Getting good stuff in: Participation Inequality

An interesting phenomenon, noted by many, is that most content in user-contributed content venues (including online communities that focus more on “community” than on creating a durable information resource) is provided by a small fraction of users. Many have documented that participation in a wide variety of voluntary settings follows a power law (that the amount of contribution decreases proportional to 1 over the rank of the contributor).
Jakob Nielsen offers a nice summary including some historical references:

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.

This sort of participation inequality has been seen in online communities, Amazon book reviews, Wikipedia edits, blogs, and peer-to-peer file sharing networks, to name a few venues (for the latter, see E. Adar and B. Huberman, “Free Riding on Gnutella”, First Monday, 5 (2000), and S. Sariou, P. Gummadi, and S. Gribble, “A measurement study of peer-to-peer file sharing
systems”, Multimedia Computing and Networking (January 2002).)
Inequality isn’t directly an issue of “getting good stuff in”, as much as about getting stuff in at all. But of course, the quality of contributions is going to depend on who is motivated to contribute, not just how many contributors there are. Thus, the problem of getting critical mass for a user-contributed content service is not just getting enough contributors, but getting the right contributors.

Making a business of user-contributed content

Just how important is it to manage the incentive-centered design problems for a user-contributed content web site? If you want to make a business out of it, crucial. There is not a lot of advertising revenue to be made (yet) by most online services: to succeed, you need to keep your costs very low and your page views high. ICD is critical to both.
Dan Mitchell today wrote in the New York Times about the economics of advertising-supported web sites. He reports on a study by venture capitalist Jeremy Liew, “Three ways to build an online media business to $50m in revenue”, plus a followup. Liew argues that to make $50 million in revenues, you need to get to Top 10, 25 or 125 levels of US website traffic (depending on the demographic of your viewers, which affects what advertising you can deliver). The basic implication: few sites will make major revenues from advertising, and to do so is very hard.
And, so, the payoff to terrific ICD; actually the two payoffs: higher quality (more traffic) at lower cost. To get significant advertising revenues you’ll need consistent high quality to attract visitors and keep them returning. That means getting good stuff in, and keeping bad stuff out. And, given the modest advertising revenues that are available (much less than $50 million is going to be possible for most sites), you’ll want to keep costs down, which means getting most of your labor for free (user-contributed content) without a lot of expensive editorial staff or other interventions.
As an example of the possibility of keeping down the cost side, the Wikimedia Foundation (which owns Wikipedia) currently has less than ten full-time employees.

Other ICD outposts in the blogosphere

I haven’t run across a lot of people blogging narrowly on topics that fall within the purview of incentive-centered design, but here are a few.
The most thoughtful I’ve seen so far is Dave Pennock. Dave was a computer science Ph.D. student of my co-author Mike Wellman here at U Michigan; he is now a scientist in the Microeconomics group at Yahoo! Research.

Among other things, Dave is one of the leading researchers on prediction markets, which are an important application of ICD techniques. Dave covers this topic and others in his blog.
I also found that David Dworin, a student of mine (Master’s of Science in Information) last year, is reporting on a number of topics related to incentive-centered design.
Bokardo: Social Web Design from Joshua Porter gets it, though he is largely limited to designing software interfaces:

“Social design is a subset of design that focuses on the social lives of users. It deals with the activities, behaviors, and motivations of people who work and play together through software interfaces.”