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Participation inequality

Jacob Neilsen’s latest Alertbox Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute highlights the lurkers/participants ratio in social software:

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

Neilsen points to less equitable distributions, and gives suggestions on how to increase the number of participants. Previously the Guardian have discussed this as the 1% rule.

It throws up a ton of questions. Is the growth of a social software system led by the number of participants, or the number of lurkers you can gather who somehow turn into participants? What are the distributions for different sites, and with what are these correlated? Are people who participate in one community more like to participate in another? Does having a consistent identity across services promote or damp general participation? With which distributions are the people lurking and participating most satisfied? How does this compare to television, newspapers, the postal service, the music industry and so on?

I don’t like the word “inequality” because it’s so loaded – the whole phrase seems to promote deliberate and vocal participation as a good thing – but I’d love to know more about distributions of different modes of engagement with communities, completely online and otherwise. Any suggestions for reading material?

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