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A reminder about ‘participation inequality’

I’m busy preparing a couple of new and remixed presentations for delivery in the northern hemisphere in the next few weeks and Tony Walker over at the ABC reminded me about this excellent summary of Participation Inequality by usability evangelist Jakob Nielsen.

How to Overcome Participation Inequality

You can’t.
The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.

Your only real choice here is in how you shape the inequality curve’s angle. Are you going to have the “usual” 90-9-1 distribution, or the more radical 99-1-0.1 distribution common in some social websites? Can you achieve a more equitable distribution of, say, 80-16-4? (That is, only 80% lurkers, with 16% contributing some and 4% contributing the most.)

Although participation will always be somewhat unequal, there are ways to better equalize it.

In our collection database tagging represents less than 0.01% of activity on the site. But, because we also do some neat search tracking we can combine a very low level of tagging (folksonomy) with our existing rich taxonomies and the ‘read wear‘ trails left by users in browsing the site to enhance the user experience for everybody.

Others ask me – “I have a blog but no-one ever posts comments, why?”. The answer to which is usually, “are you writing your posts in a way that leaves space open for people to respond simply and quickly?”.

The danger in all this quick uptake of social media amongst the cultural sector is that we often over estimate how much our audiences want to particpate. Sure, in our physical spaces we see them interacting with our on-floor interactive experiences but we then make the mistake of thinking that this will transfer over to the online space. Participation is not the same as interaction – interaction is a much more transient activity whereas participation generally requires effort over time. My advice in the online space is to implement solutions that require, as Nielsen writes, “zero effort” to participate – this is why we do so much work around user tracking and making that tracking simultaneously transparent and, paradoxically, invisible.

Try it.

Here’s my well-trotted out example – search for ‘cricket’ in our collection database.

What does it recommend as ‘related searches’? Other sports and some other words as well usually – it changes dynamically over time which reflects the different patterns of usage and association over time.

Why? Because other users like yourself have told it that these words are related to ‘cricket’.

Have they done so explicitly? No. They just browse the site and their behaviour tells our system that certain terms are related. There is ‘zero effort’ on the part of the user.

How? Ahhh, that’d be telling . . . come to one of my future presentations and find out.