Power Law of Participation

    April 27, 2006

Social software brings groups together to discover and create value. The problem is, users only have so much time for social software.

The vast majority of users with not have a high level of engagement with a given group, and most tend to be free riders upon community value. But patterns have emerged where low threshold participation amounts to collective intelligence and high engagement provides a different form of collaborative intelligence. To illustrate this, lets explore the Power Law of Participation:

Most of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail examples have focused on models of consumption, not production, where intelligence is largely artificial. Amazonian algorythms guide users down the long tail from Britney Spears to Nobodys, made available without the constraints of shelf space. But the interesting question is will the tail wag? Can users discover their own power together to either discover something great, or even create it?

As we engage with the web, we leave behind breadcrumbs of attention. Even when we Read, our patterns are picked up in referral logs (especially with expressly designed tools, like Measure Map), creating a feedback loop. But reading alone isn’t enough to fulfill our innate desire to remix our media, consumption is active for consumers turned users.

Digg is the archetype for low threshold participation. Simply Favorite something you find of interest, a one click action. You don’t even have to log in to contribute value, you have Permission to Participate. Del.icio.us taps both personal and social incentives for participation through the low threshold activity of tagging. Remembering the URL is the hardest part, and you have to establish an identity in the system. Commenting requires such identity for sake of spam these days and is an under-developed area. Subscribing requires a commitement of sustained attention which greatly surpasses reading alone. Sharing is the principal activity in these communities, but much of it occurs out of band (email still lives). We Network not only to connect, but leverage the social network as a filter to fend off information overload. Some of us Write, as in blog, and some of us even have conversations. But these are all activities that can remain peripheral to community. To Refactor, Collaborate, Moderate and Lead requires a different level of engagement — which makes up the core of a community.

The byproduct of use is a Conucopia of the Commons — the act of using the database adds value to it. As users engage in low threshold participation (read, favorite, tag and link) we gain a form of collective intelligence. But it is important to distinguish the value of collective intelligence and collaborative intelligence, as first pointed out by Mitch Kapor:

…Tons of interesting types of collaborative filtering, like Digg, is TiVo like, indicating individual preferences, with some algorythm logic. Valid and interesting, but people are not connecting. Different from a bunch of people focusing on creating something. That is higher value than collaborative filtering, my thesis, if you can get people to work together. Look at health information, broadly speaking, why are doctors not collaborating to build such a resource — the lack of information, locked up in a database that Harvard publishes, kills people. I can feel the opportunity…

When users participate in high enagement activities, connecting with one another, a different kind of value is being created. But my core point isn’t just the difference between these forms of group intelligence — but actually how the co-exist in the best communities.

In Wikipedia, 500 people, or 0.5% of users, account for 50% of the edits. This core community is actively dedicated to maintaining an open periphery. Part of what makes Flickr work isn’t just excellence at low threshold engagement, but the ability to form groups. Participation in communities plots along a power law with a solid core/periphery model — provided social software supports both low threshold participation and high engagement.

DiggThis | Yahoo! My Web


Ross Mayfield is CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, an emerging provider of Enterprise Social Software that dramatically increases group productivity and develops a group memory.

He also writes Ross Mayfield’s Weblog which focuses on markets, technology and musings.