Last week Jake McKee created a new site, 90-9-1.com, to spur debate on the principle of Participation Inequality best described by Jakob Nielsen in his Alertbox newsletter back in 2006. I wrote about this back in 2006 as well, and I don't think I'd change anything I said back then. However, I would add a few things today, particularly in response to McKee's efforts and the responses it has produced so far.
Points to McKee is for stirring this debate, but points off for muddying it at the same time. Compare McKee's pyramid to Nielsen's:
You'll see that where the segments in Nielsen's pyramid differ by degree (none, some, a lot), McKee's segments differ in kind. Creators and editors do different things. In other words, this is not the 90-9-1 framework Nielsen is talking about. It's a proposal for a new framework.
How well does it work? Not very well, as it turns out. As McKee describes them in an audio response to a comment on his blog, creators start with a blank piece of paper, and editors "append something someone else has created." The creators in McKee's model are the 1% and the editors are the 9%.
Now think of one of the most common types of community on the web: the technical support community. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these on the web. It's probably half of our business at Lithium, and some of our customers have registered millions of users -- and served tens of millions more if you include what Nielsen calls "lurkers" and what McKee calls the "audience."
Ok, now here's the punch line: if you talk to anyone who runs one of these communities -- and I recommend you do, because they can tell you a lot about the future world in which every company will be in continuous communication with customers -- they will tell you that the breakdown between creators and editors is exactly the opposite as Jake defines them. The 1% of users who are most active are incredibly unlikely to ever start a conversation. What they do is provide answers. It's the 9% who ask all the questions -- who start with the blank piece of paper.
Others commenters on McKee's post have correctly pointed out that McKee's pyramid is actually an unholy blend of Nielsen's work and the kind of participation hierarchies that Forrester and Gartner have created. To help out, Josh Bernoff at Forrester usefully explained how his participation hierarchy (Forrester calls them social technographic profiles) differs from the kind of thing both Nielsen and McKee are aiming at. (He doesn't highlight McKee's error, but his research has focused more on community users rather than the dynamics of those users within individual communities, so he simply may not know.)
Credit to Bernoff when he says that looking at real data makes 90-9-1 a messier proposition, though not (in my experience) an invalid or unuseful one. Here are a few things our data at Lithium tells us (using Nielsen's definitions for 90-9-1):
90-9-1 is scale-sensitive. In larger communities (say, >100K), heavy participants are likely to be many fewer than 1%. That may be one reason that YouTube total participant base (that is, the 1% plus the 9%) is 0.16%. For another data point, Marc Smith's research on Usenet newsgroups found that .05% of Usenet users are heavy contributors. Alternatively, the number can be higher in smaller communities (say, <200), because of the effects of peer pressure and closer relationships.
90-9-1 also varies by modality. It's truer of forums than it is, for example, of video uploading, where the some barriers still exist to participation. (Not every user has a camera that captures video or knows how to upload videos they create, hard as it may be for us in the geek-o-sphere to believe.) That may be another reason why YouTube is at 0.16%.
90-9-1 is very handy in planning your outreach efforts. In other words, it does, as Richard Millington points out, give you a useful way to think about how many people you need to drive to the home page of your community in order to have an active community. I call it a "planning assumption."
90-9-1 is not necessarily, as Millington suggests, a "huge opportunity." Not one, if you're running a community, you should bet your job on. I'm not saying it can't be -- I'm just saying the odds are not in your favor.