90-9-1 Rule Skews the New Web

Photo by powerbooktrance on Flickr used under Creative Commons

Photo by powerbooktrance on Flickr used under Creative Commons

You’ve probably heard of the 90-9-1 rule of communities, outlined here by Jakob Nielsen.

If not, here’s the summary:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

News over the past couple weeks underscores this theory. First, we hear from the Harvard Business School that “the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets.” Further, “a typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.”

Not all that surprising. If you use Twitter, think about your usage. Generally, people join, plant the obligatory “checking out this twitter thing” flag and then disappear, frequently forever.TechCrunch then adds metrics from Purewire to the pile. From their research:

  • Followers
    • Accounts with 0 followers: 29.4%
    • Accounts with 1 to 9 followers: 50.9%
    • Accounts with 10 or more followers: 19.7%
  • Followings
    • Accounts following 0 people: 24.4%
    • Accounts following 1 to 9 people: 43.4%
    • Accounts following 10 or more people: 32.2%
  • Tweets
    • Accounts with 0 Tweets: 37.1%
    • Accounts with 1 to 9 Tweets: 41.0%
    • Accounts with more 10 or more Tweets: 21.9%

So, 80% of users follow fewer than ten others, 70% are followed by fewer than ten others, and 78% have tweeted less then ten times.

Makes you wonder what the big deal is with Twitter. Twitter isn’t for everyone, and you may never find it valuable. I’ve been saying that for years.

Then, this NYT article (h/t Slashdot) references data from Technorati citing a 2008 survey that found only 7.4 million of the 133 million blogs they track had been updated in the past 120 days, or put more directly, 95 percent of blogs are essentially abandoned.

All these data run counter to the hype around the New Web. All that talk about user-generated content and crowdsourcing intelligence seems wildly optimistic in the face of the actual numbers.

From my experience blogging and tweeting, I can’t say I’m surprised. Most people don’t have the time to keep a blog running regularly or to build a following on Twitter. Even if you dedicate yourself to these activities, you’re bound to hit patches of boredom and frustration.

As much as New Web tools are compared to cocktail parties, I often wonder if the party is being held in the Grand Canyon, and I’m having one of those dream where I’m talking and then yelling without making any actual sound.

Insert the “these things take time” adage.

It’s true here, with the caveat that time could be infinite.

Seriously though, New Web and the technology supporting it are racing way ahead of human adoption. Most people just aren’t ready to jump out of the lurking crowd and into the 10% participating.

The Harvard Business School study added one interesting gem that alludes to the way to get people to jump.

“On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production.”

They don’t cite any other statistics, which is a bit maddening, but extrapolating, the numbers suggest that social networks have the potential to break through the 90-9-1 barrier. If 70% of the content is created by the remaining 90% of users, why not? This is a much more even distribution.

I think we all know why. Trust.

Whether it’s based in reality or not, the majority of people trust social networks that use the symmetric follow model, i.e. we’re friends or we ain’t. I can’t think of any other reason why participation is higher on “typical” social networks.

This is a good lesson for broadcast-friendly services like Twitter and blogs. If you want engagement and participation, you need trust.

What do you think? Do these numbers jibe with your behavior?

Sound off in the comments.




  1. One minor comment on the Technorati stat. In some cases (including my own), blogs were abandoned because new blogs were started. I've changed my blogging strategy a few times since 2003, going from multiple blogs to a single blog and back to multiple blogs again. And with these new blogs, my last visit to Technorati revealed that Technorati hadn't pinged them in some time, so my near-daily updates to the blogs were unknown to Technorati.

    This doesn't invalidate your premise – there clearly is a steep curve when you graph members' interactions – but it's worth a mention.

  2. Good point. The NYT piece focuses on pie-in-the-sky bloggers who had dreams of getting rich, which, as we all know, doesn't happen. If that's the motivation, quitting is pretty easy.

    Besides, blogging is harder than it sounds, and it takes time and dedication, even if you're building an audience vs. trying to make money.

    Unless you strike gold with UCG + pithy captions, providing a never-ending supply of content w/very little of your own effort 🙂 I should focus on the ICHC network; that's a crazy business model.

  3. You're on Twitter? IMO getting local news and government on Twitter, assuming they're paying attention, is a good thing.

    Big assumption though.

  4. I signed up for it when Oracle people started doing it, never got into it. I just thought those particular articles were interesting, marketing people have a, er, “different” view of the social technologies. Combine marketing with government and politics and, voila, it's 1984 (the book) all over again. Paying attention? Shoot, don't get me started on that. These people don't pay attention, they only are in it for the money or manipulation. The marketing people are just in it for the money, write a blog, make a tweet, they've done “work.” I don't begrudge people getting gummint contracts, but they often are putting out drivel rather than content. And that is not a good thing for social media, as you noted, trust is the differentiator for usefulness. How long would you follow a blog that is just Oracle press releases? Would you hang on its every word in case they bought some other company? Isn't that even less interesting than some stranger saying they don't want to clean their toilet? Good blogs are interesting because they analyse, tell you things you don't already know. Can tweets say the same?

    An interesting point came out of an article about Flo TV: “I think that says there is clearly a demand from people who have the service, and we see a really big spike when things are happening that people care about, whether that's a Lakers-Magic game, a plane landing in the Hudson River, swine flu outbreaks, the inauguration… When things are happening in my life, I want to view them on the best screen available. If the Lakers' game was on now, but I'm on an airplane, I'm between classes, I'm on a road trip in a vehicle and I have my netbook with me, that's the best screen available. So people are living their lives, and their expectation is whatever is happening can be integrated into their lives where they're at.” – Bill Stone

    You can only watch so many videos of people getting hit in the nuts by eight-balls. You can only read so many useless tweets. At some point, the Grand Canyon gets a little too quiet. Then the bots come.

  5. Feeling honored that you continue to read here and enjoy your contrarian viewpoint.

    Interesting point from Bill Stone. I have used Twitter frequently to find news reported as it happens, and for me, the 'tubes provides the best screen, mainly b/c it's, you know, online and all. The best screen probably applies to your thoughts on mobile as well, incidentally.

    I can't do Twitter w/o groups for filtering, which is the only reason I cling to TweetDeck, despite its memory consumption. You don't hear much complaining about native Twitter groups anymore, but that's definitely a gap I'd like to see filled.

    There's that trust thing again.

  6. Hmmm. Dr Jakob Nielsen's work is from Oct 2006 and based on studies even earlier than that. Wouldn't it be more useful to compare the two Forrester studies 13% are Creators in 2007 up to 26% Creators in 2009? We are learning to contribute. We will learn Twitter. We find blogs lonely (media created in isolation) and hard to build an audience and time consuming but we learnt Facebook very well. Twitter offers nothing to a first time user (not much of a profile to fill in, no apps to play with). But they eventually come back…

  7. Sure. The Forrest study that Charlene and Josh did break the types of users down into much more granular categories, which is good. I'm not sure of the sample sizes, but my guess is, when applied to the 'tubes, the numbers are probably still closer to 90-10 for blogs and Twitter.

    As you say, blogs are hard, and frankly, so is Twitter. The value of community is tough to quantify.

    Agreed that participation takes time, and you allude to the main reason why when you mention Facebook. It's trust.

    I don't actually find blogs lonely. It just takes time to build a community.

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