The question led me to draw the following pyramid on a nearby whiteboard:
The levels in the pyramid represent phases of value creation. As an example take Yahoo! Groups.
- 1% of the user population might start a group (or a thread within a group)
- 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress
- 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups (lurkers)
There are a couple of interesting points worth noting. The first is that we don't need to convert 100% of the audience into "active" participants to have a thriving product that benefits tens of millions of users. In fact, there are many reasons why you wouldn't want to do this. The hurdles that users cross as they transition from lurkers to synthesizers to creators are also filters that can eliminate noise from signal. Another point is that the levels of the pyramid are containing - the creators are also consumers.
While not quite a "natural law" this order-of-magnitude relationship is found across many sites that solicit user contribution. Even for Wikipedia (the gold standard of the genre) half of all edits are made by just 2.5% of all users. And note that in this context user means "logged in user", not accounting for the millions of lurkers directed to Wikipedia via search engine traffic for instance.
Mostly this is just an observation, and a simple statement: social software sites don't require 100% active participation to generate great value.
That being said, I'm a huge believer in removing obstacles and barriers to entry that preclude participation. One of the reasons I think Flickr is so compelling is that both the production and consumption is so damn easy. I can (and do) snap photos and upload them in about 15s on my Treo 650. And I can, literally in a moment, digest what my friends did this weekend on my Flickr "Photos from Your Contacts" page. Contrast this with the production/consumption ratio of something like video or audio or even text. There is something instantly gratifying about photos because the investment required for both production/consumption is so small and the return is so great.
One direction we (i.e. both Yahoo and the industry) are moving is implicit creation. A great example is Yahoo! Music's LaunchCast service, an internet radio station. I am selfishly motivated to rate artists, songs and music as they stream by... the more I do this, the better the service gets at predicting what I might like. What's interesting is that the self-same radio station can be published as a public artifact. The act of consumption was itself an act of creation, no additional effort expended... I am what I play - I am the DJ (with props to Bowie.) Very cool.
I spoke a lot more about this in the Wired article. In the new paradigm of "programming" where there are a million things on at any instant, we're going to need some new and different models of directing our attention. In the transition from atoms-to-bits, scarcity-to-plenty, etc. instead of some cigar-puffing fat-cat at a studio or label "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular songs" we're going to have the ability to create dynamic affinity based "channels". Instead of NBC, ABC, CBS, HBO, etc. which control scarce distribution across a throttled pipe... we're going to have WMFAWC, WMNAWC, TNYJLC and a whole lot more. (The what my friends are watching channel, The what my neighbors are watching channel, The New York Jewish Lesbian Channel, etc.) I expect we'll also have QTC (the Quentin Tarantino channel) but this won't be media he made (necessarily) but rather media he recommends or has watched / is watching. Everyone becomes a programmer without even trying, and that programming can be socialized, shared, distributed, etc.
Another example of implicit creation is Flickr interestingness. The obvious (and broken) way to determine the most interesting pictures on Flickr would have been to ask users to cast votes on the matter. This would have been an explicit means of determining what's interesting. It also would have required explicit investment from users, the "rating" of pictures. Knowing the Flickr community, this would have led to a lot of discussion about how/why/whether pictures should be rated, the meaning of ratings, etc. It also would have led to a lot of "gaming" and unnatural activity as people tried to boost the ratings of their pictures.
Instead, interestingness relies on the natural activity on and traversal through the Flickr site. It's implementation is subtle, and Stewart has hinted that a photos interestingness score depends on putting a number of factors in a blender: the number of views, the number of times a photo has been favorited (and by whom), the number of comments on a photo, etc. I would guess that Flickr activity the day after interestingness launched didn't change much from the day before, i.e. the cryptic nature of the algorithm ("interestingness" is the perfect, albeit arcane term) didn't lead to a lot of deliberate gaming. But dammit, it works great.
Without anyone explicitly voting, and without disrupting the natural activity on the site, Flickr surfaces fantastic content in a way that constantly delights and astounds. In this case lurkers are gently and transparently nudged toward remixers, adding value to others' content.