Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Exclusivity Paradox

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?

23 comments, add yours!:

annette said...

I like that idea!

Reminds me of Sleeping Giants, a beautiful song by an old Kiwi band The Chills:

"For it seems all cultures dream
They have a giant who is sleeping
Or a king who will return in times of need
To fight for setting his people free"

"Rise giants--how have you slept for so long
Start stretching--we need your strength to move on
Stand tall in defence of your land
Rise up to fight the force that draw us backwards"

Nina Simon said...

I love the image of inspiring the passive drones walking through museums to rise and stretch and bring forth their inner giants...

Thanks so much for sharing!

J. Baird said...

I used something similar to this with the Create a Comic Project. I had a box where kids could submit comics that I'd post up and display in the library. This let them be a star for a week or so. I found it really helped encourage participation and hard work, with kids wanting to put their best comics for everyone to see.

American Idol's appeal is largely derived from this concept, I think.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nina. Your wizard analogy is perfect because it illuminates perhaps the biggest hurdle to public participation: In a world where wizards exist, some of us fear that participation might reveal that we are but lowly muggles. By refusing to participate, we can sustain the dream that maybe, under the right circumstances, we *are* magical beings. But if we engage, then we run the risk of removing all doubt.

Re: sending out a message that "this ISN"T for everyone -- it's for the superheroes who secretly live among us" -- well, that's an old idea, isn't it? It's called Museum 1.0, where wizards create & muggles file by and pay tribute.

Your post does hint at a question that lately has been puzzling me: Are the egalitarian participatory promises of web (and museum) 2.0 an illusion? Are we all really engaging each other on a level playing field? Or is the game rigged? Is there a creative aristocracy that leads a charmed life in the castle, while the vast majority of peasants are effectively disenfranchised? I recently ran across "The Great Unread," by Nick Carr, who says:

>> What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere - that it's open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media - is an innocent fraud. <<

You can read the whole thing here:

J. Baird said...

Alan: I think the key is that theoretically anyone can post something, which makes it egalitarian. But not everyone will create things others want to read. Popularity will never be equally distributed, only access to the means of potentially acquiring it.

We shouldn't be surprised it's like this, since it's consistent with every other technological development that's lowered the barrier to entry, from the movable type on. Not every printed book was a Gutenberg Bible. We'd be deluding ourselves to think the rules have changed just because it's on a new medium.

luluinnyc said...

No answers here, just thoughts:

Putting on my 'content creator' hat, I'll admit that I lurked online, watching others' work for years before I found an opening for me to feel comfortable enough to try and create content online (flickr). The space that I found was less exclusive, and yes, most of the viewers are also content creators. I don't know if I would be (creatively) as far along if I didn't have this less exclusive place to put my work up.

That being said, one of my first 'breaks' on flickr came because I was one of 10 people chosen to work on a project based on the content that I was creating. That experience really empowered me and a few of my fellow participants to create more content.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to hear your statistic regarding participation on flickr the other day. I had always assumed that the site was used mostly by people like me, content providers. The more I thought about it the more I realized how irrelevant the consumer only population is to my experience in that community. It doesn't matter. I am a wizard in a land of wizards. I don't feel special in any way, just sometimes very happy with my work and my friends work. My point is that I don't need a feeling of exclusivity, just the meeting of my desire to contribute my creations and energy with an interface that treats my contribution with respect.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

If your content-creating platform is JUST for the "cool kids" won't your platform have an inherently limited shelf life?

You can already see this in the rumbling messages on Twitter complaining that all the "newbies" aren't using Twitter "properly."

It seems more sustainable (but not simple, of course) to try and build something like an iPod or eBay network that allows for strong early adopters (cool kids) yet continues to grow and thrive as "just regular folks" join in.

In that sense, I wonder with a topic as important as fostering positive green attitudes in kids and families, whether I'd want to find the long-lasting hook for everyone, rather than trying to create secret super-heroes. (Besides didn't we already try that with the old Captain Planet cartoons?)

k phillips said...

I think you are right!

Maybe we can inpsire more people to be online super heroes.

It's also good to keep in mind that there's a huge number of people still receiving our content even though they're not contributing.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts...

Create a Comic -- I agree that popularity will never be equally distributed, but the democratic & egalitarian ideas have long fueled the excitement around all things 2.0 suggest that *power* is equally distributed. One wo/man, one blog, one vote. Yet Nick Carr's medieval fable suggests otherwise. And you're right we shouldn't be surprised by this -- yet we are: We post & then pray that we're heard, that someone reads & responds. (I checked back here to see if anyone responded to my earlier comment—and you did! Thanks for that.) Otherwise, we're the tree falling in the proverbial forest -- wondering whether or not we've really made any noise.

Luluinnyc -- I've also lurked a long time on the web, trying to find my footing. And I agree that exclusivity is not what prompts people to create. Rather, it's lowering the perceived risk of failure. ... One of the joys of the web is looking at what's out there, and thinking: Gosh, I can do that! Maybe not as well as some, but at least as well, or better, than many. .... Exclusivity is junior high school, where the pecking order is severe, cliques can be ruthless, popularity is everything, and the definitions of what's cool are claustrophobically narrow. The web, at its best, is more like a very big high school, where you can find a community of like-minded souls who don't think your ideas, clothes, music, and attitudes are unusual or weird. When you eventually befriend those people, you breathe a sigh of relief because you can begin to relax, be your true self, and begin to create. ... Which is sort of what Ben D said: "... an interface that treats my contribution with respect."

I'd also echo what Paul Orselli says: find the "long-lasting hook for everyone, rather than trying to create secret super-heroes." A museum that revolves around anonymous (secret) paintings, or paintings by acknowledged Masters, might showcase some great art, but it undercuts what I think is a central message of museum 2.0: Art is not a lecture, it's a dialogue. It's not Revelation, it's a Conversation. It's not the last word, but the latest utterance in a human discussion without end. .... Or, put in Green terms: It's environmental awareness that is driven by individual choice & personal restraint rather than by government coercion pushed upon us by Congressional "wizards."

Last weekend I attended a party where "spirit people" had been hired to keep people dancing & to maintain a festive mood. An over-amped MC... spandex-clad dancers... highly-caffeinated young people who were being paid to get people dancing & to maintain a festive mood. When I asked one guy at my table why he wasn't dancing, he said: "I don't like to be told what to do." My feeling exactly. Party wizards don't create a celebration; they stage what looks & sounds like a party -- the pictures will look nice in the album -- but will the guests feel as if they've... participated? Or will they feel like props in someone else's play?

Somehow, outsourcing the creative work to wizards seems to short-circuit what 2.0-ers say they ultimately want to create: engagement.... meaning... and the sense that we all are not watching the Show, but living it.

Anonymous said...

I think that the rules for encouraging audience participation, creation, and feedback are essentially the same as they are for developing and keeping a community of volunteers. People appreciate feeling appreciated. If you tell the volunteers at your museum variations on the theme of: 'you make a difference, and this is how,' 'thank you,' and 'we take action based on your input,' then they do feel empowered the same way we hope your content creators would. A lot of our volunteers join us because their friends say it's a great place to work--can some combination of visible appreciation and word of mouth be the key to better participation?

One other thought: a lot of us secretly really like working in museums because it lets us go through the 'staff only' doors. Can giving content creators a back-stage pass of some variety encourage participation? And for some people, it seems like just having a 'uniform' makes them feel part of the in-crowd: what would be the online or exhibit-based equivalent of wearing a blue staff vest?

Matt said...

Here's the decidedly not 2.0 example from the world of the performing arts - most people believe that lowering ticket prices increases attendance. However, some organizations have seen that by lowering ticket prices, you lower the perceived value of the event. Raising prices can, ironically, increase participation.

That said, the beauty of web 2.0 is not that everyone does participate, but anyone COULD participate. Once you increase exclusivity, you take that possibility away.

One more thought - Nina, have you noticed an uptick on blog comments when you write about participation or commenting on blogs or 90/9/1 etc.? Perhaps the way to increase participation is to directly ask people to participate or (maybe) ridicule "lurkers"

Anonymous said...

It's the system that advertising has used at least since the 60s to lure us into the 'participatory' activity of shopping. It was a major concern of the corporations how they would be able to sell the same, mass produced product/service (think 'web 2.0's' social media) to a population that started to live their live in expressing their own individuality. How could they possibly produce personalised items on a mass scale and still make profit?
The answer was, tell them they are special buy buying(participating) the product. And it works. People buy iPods and feel special. Besides all the social media hype, we live in a world of individuals, or so we tend to believe. Addressing this feeling in your target audience is exactly the right attitude.

Why do you think people ask the people who's answer they already know the questions? 'The confirmation of the self is paramount in the human being' - western culture scholar, who got stoned before his time, 1635

Anonymous said...

I think this is a fantastic idea. A lot of people in our society are lured by the idea of exclusivity and being somehow more "elite" or "special" than everyone else. Look at the rampant fascination with celebrities. At the same time you are not actually making the ability to participate exclusive because anyone can become part of the "elite" group. It's simply a matter of appealing to people's inner desire to stand out and then channeling it into your project. This also leads to the possibility of drawing in people who are reluctant to join in at first but don't want to be left out of the special group once they see other people doing it. Maybe I'm getting a little too far into psychological aspects but at the same time, everyone wants to belong. It's a matter of whether they want to belong to the 1% or the 90% and whether we can change their minds.

Nina Simon said...

Wow. How extraordinary to wake up groggy to a rousing discussion going on at this post. Thank you all for starting my morning with a fierce debate.

Alan, I think you articulated very well (with LuluNYC) a distinction that I did not fully think through--eventual participation in web-based communities comes from a perceived familiarity and comfort, not a feeling of being anointed. This is fundamentally different from the thought process that I started with. I was thinking about some of the special "behind the scenes" opportunities I've had, the sort of thing that Meg writes about, and how scarce and unscalable they are. How can you make everyone feel as special as I felt when I got to feed the giraffe or write a poem for an exhibition? You can't let everyone come backstage. I was musing on this problem when it struck me that if only 1% will participate anyway, maybe there's an analogous connection between the 1% who get to feed the giraffe and the 1% who are willing to share their story. Rather than getting to feed the giraffe because of a familial connection or lucky break, maybe that reward should go to the 1% who are willing to contribute something.

But I see now that that thinking is flawed, because the desire to feed the giraffe and the reward associated is quite different from the desire to tell your story and feel validated. Being selected and creating your own opportunity induce different emotions.

Matt, I was fascinated to wake up to so many comments. Why so many on this one and none on last week's online/onsite exercise? My guess is that:
a. people comment when I am less definitive about whether my idea is right or not, i.e. putting out something opinionated and uncertain
b. this was a shorter post, which may mean less reading exhaustion and more mental room to comment

but I'm not really sure. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Nina. You write:
>> ... Why so many [comments] on this one and none on last week's online/onsite exercise? <<

I think it's because participation -- should I? now? if so, how? etc -- is always in the back of your mind when reading a blog. So you hit us with the right message & question at the perfect moment. ... It's almost like Google's ads that are keyed to search, which work brilliantly because they mirror what's on our mind at that moment. (Timing & context are everything.) ... In other words: If you offer folks water when they're thirsty, don't be surprised to see them drink.

Anonymous said...

Wow. New levels of Geekdom. I love it.
Muggles are as important as Wizards. I think we all have been at museum events where the wizards (who are actually simply the prodginy of actual Wizards who made their money in Cereal, Steel, thievery etc.) get to eat the good catering, have their blue blazzared grandchildren slurp up candy apples and generally wall themselves off from the rest of humanity.
But having said all that( Oh how I wish my Daddy was a robber baron!) I think there is somthing said to seeking the wizards to do their work and Muggles to do theirs. I feel certain that an effort like this could inhance participation in social media.
I watched in the classroom as reluctant readers dove into the HP books, even taking them to lunch and trading back and forth. Perhaps opening the world to our listeners in new ways will move up the participation rate.

Eric Siegel said...

now I'm feeling even more elitist...I just want to stroke my beard wisely and say...hmmm...

This reminds why I still think threaded forums like yahoo groups/google groups/museum-l, the astc listserv and the xx music forums I visit and contribute to are the best and earliest 2.0 technologies. You lurk for a while and when you have something to contribute, there is a low friction, low threshold way to do it. It is the most democratic, least threatening way to contribute to an online community that I have encountered in 25-30 years online.

There are thousands of these forums online, thriving, growing, and almost completely non-commercial. In most of the forums I have participated in, people contribute with some sense of responsibility and without the race to the bottom you see in the comments sections of youtube and various blogs.

In many of the forums, the graph of active posters is not nearly as steep as Nina is suggesting. There is almost always clearly a most active group of users, but there is a much larger number of less active users.

We use threaded forums for internal communications at the Hall. I haven't seen one that is part of the museums public face.


Anonymous said...

Hello Nina,

Actually, the majority of people are voyeurs! We must play with this as an attraction way! Then, if we seek people participation at a social community project, our message must be provocative and present clear goals that must linked to people vision. It must give also some kind of benefit which is linked to people interest (it could be fifteen minutes of fame or being green). The democratic element at a social community project must be present in such way that we will give the opportunity that each person receive the message (using different kind of entry points: visual, auditory…) and can express herself/himself through different ways of expression.

David K said...

I have little to add to the thoughtful comments already posted. However, I wanted to encourage folks to check out Chapter 5 of Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations." There, Shirky discusses the Power Law Distribution (which is essentially what we are grappling with in this post). The Power Law describes data in which the nth position has 1/nth of the first position's rank (it is a steep curve with a long tail). It is the shape you see behind the so-called 80/20 rule (for example a store like should see 20 percent of it's inventory account for 80 percent of its revenues).

One of the essential points that Shirky raises in this book (not just in Chapter 5), is that even the folks who contribute only one edit to a Wikipedia article or one piece of code to an open source application help to improve it, and when you have hundreds or thousands who do that, it adds up. In the case of Internet commerce (with its low overhead costs), the long tail phenomenon is incredibly lucrative.

So, for museums... How does this translate? And is there a difference between folks who do something only once as opposed to lurkers who only read something? I would argue that even the 99% who seem to be doing nothing are actually storing "potential energy." They may be learning, thinking, and considering the role models who make up the 1% who are active. I am skeptical that you will find a way to break the power law (there's a reason it is called a "law"). However, we may be able to find ways to make it work for us.

Jeff said...

What percentage of visitors to museums buy something at the shop? - Something like 80% visit the store and 20% buy something. So perhaps the trick is to find ways to commoditize creativity in order to make creating feel more like shopping?

The merchandizing spin is that shopping is a form of creativity - maybe we need to turn the tables and argue that creativity is really a form of shopping.

Rating and tagging are a place to start. And why not canned comments that the user can select from a menu? (Which, come to think of it, is what surveys are.)

On the other hand, maybe it is better if the non-creatives and the voyeurs just keep looking, lurking, and listening.

Maybe one percent is not too low, after all.

Anonymous said...

I really love this post! It's a great idéa! I've used the numbers (90-9-1) myself in many discussions, and always discussed them as a problem, never as a solution. I will keep this idéa and bring it to use in future projects.

Great blog by the way, I read all your posts!

Unknown said...

Thanks all for the comments, and thank you, Nina, for the post. I'm thinking about all the ways that web 2.0 technologies generate buzz and conversation. By allowing anyone to post, these mediums do promote a general sense of equal footing and an expectation to create. In reality, the content produced is still dependent on the comfort of the individual with the media. I think that the value of 'lurkers' is often underestimated and perhaps by creating more of a sense of exclusivity, pressure to preform will be alleviated and enjoyment of the experience (even if slightly voyeuristic) can go up. I do deeply believe that we learn best by doing, but I'm not sure that I always believe that creating content (in any context) is 'doing'.

I also, would add that I agree with Allan's response to quantity of comments and discussion, and with Nina's comment. These open ended posts prompt careful thought on the part of the reader. Thanks so much for all the insight!