Social media’s biggest challenge: participation inequality

Source: Jakob Nielsen on participation inequality

Source: Jakob Nielsen on participation inequality

Social media is often equalized with consumer-generated media or user-generated content (UGC), as if everyone using social media would also create content. However, while indeed any user could create content, only very few do. Social scientists have observed this phenomenon since the early nineties. They call it participation inequality.

Jakob Nielsen pointed out that it existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied. According to Nielsen, user participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule (see also diagram):

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

Participation inequality is social media’s biggest challenge, because it undermines the idea of social opinion mining or crowdsourcing. If only 1+9 % of participants are contributing, it’s unlikely that their opinions will be representative of the majority. As a result, it can be dangerous to rely on their contributions only. Just think of product reviews you might base your buying decision on, or think of customer feedback you might use to improve your products.

As far as I can see, there are two tasks for corporate communicators following from this situation. We need to find and understand the 1+9 % of contributors, because they are the influencers of the online opinion market. And we need to find ways to activate the silent majority of lurkers. More on how this can be done in my next post.

Georg Kolb