Managing inequality of participation

Jakob Nielsen writes about the contribution inequality in online communities, and how to deal with inequality.

Inequality is this: Only 1 percent of your users regularly contribute to your community. Most people are lurkers.

Inequality is a fact of life, an immutable law of cyberspace. You’re never going to get five percent or ten percent of your users to contribute, so don’t try. Even two percent is probably out of the question. But you can manage contributions better and marginally increase participation on the edges. Jakob’s tips (my condensed version):

  • Make it easier to contribute. For example, use star ratings instead of or along with feedback.
  • Make participation a side effect. Like Amazon’s “customers who bought also bought” feature.
  • Edit, don’t create. Don’t give users a blank slate with no guidance.
  • Reward — but don’t over-reward — participants. I’ve long been a fan of WholeNote‘s point system, which is just points for pride with no prizes.
  • Promote quality contributors. It should be easy to find the gems among the noise of contributions, and if you make it easy, the semi-regulars will be more encouraged to comment.

In my experience, hardcore lurkers will always be lurkers, but you can induce the not-quite-heavy contributors to participate more if you manage the community correctly. Nielsen doesn’t, in fact, mention managing the community, but that is also vital to a community’s well being. The best communities have out-front personalities (either paid moderators (or the community owners) or volunteers. You can raise the quality of participation through weeding and feeding, but that takes time and dedication.

Common mistakes I see newspaper Web sites making start with the lack of detailed attention to their forums. They don’t assign a staffer to monitor and participate. The same applies to comments on stories and blogs. And then they wonder why the barbarians take over. The other mistake they make is to assume their communities are dysfunctional because so few people participate. “See,” they’ll say,”We’re damaging our brand because most people are turned off by the regular contributors.” That’s bunk. People are turned off because you don’t control the barbarians. The people tarnishing the brand aren’t the ones making ugly comments, but the site managers who fail to manage the community correctly.

Online community isn’t something you commit to casually. On the other hand, it’s not something you can neglect and ignore. Community, connections, is an essential part of the Web world.

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