What's the best way to maximize participation in a social platform? There are some tried-and-true answers: make the platform easy to use, welcome people in. Tell prospective users, "anyone can contribute!" "This is for everyone!"
I used to believe this, but recently, I've started to wonder if the message that these projects are "for everyone" undercuts our ability to serve the relatively few people who will actually contribute. They're special, and maybe we should start treating them as unique members of an exclusive society. Let me explain.
It’s common to have low expectations with regard to the number of people who will create content in participatory platforms (online media-sharing sites, contributory projects, story-sharing exhibits). In social media, the rule of thumb is 90-9-1: 90% spectate, 9% comment or rate content, and 1% produce content. On sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, the ratio of spectators to producers is even more pronounced; on sites like Flickr or Facebook, the ratio is lower.
1% is a pretty exclusive club. And yet ironically, we spend most of our time with participatory projects accentuating how open they are. We think we must design these platforms to be as open and welcoming as possible, so that everyone feels able to contribute content.
But the truth is that very few people participate as content creators. Only some people are motivated that way. And so I wonder if we wouldn’t be better served as designers by accentuating the uniqueness of these creative participants. Think of Harry Potter. Not everyone is a wizard in J. K. Rowling's world—in fact, very few people are wizards. The thing that’s captivating about Harry Potter, and Willy Wonka, and Jedi knights, and X-Men, is that they are part of a special, highly exclusive club. They have some innate ability, deformity, or lucky moment that vaults them into secret societies where their full talents are expressed and appreciated.
And so imagine if, instead of launching a community project and stating, “this is a place where anyone can contribute,” you launched and said, “Only one in a hundred people will share something here. Are you that one?” The idea that the user might be someone special, someone in the minority, is evocative and immensely appealing. If everyone can do it, why bother? If only YOU can do it, the motivation goes up.
For example, I’m working with a museum on an exhibition platform to support people becoming “more green,” and for obvious reasons, we want to encourage everyone to feel like there is some action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. But if only 1% of the museum visitors will really use the platform, perhaps we should be designing a secret underground society of green warriors and inviting visitors to see if they have what it takes to be part of it. That fantasy, that users might be something greater than anticipated, might ironically drive participation up above 1% as more people want to be “part of the club.”
This secret power impulse is often overlooked by people like me, who are mostly focused on the democratic, communal elements of social technology. But for many people, the chance to show off abilities as a writer, a photographer, a videographer—talents that may not be appreciated in a day job--are primary motivators for participation. This goes beyond having your fifteen minutes of internet fame. It’s about finding a venue where you feel validated as the superhero you secretly know you are.
Games do this. Why don't social community projects? I’ve seen some projects that play a bit by asking you to sort yourself into a group, to narrow your participation via an affinity or ability. But I haven’t seen any that message prominently the concept that this ISN’T for everyone—it’s for the superheroes who secretly live among us. Maybe if we focus on supporting users' inner superpowers, we’ll attract more active content creators, people who were just waiting to throw on a cape and get moving.
What do you think? Is this a flawed argument that will lead to less participation, not more? Are you part of the rare superhero species (0.1% of Museum 2.0 readers) who will read this post… and comment on it?