The One Percent Rule and the Power of One

There’s an interesting discussion percolating on the Internet about what is being called The One Percent Rule, which Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba of the Church of the Customer Blog, summarize as “roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.”

Charles Arthur (The Guardian Unlimited) casts this rule in simple terms: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.” Arthur adds that The One Percent Rule appears to hold true for YouTube, the rapidly growing online video site and cites statistics showing YouTube’s “creator to consumer ratio” at 0.5%, “but it’s early days yet.”

This rough-and-ready rule seems to apply to the social network sites, like Wikipedia, which rely on “the community” to generate content; it’s clearer now that Wikipedia has a small core of dedicated editors/content generators.

What to make of this?

It’s helpful to consider The One Percent Rule in light of the recent study from Pew Internet & American Life Project on blogging; here’s Pew’s summary of the findings:

The ease and appeal of blogging is inspiring a new group of writers and creators to share their voices with the world.

A national phone survey of bloggers finds that most are focused on describing their personal experiences to a relatively small audience of readers and that only a small proportion focus their coverage on politics, media, government, or technology. Blogs, the survey finds, are as individual as the people who keep them. However, most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

The Pew study found that some 12 million Americans (or 8% of Internet users) are writing blogs, with some 57 million Americans (or 39% of the Web) reading them. Personal expression trumped political opinion: only 11 percent of bloggers were commenting on politics.

If you do the math, Pew is estimating that 1.32 million Americans are blogging on political topics, which represents slightly under 1% of the 147 million Americans using the Web.

The Power of One

NYU’s Jay Rosen has called the blog “a little First Amendment machine.”

That only one percent of the population appears to make use of that machine for political expression may at first seem disappointing, but elites (meritocratically chosen or not) have always driven the discussion of governance and policy. I would argue that the Web has increased the size of that elite in a very positive way.

So all is not lost, even if the top searches on the Web often involve entertainment and pornography.

For starters, what is the reference point for citizen involvement? You could argue that The One Percent Rule reflects an incredible level of activity–after all, blogging and posting is (in most cases) voluntary and without compensation. Before the Web, the outlets for political expression or social (or personal) commentary were limited, and I would guess that it was considerably less than one percent of any community, (except perhaps in time of crisis.)

Education beat reporters will tell you school board meetings are always sparsely attended (certainly less than one percent of the community) unless there’s a controversy over sex education, teacher pay, or a sports program.

If the point of reference is the past, remember also that the much vaunted freedom of the press had limitations–how many of us had access to the press if we were not professional journalists or political operatives? Those barriers to entry have been eradicated by the Web. If you don’t like what you are reading, or hearing, you now have the means to broadcast (or narrow cast) your own take.

The Power of One–of an individual deciding to speak up–has even greater meaning in societies without any lasting tradition of freedom of expression.

The World Editors Forum blog reminded us recently that “Blogs promote free speech in repressive regimes,” and cited examples from Saudi Arabia and China where bloggers use the Web to challenge the cultural, social and political status quo.

Clearly this is a different form of expression than much of what is found on MySpace (where, for example, the Washington Post reports that the Facebook generation continues to post explicit items about their personal life) or other social community sites, but the line can not be drawn so simply. Depending on the circumstances, the personal can be political, after all.

Even if the Internet’s latest wrinkle, the social networks and blogs of Web 2.0, fails to usher in a Golden Age of democratic political expression, it still represents progress. The One Percent Rule is, after all, descriptive, not prescriptive; the Web still offers those willing to invest the time and energy a means to manifest the Power of One.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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