Wikiality: The Voice of The Crowd Is a Whisper

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The Wisdom of Crowds idea is a beautiful and elegant theory, despite any Aristotelian reservations you may have about the masses. Internet visionaries have applied the concept as a slogan for the participatory Web, and a deathblow to elitist information dissemination. Only problem is, only the elite are participating.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has some cold water for those starry-eyed techno-philosophers: participation inequality on the Web is rampant. The offline silent majority, whose main concerns are check engine lights and E. Coli-free spinach, reserve their right to remain silent on the Web as well. Nielsen’s haunting summary:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

They also account for nearly all the content – confirmation that freedom of speech is a rarely used protected institution? Maybe, but that’s beside the point. This seems to be the general rule of Web 2.0 – that the smallest numbers of people contribute the most insight, rather than the other way around. And it’s gotten worse since the Usenets of the Nineties.

A study of Compuserve bulletin boards, Internet mailing lists and internal discussion boards found that 25 percent of messages were from three percent of participants. In the 21st Century, the Elite Web has grown much more powerful.

The breakdown:

90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).

9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.

1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs. .

Blogs and Wikis are worse. Only 0.1 percent of users contribute to the blogosphere. Only 0.003 percent edit a Wikipedia article. At Amazon, one reviewer has written over 12,000 book reviews.

Last Spring, our own David Utter reported on organized factions of Digg.com users collaborating on which news stories were promoted to the front page of the site.

If there is any real wisdom among the crowds, they’re not taking the time to share it with the rest of us. And, as the participatory Web imitates life imitating art, the squeaky wheels are the ones rolling this whole thing forward.

Nielsen gives some advice for encouraging users to make a contribution to the online society, a few of which are tricky but essential within the realm of Internet philosophy. It’s worth a read if you’re a Web-democratization evangelist.


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