Participation inequality

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 most.
  • 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 their own.
  • 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.

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