Community Strategy Insights

The latest insights on community strategy, technology, and value by FeverBee’s founder, Richard Millington

A Systematic Destruction Of The 90-9-1 Rule

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

At some point, 90-9-1 crossed over from a Wikipedia observation to a rule defining participation in any community. It’s a lie.

For community building, 90-9-1 is irrelevant. At best, it showcases poor practice or lack of understanding. At worst, it lets you feel happy about 90% of your members not participating.

Here are 8 good reasons why this rule is flawed.

  1. Nobody can explain it. There is no explanation. Why would only 1% of people contribute? What is the psychological basis for just 1% of people participating? Does anyone decide not to participate in a community because it’s reached it’s 1% quota? Of course not.
  2. Size does matter. 90-9-1 doesn’t apply for smaller communities. Communities of 8 people have near 100% participation rates. Even with larger communities this is a lie. Facebook, World of Warcraft, XKCD and many communities with hundreds of thousands of members surpass the 1% contribution rate. This rule gets broken a lot.
  3. 0.001 to 20%. The rule varies more wildly than one might expect. Everything from 0.001% contributions to the Pareto Principle of 20%. That’s a huge unexplained variation. That’s a huge difference.
  4. Content channels are not a community. Wikipedia is not a community, nor is YouTube. They are content channels. The difference is huge. You don’t join the CNN community by watching CNN, nor your local community by reading the newspaper.
  5. A community isn’t it’s total registered members. Someone driving through the neighbourhood isn’t a member of the community. A community is solely the number of active members. You can’t expect everyone to be a member of a community for life, people come, go and leave. The only difference online is they don’t delete their accounts.
  6. Most community managers are awful. Sad story, but the same people that cite the theory to clients are usually those who do an awful job. They treat the community as a homogeneous mass and not the sum of it’s sub-groups. You need sub-groups for a community. You need to cultivate sub-groups between a size between 6 and 15 members for maximum participation. There is research to support this.
  7. A community is active people, not passive outsiders. How many of your friends aren’t active in your social group? Probably none – or they wouldn’t be your social groups anymore. They would be people you used to know. A community isn’t the number of registered members, it’s the number of active members. By definition alone, 90-9-1 can’t exist. You can’t have a community without active members, the community is the active members.
  8. 100-0-0. This is my observation for the Chess players in Bikinis community. 100% lurk, 0% edit and 0% participate. Do you see the problem? There isn’t a Chess players in Bikinis community. Because no-one contributes there is no community. If no-one contributes you don’t have 100-0-0, you have nothing. Therefore all lurkers, all the 90%, are irrelevant.

Participation inequality does exist in communities. Some people contribute more than others. We need a rule that defines the levels of activity within those that participate, not between those that do and don’t participate.

Sadly, I don’t think it will be as catchy as 90-9-1.

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