Participation Inequality: Lurkers vs. Contributors in Internet Communities (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)
Following on Rangaswami’s formula of participation, is Jakob Nielsen’s 90-9-1 rule:
In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.
All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background.
In contrast, a tiny minority of users usually accounts for a disproportionately large amount of the content and other system activity. This phenomenon of participation inequality was first studied in depth by Will Hill in the early ’90s, when he worked down the hall from me at Bell Communications Research (see references below).
The reason I’m nosing around these stats is my post yesterday on the metric of engagement and the mistake one can make in assuming an overt gesture of engagement — a forum post, a blog comment — is the only valid trace. I know, for a fact, that there are many readers of this blog who have never, for their own reasons, posted a comment, preferring to save their remarks for a face to face discussion or an email. Lurkers are engaged, just not pressing “submit.”
Jakob makes some good observations about mistaking blogged commentary as a representative sample of overall sentiment:
” Participation inequality is not necessarily unfair because “some users are more equal than others” to misquote Animal Farm. If lurkers want to contribute, they are usually allowed to do so.
The problem is that the overall system is not representative of Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from. This can cause trouble for several reasons:
- Customer feedback. If your company looks to Web postings for customer feedback on its products and services, you’re getting an unrepresentative sample.
- Reviews. Similarly, if you’re a consumer trying to find out which restaurant to patronize or what books to buy, online reviews represent only a tiny minority of the people who have experiences with those products and services.
- Politics. If a party nominates a candidate supported by the “netroots,” it will almost certainly lose because such candidates’ positions will be too extreme to appeal to mainstream voters. Postings on political blogs come from less than 0.1% of voters, most of whom are hardcore leftists (for Democrats) or rightists (for Republicans).
- Search. Search engine results pages (SERP) are mainly sorted based on how many other sites link to each destination. When 0.1% of users do most of the linking, we risk having search relevance get ever more out of whack with what’s useful for the remaining 99.9% of users. Search engines need to rely more on behavioral data gathered across samples that better represent users, which is why they are building Internet access services.
- Signal-to-noise ratio. Discussion groups drown in flames and low-quality postings, making it hard to identify the gems. Many users stop reading comments because they don’t have time to wade through the swamp of postings from people with little to say.
How to Overcome Participation Inequality