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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.