP and the level of resources, which in turn is determined by not only current knowledge, but personality and even socio-economic status. However, the underlying elements that encapsulate desire and sharing are disposable time and reciprocity. The amount people feel rewarded or have the desire to be rewarded can single-handedly determine sharing activity.

Twitter: The perfect example of 21st century sharing

To look at twitter for example, is to truly understand the meaning of sharing information. For many it is the hub and indeed the life source of UX. How many consultants use it for the sole purpose of business? It is hard to say, but its effect is anything but unclear. It determines in many cases who reads what information, and by its nature it feeds ‘cheaters’. But if the market was suddenly hit by a drop in altruists, there is the possibility that discriminators would leave too. This suggests that the field is in a state of equilibrium. For example, in the animal Kingdom, an influx of Gazelle allows the Lion to thrive, but when Lions overpopulate the environment and competition for food increases, their numbers diminish.

Sharing is not black and white. Upon reflection it seems likely that we are not one of the three labels suggested by Whitlock. Maybe the labels are more ‘states’, moderated by disposable time and level of experience. Switching sharing state could be dependent on modelled elements. With regard to organisations themselves maybe it is the environment that dictates your state; an accelerated state change could be a result of companies whose ethos on sharing heavily influences its employees. Regardless it’s likely that your state is interchangeable; logically cheaters are the future altruists and discriminators. Without cheating after all, how do we learn?

Sharing is in Our Nature

Whilst sharing too much could increase your competition vastly, not sharing enough would hinder humanisation. A balance must be struck; cheaters must eventually share, whether this is due to peer pressure, a desire to show off or maybe a desire to lead the field. Either way there are strong influences that can determine our contribution, what is key is how we balance them, and ultimately can our desire for humanisation always topple our need for financial gain. Often the joy of Christmas is giving, but let’s be honest, you’d be pretty miffed if you woke up to an empty stocking above your fireplace on Christmas day.

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