Is the 1,9,90 Rule Outdated?

futurelab default header

The BBC have just released some interesting research around participation online. The findings (the result of a “large-scale, long-term investigation into how the UK online population participates using digital media today”) have raised a little controversy since they seem to indicate that the long-term model or view of participation online, the 1,9,90 rule, is outmoded.

The so-called 1% Rule has been around (as far as I can work out) since 2006 when it was mentioned in a blog post by Ben McConnell of the Church Of The Customer blog who talked about how “small groups of people often turn out to be the principal value creators of a democratized community”. Shortly after that, usability expert Jakob Nielsen defined it further, describing the ‘participation inequality‘ apparent in most online communities where the majority of users (90%) are ‘lurkers’ who don’t contribute, a small minority (9%) contribute a little, and an even smaller minority (1%) of users account for almost all the action. Over time, this seems to have morphed into a ‘creators’ (1% of people create content), ‘editors’ (9% edit or modify that content), and ‘lurkers’ (90% view the content without contributing) framework.

The BBC claim that their research (I’ve embedded a presentation of the research findings below) shows that the number of people actively participating online is significantly higher than 10%, with 77% of the UK online population now active in some way and participation now the norm rather than the exception. The key driver of this, they say, is the rise in ‘easy participation’ – activities that once required significant effort but are now seamless and every day. 60% of the online population fall into this category. Interestingly, they also found that despite participation becoming much easier, a significant minority (23%) did not participate at all, a passivity not as closely related to digital literacy as some might expect. This leads them to conclude that digital participation is best viewed through the lens of choice, the decisions we make based on who we are rather than what we have, or our level of digital skill.

Shortly after the BBC released these findings, GigaOm weighed in with a post saying that the Beeb had got it all wrong. In claiming that the 1,9,90 rule was outmoded, they said, the BBC were missing the vital point that the 1% rule was “never intended to dictate a single pattern across the entire web: it was a rough guideline for expectations inside any given online community or service.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that 77% of people participate online, they went on, since people behave in different ways in different places. The fact that people can be highly active and participatory in one community whilst a lurker in another, means that it’s perfectly possible for 77% of the online population to be active whilst the 1% rule still holds true for many individual online communities.

I can see their point. But in fairness to the Beeb, the researchers do point out that their ‘passive, easy, intense’ model shown above is neither a progressive one (ie. people do not progress from being passive to being easy and then intense participators), nor is it a universal one – so you may indeed be intensely active in one facet of your digital life (likely the things you are passionate about), whilst far more passive in others.

This spectrum of behaviour makes a whole bunch of sense. I can quite see from my own patterns of digital participation that I exhibit a personal form of participation inequality across not only different facets of my life and interests, but across different platforms. And I can quite see how the rise of ‘easy participation’ might have driven a potentially dramatic shift in overall levels of activity. Think about the fact that in 2006, when the 1% rule was first mooted, Facebook was still quite nascent, there was no Twitter, or Tumblr, or Instagram, or Google+. Equally, there was only a handful of open APIs. There was no frictionless sharing, no Google +1 buttons, or Facebook Like buttons next to just about every piece on content online. Given all this change in such a short space of time, it’s hardly surpirising that, as the BBC say, participation is now the norm rather than the exception.

So how do we square that with a model of participation inequality where a very small proportion of a specific online community will actively contribute, and which intuitively (for me at least) still feels right? The first point is that the 1% principle was never designed to be a fixed rule – whilst the broad ratios might be similar, it always accounted for the fact that different communities naturally have different levels of active participation. Wikipedia, for example, has around 80,000 active contributors against a monthly user base (based on Comscore) of around 400 million, meaning that the ratio of highly active to passive is a lot less than 1%.

But I wonder if it’s also a question of definition. The BBC researchers defined digital participation as “creating and contributing online so others can see”. It’s a very broad definition encompassing all forms of activity from publishing a blog post to simply clicking a Like button. And as they ackowledge in their model above, there is a big difference between intense and easy forms of participation. Many of the current forms of ‘easy participation’ that we now take for granted didn’t exist when the model was first originated. So perhaps, reflective of the more sophisticated ways in which we participate online now, it is indeed time for a more sophisticated version of 1,9,90. One that acknowledges that whilst a very small proportion of people within a specific community (and maybe it is still around 1%) will be creating content, a slightly larger proportion of people (and maybe it is still around 9%) will be editing or modifying in some way, a larger proportion still will be simply sharing or bookmarking that content. This sharing still counts as active participation, but much of this is activity conducted by people who might once have been categorised as passive ‘lurkers’. 

A few asides: Forrester’s Technographics tool has long made the distinction between different types of participation online; renowned VC Fred Wilson has written before of the ‘web/mobile laws of physics’ he encounters in many of the successful startups they see whereby 10% of the registered user base or number of downloads (in the case of an app) will use the service each day, rising to 30% each month; and recent Pew research indicates that ‘power-users’ of Facebook, typically a proportion of around 20%-30%, account for a disproportionate amount of activity but within that there are different power users depending on the activity – one group dominates friending, another dominates ‘liking’ activity, and another dominates photo tagging for example.

So perhaps the Beeb do have a point – whilst participation inequality may still hold true in online communities, maybe it is time we developed a more sophisticated model to take account of the myriad contemporary forms of particpation not only across the whole web, but within the confines of specific communities. Thoughts?

Original post:

Image source: