Altruism in Cyberspace: The Voluntary Sharing of Goods On-Line

43 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2012 Last revised: 29 Jun 2014

See all articles by Sheen S. Levine

Sheen S. Levine

University of Texas at Dallas; Columbia University

Date Written: December 28, 2001


Some believe that people act in self-interest and have limited ability to cooperate, unless coerced by powers such as corporate supervisors or government officials. Others have challenged this view. An excellent opportunity to contrast these views is on the internet, which has enabled new venues for interaction and cooperation. Here I study an internet-based organization that facilitates the transfer (“sharing”) of digital goods. In this field setting I document altruistic behavior that is naturally occurring, intended, and stable. People contribute to a public pool of digital goods although they cannot identify the beneficiaries, do not expect direct reciprocity, do not gain from externalities, and know that free riding is frequent. Using participant observation, I describe the technological environment, the interaction and coordination that define the organization. Using interviews, I provide participants’ views on their own and others behavior. Analyzing the data, I hypothesize on the sources of such wide-ranging cooperation. I then consider several alternative explanations: low cost, gain from externalities, direct reciprocity, social norms, common pool resources, and Warm Glow. I show that none of these explains the phenomenon well, and argue for a more comprehensive theory of altruistic behavior. I conclude with recommendations for managers, especially those in companies that engage in electronic business or produce content that can be digitized.

Keywords: Altruism, Internet, Digital Goods, Public Goods, Sharing

JEL Classification: D23, D64, H41, H42

Suggested Citation

Levine, Sheen S., Altruism in Cyberspace: The Voluntary Sharing of Goods On-Line (December 28, 2001). Available at SSRN: or

Sheen S. Levine (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Dallas ( email )

2601 North Floyd Road
Richardson, TX 75083
United States

Columbia University ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

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