Seven or so years ago, at the back of a Forrester Research report whose subject I have long forgotten, there was a paragraph on the remarkable productivity of some of the members of Dell Computer's customer support forums. Commenting on one user who by himself had answered thousands of questions in the forums, the writer asked rhetorically, "Who are these people?"
The expression "these people" suggests a dismissiveness which I didn't (and still don't) like, but I appreciated the writer's honesty. None of us really know much about those individuals who are particularly active in contributing content online. We know them as individuals; we don't know much about them in general. They are often hesitant themselves to describe what they do. One blogger recently noted in a Chicago newspaper that most people she knows personally are not aware that she contributes to a well-known blog; another, an amateur researcher whose online comments on bird flu have earned respect from professionals, said she avoids mentioning her work for fear "my neighbors will think I'm weird."
Who are these people? It's an interesting question. Seven years on, I've met a lot of them. I've talked to them about their work, I've done surveys, and I've talked to other researchers about their findings too. I think I'm beginning to understand a little bit about why they do what they do.
Some are motivated by opportunities to demonstrate what they know. Some gets satisfaction from helping other people. Some derive particular pleasure from coming up with an obscure piece of trivia or solving a particularly knotty problem that no one else can solve. But the biggest motivator, as near as I can tell, is a drive to acquire greater knowledge and/or skill in whatever domain -- business, technology, politics, music, television, whatever -- they've decided to embrace.
But knowing why they do it doesn't really explain how they are different than you and me. I was reminded of this back in October, when I learned that Denny Denham passed away. He contributed more than 30,000 posts on the Dell forums, averaging about 13 contributions per day, every day, for the past 7 years. Sadly, we can't ask him what the forums meant to him, but we can read about what he meant to some of his fellow users.
Who are these people? I thought of this again today, when I read Lev Grossman's cover story in the most recent Time magazine:
Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?
The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
I think Grossman's conclusion is a little bit off. It certainly isn't all of us creating all of that content on the web. Still, I take his remarks as a kind of data point. That question from seven years ago is still out there, with no answers yet.