The 90–9–1 Rule of Communities

The “rule” of online community participation is not so cut and dry

Do you use Twitter? That question might depend on what you consider “using”?

When Twitter started, I thought it was simply the inconsequential musings of digital elitists. I got on board though in February 2009 as Twitter was taking off. My first attempts at tweeting were awkward, but over the course of 27,000 tweets I found my voice.

Twitter was my community. I could converse with others in the growing NYC tech ecosystem and build real relationships. Over time however, the excitement faded, my priorities changed, and Twitter became more news feed than community.

The reality of Twitter is most people never tweet. A study by Pew Research cited that 71% of Twitter’s users use it to read news. Of the 330 million monthly active users, 134 million are active daily. By active, Twitter means users that simply open the app.

The same can be said for Stack Overflow. They have over 50 million monthly visitors, 9.1 million visitors on a daily basis, and about 71 thousand at any moment of the day. Not everyone contributes though. Only about 5 million engage through voting, commenting, and asking the occasional question. Of that group, just 500,000 users contribute in a significant way.

Mind you, that is not a small number of people. They provide over 4 questions per minute and 6,300 questions per day. Their community of over 50 million users is built on the active contributions of 0.1% of the global user base.

This usage distribution can be seen across other large online communities. In 2006, a group studied social networking participation across various sites:

“There are about 1.1 billion Internet users, yet only 55 million users (5%) have weblogs according to Technorati. Worse, there are only 1.6 million postings per day; because some people post multiple times per day, only 0.1% of users post daily.”

“Wikipedia has only 68,000 active contributors, which is 0.2% of the 32 million unique visitors it has in the U.S. alone. Wikipedia’s most active 1,000 people, 0.003% of its users, contribute about two-thirds of the site’s edits.”

This was the earliest exploration of what is now commonly known as the “1% rule” or the “90–9–1 principle”, a concept that originally emerged from Will Hill of AT&T Laboratories:

The “90–9–1” version of this rule states that for websites where users can both create and edit content, 1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing.

People have quibbled over the ratio, sometimes saying it is 70–20–10 or as I shared in the above, what appears more like 90–10–0.01. Whatever the ratio, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of users in any online community are lurkers.

At first glance, this might seem problematic. Why are more people not contributing more? But perhaps it is useful to ask what would happen if 90% of any community did contribute. You would get significantly more content, but also a lot more noise. Think of chat. One developer I spoke with called their internal system a “dumpster fire of gibberish” which was littered with condo listings, bus schedules, and birthday wishes. In large communities, too many active users actually decreases participation.

For smaller communities, you want more active participation in order to generate enough valuable content. Based on the observations of communities, the participation ratio averages out to 65–30–5 on a monthly basis when analyzing the healthiest internal communities.

None of this happens purely by accident. It takes a lot of work to initiate and scale a community. The question then becomes do you focus on driving adoption of the 1% or do you try to get more lurkers and casual users to convert over to contributors?

Investor Mark Suster makes the case you need to pay attention to all groups. You cater to the 1% users because you live and die by them. At the same time, you need to make the experience easy for the casual contributors because as you scale the community, their limited contributions will begin to have a positive impact that draws in the lurkers.

Jakob Nielsen shared five ways to nudge the participation rates higher, all of which directly apply to how vibrant internal communities are built:

  • Make it easier to contribute. The lower the barrier, the more willing users will engage in some way. Creating a simpler user experience and reducing friction ensures repeat usage. One way Instagram did this is through creating immediate value for the user.
  • Make participation a side effect. This is a natural consequence of engaging online communities, where getting responses to a postings immediately provides value back to multiples of users who have similar questions. Every action is a feedback mechanism that creates added value to the community, such as voting on content.
  • Edit, don’t create. It is much easier when there is a starting point. That is why the best communities provide help and have prompts to guide users in how to post a good content. The community, moderators, and power users also help novice users towards contributing better quality content.
  • Reward — but don’t over-reward — participants. The easiest and best means of rewarding community members is through recognition. Being recognized through badges earned for good participation was one of the key mechanisms that enabled public communities like Stack Overflow and FourSquare to grow, and the same dynamic works for building strong internal communities.
  • Promote quality contributors. It is important to recognize all good content, not just the contributions of the most active users. The way most communities manage this is through a reputation system as a way to show the value brought to the community by content contributors and granting privileges to open up further ways to contribute.

Community is the key ingredient and bedrock for building a self-perpetuating content generation engine. Not everyone will want to contribute, but that is not the success criteria. As Steve Nguyen of Microsoft said:

“Is the goal really to convert the 90s to the 1s…I’m confident enough in the existing contributors and contributions that I can find the information I need when I need it. So from that standpoint, does 90/9/1 matter? Not really. As a participant in the network, I trust the people in it.”

What has been your experience contributing in online communities? How are you building an internally facing trusted community around content?

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