Many-to-one – a web 3.0 principle?

The first generation of the internet was all about access to information. The second generation –web 2.0 – is all about participation making the web social, since any user can create content and share it with other users. However, as I pointed out in my last post, there are only very few users actively contributing to the social web. Most users are just consuming content, not creating it. This kind of participation inequality presents a huge challenge for the corporate use of social media, since it impacts the meaning of content created by participants. Without enough people participating, it’s hard to tell how relevant the content actually is. Web 3.0, sometimes also called semantic web, holds the promise to increase relevance and meaning for users. As far as I can see, there are currently three different approaches to deliver on this promise.

Wolfram Alpha LogoThe first is relying on technology, the second is more relying on humans, and the third is combining both. The technology approach is focused on the improvement of search technologies. Next generation search engines such as Wolfram Alpha promise to pull up more relevant search results based on more intelligent search mechanisms. Information portals such as Alltop leverage human content curators to make sure the content they present or recommend is valuable, so that users come to their place when looking for relevant content.

Alltop LogoBoth of these approaches help to some extent when it comes to extracting meaning from content that already exists, but they don’t help with the challenge of participation inequality. How do we know that the content we find on the web is representing the opinions or beliefs of more than a random selection of users? I don’t believe that – for the foreseeable future –a purely technology based or a mainly human based approach will suffice to crack this. A smart combination of man and machine looks more promising to me.

straightto logostraightto, a German software firm,  does exactly that to create what they call  many-to-one communication. Leveraging both technology and the intelligence of users, straightto communication platforms enable any large number of people to have an organised dialogue with one addressee, e.g. citizens with a politician or employees with their CEO. So, many-to-one means that a multitude of participants can get straight through to someone they otherwise would hardly have access to. But there is more to it. Many-to-one also means that  opinions, questions or requests of participants are being bundled and ranked. As a result, the addressee can see what’s most important to people and focus on those issues. Equally important, this approach opens a solution to the problem of participation inequality: you just need few people actually expressing their opinion. The only thing others have to do is to vote on these opinions. Since this is a much lower barrier for participation, it is a powerful way to activate the silent majority. And it works! German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a whole bunch of other politicians are using it to find out what citizens are interested in, and CEOs of large enterprises use it to find out what’s important to their employees. Pretty compelling, don’t you think? Surely compelling enough for me. I recently joined the company.

Georg Kolb


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