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participation inequality

Persistent participation inequality has been observed in most online services that support users on a supposedly lateral or near-lateral basis to contribute. 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." http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html citing Jakob Nielsen and Will Hill's research. According to them:

"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... a tiny minority of users usually accounts for a disproportionately large amount of the content and other system activity. When you plot the amount of activity for each user, the result is a Zipf curve, which shows as a straight line in a log-log diagram."

[+] 90-9-1 "rule"

web, blog, wiki


As of 2005-10 there were - again according to Nielsen - "about 1.1 billion Internet users, yet only 55 million users (5%) have weblogs according to Technorati. Worse, there are only 1.6 million postings per day; because some people post multiple times per day, only 0.1% of users post daily." Thus blogs have a rule more like 95-5-0.1

"More than 99%" of Wikipedia users never edit, the "68,000 active contributors" claimed by itself as of 2006-10 represent only "0.2% of the 32 million unique visitors it has in the U.S. alone... its most active 1,000 people — 0.003% of its users — contribute about two-thirds of the site's edits. Wikipedia is thus even more skewed than blogs, with a 99.8-0.2-0.003 rule."

Amazon.com numbers suggest that "less than 1% of customers contribute reviews." and as of 2006-10 "167,113 of Amazon’s book reviews were contributed by just a few "top-100" reviewers; the most prolific reviewer had written 12,423 reviews." Just to read that many books seems impossible.


Some inequality may stem from bad administrative practices, e.g. require logins, dominant cliques and sysop vigilantiism, other cliques or social exclusion. These problems can be partly addressed by putting open politics in force.

But regardless of the reasons for this inequality, it leads to inaccuracy and systemic bias: "you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from." This leads to inaccurate:
  1. user feedback on products and services
  2. user reviews from only a tiny minority of the people who have (or claim) relevant experience
  3. candidate nominations or positions: "If a party nominates a candidate" or takes a position "supported by the "netroots," it risks adopting candidates or positions "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...or rightists." Those who deviate from dogma will be labelled trolls and excluded by sysop vigilantiism, and their variant views by sysop vandalism. See Living Platform in Practice for other problems empirically observed with online dialogue in politics.
  4. search results pages (SERP) usually rank based on incoming links. "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" says Nielsen
  5. Signal-to-noise ratio is a huge problem on all media other than wiki: "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." See blog bad, wiki good for how wikis solve this problem.

no way out


Nielsen says in no uncertain terms that there is no way to overcome participation inequality, it's inevitable, it must be accepted and dealt with. For an example of a proposal that deals with it properly, see mark up and mail back.

Nielsen claims that a "more equitable distribution of, say, 80-16-4... 80% lurkers, with 16% contributing some and 4% contributing the most" might be possible, with great effort, in a very few forums with high stakes. To equalize he suggests:
  1. "Make it easier to contribute. The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating, which is much easier than writing a natural-language review."
  2. "Make participation a side effect. Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their contributions a side effect of something else they're doing. For example, Amazon's "people who bought this book, bought these other books" recommendations are a side effect of people buying books." The concept of read wear plays a role.
  3. "Edit, don't create. Let users build their contributions by modifying existing templates rather than creating complete entities from scratch. Editing a template is more enticing and has a gentler learning curve than facing the horror of a blank page." This is especially important for user pages or avatars.
  4. "reward participants for contributing to "help motivate users who have lives outside the Internet" to "broaden your participant base. Although money is always good, you can also give contributors preferential treatment (such as discounts or advance notice of new stuff), or even just put gold stars on their profiles. But don't give too much to the most active participants, or you'll simply encourage them to dominate the system even more." See policy honoraria for a system of this sort.
  5. "Promote quality contributors. If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%." Wikis do this very well by leaving only the consensus output visible to all, and marginalizing users who are not deemed to be contributing any important work by making it invisible very quickly, often before any lurker sees it. See wiki vandalism.
  6. Design "undoubtedly influences participation inequality for better or worse." A task-based information architecture, for instance, encourages anyone engaged in that task to explore and use more of the capabilities and discover more connections between aspects of their work and their colleagues' work, sparking opportunities for diagnostic dialogue and social network formation.
  7. Democracy, covered in open politics in force but not by Nielsen, gives users a motive to state their opinion: it will count for something in the actual decisions, rather than risking their quick labelling and exclusion by those with infrastructure owners trust, which is the most common experience of those who differ seriously with service operators.
  8. Rootedness, also covered in open politics in force but not by Nielsen, is a reason for participants in offline or partly-online processes to have their views represented. If participants in an offline conference receive automatic creation of user pages that summarize their talks and comments, with links to the user pages of other users, with topic or article pages that summarize consensus views of all participants in the conference, they would be more likely to become full participants, perceiving it as a natural outgrowth of the conference itself.

^This page licensed GFDL and CC-by-sa by Efficient Civics Guild.