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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Participation Inequality: The New Pareto Principle (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.
Thus begins Jakob Nielson's analysis of participation inequality, which will ring bells to anyone familiar with the Pareto Principle. I think he's onto something. In a moment of inactivity, I did an analysis of the featured videos on YouTube yesterday at 5 p.m. I looked at the number of views for each video and the number of people who rated the videos in order to detect if there were any factors determining the participation of viewers like duration of video or number of views. The piece of data that relates to the 90-9-1 principle is that the average percentage of viewers who rated videos was about .9%, fitting very well with Nielson's thesis that 1% of users account for almost all the action. More on this later. The spreadsheet is below (you can manipulate it just like in Excel):

The downside of participation inequality is that you almost always hear from the same 1% of users so your feedback is inherently biased. Some problems:
  • 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 do we increase user participation? Bloggers, especially, are interested in getting feedback from their readers. Assuming that is a desired goal (we want to satisfy as much of our user base as possible), we can
  • Make it easier to contribute. As I noted above, sometimes even lowering the barrier to a mouse click (viewers rate videos on YouTube by clicking on stars) still doesn't solve the participation problem.
  • Make participation a side effect. This is clever. You collect user data and analyze it for patterns. You do the hard work not the users and convert the data into something meaningful like Amazon with its "Users Who Bought This Also Bought" recommendations. The participation process is completely transparent to the users.
  • Edit, don't create. Like Blogger templates that users can select from, having ready-made templates or designs really lowers the barrier. Once users have been attracted, then they have more incentive to customize and contribute.
  • Reward -- but don't over-reward -- participants. Give users karma points or some other reward that doesn't cost you anything.
  • Promote quality contributors. Have a list of top contributors or some other recogniton system.

The design of a site also affects contribution rates. Placement of participation mechanisms like rating stars or comment boxes is very important in attracting users' eyes. Nielson does make the point that you really can't overcome participation inequality; there will always be users who participate (a lot) more than others. You can only hope to change the shape of the distribution of users among the 90-9-1 bins.

(via Micro Persuasion)


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Reader Comments:

Great Blog, I like your conclusion of the 1% ruling the web. I am afraid I am a bit pessimistic though. I don't think there is anyway to get people to give solid feed back short of giving them money, and then it would probably be skewed.

nice topic....but I think you need more data to verify this new hypothesis....then just relying on Youtube as a small sample. Can someone test this hypothesis across the major social networks? like to see that

it's hard to swallow that the normal 80/20 rule don't work online

thanks again

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