The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize
that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community
and multi-user service that has ever been studied.
Your only real choice here is in how you shape the inequality
curve’s angle. Are you going to have the “usual” 90-9-1 distribution,
or the more radical 99-1-0.1 distribution common in some social
websites? Can you achieve a more equitable distribution of, say,
80-16-4? (That is, only 80% lurkers, with 16% contributing some and 4%
contributing the most.)
Although participation will always be somewhat unequal, there are ways to better equalize it, including:
- Make it easier to contribute.
The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For
example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating,
which is much easier than writing a natural-language review.
- Make participation a side effect.
Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their
contributions a side effect of something else they’re doing. For
example, Amazon’s “people who bought this book, bought these other books”
recommendations are a side effect of people buying books. You don’t
have to do anything special to have your book preferences entered into
the system. Will Hill coined the term read wear for
this type of effect: the simple activity of reading (or using)
something will “wear” it down and thus leave its marks — just like a
cookbook will automatically fall open to the recipe you prepare the
- Edit, don’t create.
Let users build their contributions by modifying existing templates
rather than creating complete entities from scratch. Editing a template
is more enticing and has a gentler learning curve than facing the
horror of a blank page. In avatar-based systems like Second Life, for
example, most users modify standard-issue avatars rather than create
- Reward — but don’t over-reward — participants.
Rewarding people for contributing will help motivate users who have
lives outside the Internet, and thus will broaden your participant
base. Although money is always good, you can also give contributors
preferential treatment (such as discounts or advance notice of new
stuff), or even just put gold stars on their profiles. But don’t give
too much to the most active participants, or you’ll simply encourage
them to dominate the system even more.
- Promote quality contributors.
If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only
when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the
torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%. Instead, give extra
prominence to good contributions and to contributions from people
who’ve proven their value, as indicated by their reputation ranking.
Your website’s design undoubtedly influences participation inequality
for better or worse. Being aware of the problem is the first step to
alleviating it, and finding ways to broaden participation will become
even more important as the Web’s social networking services continue to