This disparity follows Zipf Law, whereby 90% of users are lurkers (yes, you know who you are), 9% contribute occasionally while only 1% account for most activity. This pattern seems to hold up to a wide range of online activities, like wikis, discussion forums, review sites and the like. But, interestingly, not blogs. Blogs suffer from this phenomenon to a higher degree, with a 95-5-0.1 split!
If the Freshblog subscription figures (currently around 1100) proxied for readers, then this would indicate we have 1045 passive lurkers, 55 occasional contributors and a measly 1.1 readers doing most of the heavy-lifting. While I'd be the first to congratulate John on his prolificity, I think the real split's probably closer to 95-4-1, or in whole numbers, 1045 lurkers, 44 occasional contributors and 10 regulars. So we might be doing better than the average blog, but there's more to be done. Fortunately, the good doctor also has a prescription. Most obviously, encouraging lurkers to "decloak" (yes, "delurk" is the approrpriate Usenet-era term) will get the participation rates up. Here's some blog-relevant tips from Jakob Nielsen:
- Make it easier to contribute. C'mon people, hit that comment button! Honestly, how much easier could it be? Thumbs up / thumbs down buttons on each post footer?
- Make participation a side-effect. A great suggestion, but it requires users' passive actions (looking at, bookmarking, forwarding a page) to somehow "count". Displaying the popularity of outgoing links ("24th most followed link") might fall under this category. As does "today's top searches" and "today's top pages".
- Edit, don't create. Sure, give people templates. Works great in wikis. But blogs? Would people want "comment templates"? Or even a "clone this comment" button? Would that increase or decrease the signal-to-noise ratio?
- Reward participants. Sounds good in theory, but you invariably end up with some sort of unwieldy, readily-gamed, karma-based system, like Slashdot's mod points. (In fairness, imagine how much worse that site would be without karma.)
- Promote quality contributors. Dr Nielsen suggests giving greater prominence to quality contributions. This smacks of the "highlight own comments" hacks by Adi and Singpolyma - the presumption being that a blog's owner is likely to be of high quality. In a similar vein, sometimes blog owners invite their more-profligate commentors to join officially (effectively graduating from long, unreadable comments to long, undreadable posts :-) Is there a middle ground, whereby high-quality commentors can have their "associate" status recognised in the form of prominence?
Perhaps an alternative view is to say "well, if you want to get the participation rate up, why not just work hard to repel lurkers?" At which point, maybe it becomes apparent that the participation rate is the wrong metric ... after all, lurkers are pretty easy to tend, mostly feeding and watering themselves. Besides, they may make contributions behind the scenes, forwarding and discussing post via email or suggesting blogs of note to friends. Should bloggers be focused on the quality and quantity of contributions, not the proportion of seemingly-passive readership?
With a nod to that mischievous logician Lewis Carroll, can I ask: any lurkers feel like commenting on this?
With these discussion points in mind, perhaps this is the perfect post on which to decloak yourself and add your first Freshblog comment ...
Filed in: blogging, blogosphere, blogtech