One of the most often cited statistics, when it comes to conversations about the percentage of people who contribute content versus people consuming it, is the 90-10-1 rule. You can read the original post from Jakob Nielsen’s blog, or there is a shorter summary on wikipatterns. It is usually mentioned in the same breath as Wikipedia statistics about the number of people who read pages, versus people who update them. However both of these numbers are somewhat problematic. The first dates from research in the 90’s, when the web was a very different place, and statistics from Wikipedia are problematic because it is predominantly a ‘read’ and not a write forum. Wikipedia is built from reference content, so it is a place that people go to find information, rather than to state or create an opinion. As a side note, it is becoming more and more that way as editor numbers fall.

Some People Like to Watch

I was interested in a recent study published by the BBC (with many thanks to Sophie Brendel for the pointer). It was looking at participation choice, and the percentage of people who participate, and the kinds of participation that they engage in. Holly Goodier also starts from the 90-10-1 theory, coming to the conclusion that it is outmoded too. She notes:

  • Participation is now the rule rather than the exception: 77% of the UK online population is now active in some way.
  • This has been driven by the rise of ‘easy participation’ …60% of the UK online population now participates in this way, from sharing photos to starting a discussion.
  • Despite participation becoming relatively ‘easy’, almost a quarter of people (23%) remain passive – they do not participate at all.
  • Passivity is not as rooted in digital literacy as traditional wisdom may have suggested. 11% of the people who are passive online today are early adopters.

Some People Like to Engage

You can read the full report as a pdf here. It is interesting that our own observations of the social intranets we have been engaged in building over the last several years, is that the ratio tends to range very broadly. For every 100 people who are registered users, anywhere from 80-98 percent of people will read it regularly (which makes sense, given holiday patters), while contribution will range from less than 5% up to 25% for those who contribute comments, falling down to 1-2% who contribute longer form content on a frequent basis (e.g. blog posts, articles etc). It seems to depend on the corporate culture, and the nature of the business – knowledge based businesses typically seem to have higher contribution rates, while retail and manufacturing are lower. Again, we put that down to job design – opportunity to contribute – and the spread of job roles – manual versus managerial.

Now Break All The Rules

It is time to re-think the 90:10:1 rule, as it has become something of an urban myth, at least in the context it is usually cited in. The contribution ration really depends on the context, content and the type of on-line activity, and the experience. It is best to avoid the generalisation, and instead, attempt to understand what the benchmark is for the situation that you are operating in, and use that as a steering point.

Ultimately, in the intranet context at least, you are in a race against yourself. Set engagement targets, and measure yourself against them, then see if they can be bettered, always understanding that any context will ultimately have a ceiling. Not everyone will ever become a contributor, because not everyone needs to be – although more often than not, those who could and should be contributing aren’t. Even if that is a cultural problem, rather a technical one, there are ways to flatten the pyramid. Create different levels and styles of contribution, from comments, to recommendations, to ratings (see Bradley Horowitz Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers for some ideas).

Moving from an audience that is used to passively consuming, to one that is actively engaged in co-creating, is a long journey. If broadcasters like the BBC are embarking on that journey, shouldn’t you?