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Participation Inequality

As a web applications developer, I often read Jakob Nielsen’s articles on usability. His most recent article deals with something of interest to the blogging world – participation inequality, or as we might say, lurkers vs. commentors.

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.

This is important for bloggers to remember. Just because you don’t get a lot of comments doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody reads what you write. The comments you may receive are also not necessarily indicitive of the viewpoint of your total readership. Opposing opinions tend to result in stronger and more vocal responses than you get from people with consenting opinions. Specifically regarding blogs…

There are about 1.1 billion Internet users, yet only 55 million users (5%) have weblogs according to Technorati. Worse, there are only 1.6 million postings per day; because some people post multiple times per day, only 0.1% of users post daily.

Blogs have even worse participation inequality than is evident in the 90-9-1 rule that characterizes most online communities. With blogs, the rule is more like 95-5-0.1.

And what about Wikipedia?

Inequalities are also found on Wikipedia, where more than 99% of users are lurkers. According to Wikipedia’s “about” page, it has only 68,000 active contributors, which is 0.2% of the 32 million unique visitors it has in the U.S. alone.

Wikipedia’s most active 1,000 people — 0.003% of its users — contribute about two-thirds of the site’s edits. Wikipedia is thus even more skewed than blogs, with a 99.8-0.2-0.003 rule.

Nielsen goes on to say that participation inequality will always exist, but there are some things you can do to skew the curve. For blogs, making it easier to contribute will help. Sites where you need to log in to comment will significantly increase the inequality. Also, a commentor reputation ranking system will help promote less frequent, but higher quality commentors over the messages from the “hyperactive 1%”. This type of system is important for very active blogs with a wide readership, such as Buffalo Rising, which is probably why their upcoming platform will include such a feature.

There’s more people out there reading your site than you think! If you want more people to comment, well, good luck. Your best bet may be to just ask nicely for comments. Thoughts? 😉

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