Cooperating through technology: The emergence of generalized exchange

By: Wayne Baker, Sheen S. Levine

Levine, S. S., & Baker, W. E. (n.d.). Cooperating through Technology: The Emergence of Generalized Exchange. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2018(1).


Technology enables individuals, crowds, and organizations to collaborate in ways rarely possible before. Employees can now easily draw on others and share knowledge. Loose collectives can form open collaborations, giving rise to everything from open source software and Wikipedia to the vast universe of online communities and user-created content. Organizations can pool crowds to generate more accurate predictions. Yet these exciting new developments rely on an ancient principle: generalized exchange, in which individuals contribute although a direct reward is absent. Although it is foundational for technology-enabled cooperation, scholars are only beginning to understand how generalized exchange emerges and operates in these settings. Here we describe an experimental effort to uncover some mechanisms that underlie generalized exchange by examining cultural and personal characteristics, expressed through personal values, and the dynamics of a specific exchange, such as unilaterally receiving help from a stranger in an online community. We find that generalized exchange does not require ongoing ties or deep socialization, yet it is not simply altruistic or self-interested. Rather, generalized exchange is a collective result of people who strive to increase their resources, aware of their own and others’ reputation for cooperation, reciprocate to a system from which they benefited, and behave consistently with their values. Aside from illuminating generalized exchange, the results can assist in fostering more technology-enabled cooperation among individuals, in crowds, and throughout organizations.