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Nielsen: “Participation inequality”, the 90-9-1 rule

Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)

Nielsen’s latest research quantified (with an elegant formulation) something that community owners, retailers and those working with ‘user-generated content’ already know:

In most online systems, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

This seems to shock some people and undermines their view of UGC. To me, it seems normal.

We notice the inequality online because we can measure it. To take a retail, high street, comparison, the 90 people walk past your shop, the 10 go in and 1 person buys. This – to a retailer – looks like a 10% conversion rate, rather than 1%.

In Nielsen’s posting the only point with which I’d quibble is the term “lurker”. This implies that there’s no value derived from those visits.

Take, as an example, a product catalogue with user-contributed reviews. Only a few people can be bothered to contribute (think of TripAdvisor as an example). Those people have disproportionate power – but that’s no different to any system where there’s a binary distinction between people who “do something” and those who do nothing!

Being able to rate a review (x people found this review useful) can draw not only the occasionally-contributing 9% but also engage the other 90% (who may of course be influenced and/or informed by the content contributed).

From an etail perspective it’d have been useful to assess the purchasing behaviour of the 90% who ‘lurked’ (used? read? ignored?) the contributions – to see whether user generated content inequality is a good, bad or indifferent matter to overall sales levels.