It’s somewhat gratifying when an expert confirms something I’ve suspected all along. In the couple of years I’ve worked in blogging I’ve developed a theory, based on comparing traffic stats with comments, that only about 1% of people who read any given blog actually comment on that blog. Well now here comes Jacob Nielsen with his theory of participation inequality.
User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:
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.
That’s 1% can often consist of people who are particularly invested in disrupting a discussion on a particular site and/or in giving the impression of a larger number of discontent users than actually exists, as Nielsen points out as he discusses the downsides of participation inequalty.
The problem is that the overall system is not representative of Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from. This can cause trouble for several reasons:
• Customer feedback. If your company looks to Web postings for customer feedback on its products and services, you’re getting an unrepresentative sample.
• Reviews. Similarly, if you’re a consumer trying to find out which restaurant to patronize or what books to buy, online reviews represent only a tiny minority of the people who have experiences with those products and services.
• Politics. If a party nominates a candidate supported by the “netroots,” it will almost certainly lose because such candidates’ positions will be too extreme to appeal to mainstream voters. Postings on political blogs come from less than 0.1% of voters, most of whom are hardcore leftists (for Democrats) or rightists (for Republicans).
• Search. Search engine results pages (SERP) are mainly sorted based on how many other sites link to each destination. When 0.1% of users do most of the linking, we risk having search relevance get ever more out of whack with what’s useful for the remaining 99.9% of users. Search engines need to rely more on behavioral data gathered across samples that better represent users, which is why they are building Internet access services.
• Signal-to-noise ratio. Discussion groups drown in flames and low-quality postings, making it hard to identify the gems. Many users stop reading comments because they don’t have time to wade through the swamp of postings from people with little to say.
I don’t know if I agree with all of his assertions above, particularly about politics because it seems to me some of the netroots candidates boosted by progressive bloggers this campaign season seem rather moderate.
Nonetheless I think it’s a good idea to on some sites to prohibit anonymous commenting by either requiring registration and login. Or I’d say at least require commenters to enter email addresses on the front end and employ IP tracking on the back end to get a better idea of how many people you’re dealing with (and how much time & energy to spend responding to or managing them). You might even consider posting a brief statement that IP addresses are being monitored. That might go against Nielsen’s assertions that you can’t fight participation inequality, and that one way to at least try to fight it is to make participation easier.
I don’t think the suggestions above raise a significant barrier to participation. But I do think that making anonymous participation a little more difficult adds an element of accountability. If people know that you have their email address or the IP address, they may behave differently than they would if they were sure they were anonymous, in the same way that anonymity let’s people behave differently as part of a group than they would if they thought their identity could be known.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of turning those lurkers into contributors.