Community participation rule-of-thumb: a follow-up post

There were quite a few interesting comments on a recent post of mine, where I’d outlined a community participation rule-of-thumb I’d been using for a while, which I repeat here for the sake of convenience:

  • For every 1000 people who join a community:
  • 920 are lurkers, passive observers
  • 60 are watchers, active observers capable and willing to kibitz
  • 15 are activists, actually doing something
  • …and 5 are hyperactive, passionate about what they’re doing, almost to a point of obsession

David Tebbutt wanted to know whether this was about public communities or business ones (by which I’ve taken him to mean within-enterprise ones), and bemoaned the implications for enterprises if it held true within-enterprise. David Churbuck, who’d been working on a similar issue serendipitously, felt it reinforced what he’d learnt at Reel-Time since 1995; John  Dodds was in similar vein, pointing me at a post he’d written on the same subject, quoting Jakob Neilsen on participation inequality and suggesting a 90:9:1 split from lurker to passionate. Mark Cahill, who also has experience of Reel-Time, warned about something I’d apparently missed, while endorsing the core: he felt that 2 out of a thousand were monumental jerks who need to be disciplined “pour encourager les autres”.

It’s actually quite a lot to take in, at least for me, and so I’ll keep my response brief. For now.
I think there are two dimensions to community that we must take into account if we are to understand community dynamics in this kind of analysis.

The first is time. People do not stay static in the community roles I’ve suggested; over the right period of time, yesterday’s lurkers may become tomorrow’s hyperactives; there is a gentle churn in roles as people leave and others join, and individual motivations change.
The second is topic. As communities grow, they tend to stay together on some overarching principle or shared ideal, yet clearly disaggregate into a number of subcommunities where the lurker-active-hyperactive roles shift again. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that jazz. In fact, as a community scales, I think its very existence depends on its ability to evolve these overlapping narrow-interest subcommunities. Chris Locke used to call it “organic gardening” whenever we spoke about this during the early Cluetrain days; Amy Jo Kim made clear reference to such behaviour in her seminal book  Community Building On The Web.
And I think, above and beyond all this, there is a Long Tail effect as well, where lurkers have their Warholian fifteen-minutes-of-intense-activity because a particular debate or issue really got them. These are healthy things. Not to be derided or pooh-poohed. No lurkers no community.
I am reminded of what Milton ended On His Blindness with:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

As far as Mark Cahill’s total-jerk problem is concerned, I’m not quite sure. I can see participation being blocked where there is gender, race or similar abuse, or even strong language, something that offends communal sensitivities.

But the extreme freerider is not one I’ve felt I could block. It is part of the price that can be paid by social software, and the only real way I know of curbing such behaviour is by the use of peer pressure.

Those are my early thoughts. I’m very grateful for the comments I’ve received, good food for thought.

14 thoughts on “Community participation rule-of-thumb: a follow-up post”

  1. Regarding my comment, you clarified by saying: “I’ve taken him to mean within-enterprise ones”. And you are right. I am totally interested in social computing within the enterprise and between it and trusted stakeholders (eg external service suppliers, maybe some customers etc).

    I supsect that the statistics you provide and those indirectly provided by Jakob Nielsen are a good ‘rule of thumb’ for the outside world. In another life, I publish shareware, and although I have thousands of users and they have multiple means of making contact with us (and in two cases with each other): email, bulletin board, blog, website forms etc, very few of them do. And those that do tend to be ‘repeaters’.

    Anyway, to return to the point, the dynamics have to be different inside organisations. More specifically within teams or ‘communities of practice’. Otherwise ‘social computing’ as a means of improving collaboration is doomed.

    Isn’t it?

  2. David, I think the way to approach it within an enterprise is to have ONE community, that morphs as necessary into a number of smaller and overlapping subcommunities.

    You will find that the meta-community only needs the four or five per thousand to keep it alive, similar to a true holding company structure over a set of matrixed operating units.

    More later.

  3. I came by to leave the Clay Shirky link, but I see DD beat me to it. :)

    Shall watch this develop with interest. I manage one community for fun and am getting into doing ot professionally as well, so I’m studying all I can find.


  4. On Cahill’s total jerk problem, when reading your first post I too was struck by the absense of a category along those lines. It’s an unfortunate reality, though, that if you have an open space — and particularly an anonymous or semi-anonymous space — there are people who will simply abuse it. This is true of walls in cities, email, chat rooms, blog comments, participation forums, etc. Social scientists might tell us that this is an outlet for aggression which is generated in a different part of our lives where it cannot be expressed — economic depression, sexual frustration, a lack of belief in self, etc. Others might say that certain people are just, well, jerks (to use a term I can safely use in someone else’s blog). Regardless of cause, though, if we want open, well-connected, effective, and fun communities (and we do), as communities we have to find ways to deal with the two (or more) “total jerks” out of every thousand members.

    The question is how. It’s easy to react rather than act, and so try to shut them out of the community or limit their participation in it — put their heads on pikes as a warning to the other jerks out there. I’ve had to do that sometimes (I moderate the forums on a site). I’m not sure I’m convinced that’s the best way, from a human standpoint or indeed from an effectiveness standpoint (especially not in an anonymous or semi-anonymous spaces). But sadly, I don’t have the answer to this one. Cahill may well be right that we need the pikes and their grisly adornment. But do we (who are smarter than me ;-) ) have better ways of doing it? It’s not like this is a new problem, we’re just finding it in new places.

  5. To JP: Thanks for the reminder – I’ve just spent a few weeks in the Office 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 space where most of the emphasis has been on users at the edge taking the initiative, rather than the company as a whole. How quickly one loses perspective.

    To TJC: I’ve found it very helpful for the community to be seen to turn on the jerk rather than any kind of authority figure. Of course, some encouragement behind the scenes might be needed. I realise this isn’t transparent but, heck, we’re dealing with unreasonableness here.

  6. Personally I am always suspicious of ideas that seek to apply order to the chaotic nature of open communities and draw parallels with archaic corporate structures, it smacks of authoritarianism and a desire to control and direct, influences open communities do not react well to. They are what they are, the hyperactives stimulate growth, mobility and productivity but it takes the larger mass to hold them in suspension, isolated from convention and feeding their numbers through said mobility, exchanging energy much as water molecules in a wave do.

    Open communities are the primordial soup of human ingenuity that form in puddles at the boundary of order as both concepts mutually repulse each other. Droplets of this soup merge into flows and torrents building great inertia and as we see so often, wash away the incumbents and their barriers of anal sensitivities and adherence to structure. Now keep in mind they are a primordial gloop, and like any gloop will be made up from an awful lot of plain old stuff that doesn’t do much, then a sprinkling of other stuff that does a little and even less that does a huge amount. The jerks are a tiny minority constituent in that gloop but IMHO are an essential element in stimulating the previously mentioned mobility within gloop. Think white blood cells and the jerks being the vacuous cells that form a vaccine, switching on thousands of those rather inactive white cells.

    I also like to see open source, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek as a few giants standing on the shoulders of many midgets.

Let me know what you think