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Participation Choice: Are People More Engaged with the Web Now?

Published on May 11, 2012
Tags: Usability

A question that is often discussed by web designers and others working in industries connected to the internet is: how engaged are web users? We naturally all want web users to be inspired by and make use of the sites that we create - in many cases, we want them to actively participate on websites, whether it is joining in discussions, sharing photos and other material, or making a purchase from a business.

However, it is hard to get away from the fact that many people simply view the internet rather than taking part in it. This, though, might be starting to change. The BBC recently conducted some in-depth research into how active the UK online population is, and they came up with some interesting results.

One of the headline results that this study came up with was that the ‘1/9/90’ rule does not have as much relevance on the internet as it once did. This is the rule that suggests 1% of people created web content, 9% engage with that content in some way (such as by editing or adding to it), while the other 90% are what are often referred to as ‘lurkers’. By contrast, the BBC study mentioned above found that 77% of the UK population now participate in some way on the internet.

A big reason for this, it is suggested, is because online participation is now easier than it has been in the past. Just think about how easy it is, for example, to share content with friends on Facebook or Twitter, or to comment on an online discussion or newspaper article. Some people are clearly still in the ‘lurker’ category, though. One interesting finding in relation to this group is that many of them are considered to be early adopters – they know how to get involved on the internet, but they simply choose not to.

As a result of these findings, the BBC has developed something called the Participation Choice, which is a model that seeks to explain digital participation. It includes different levels of participation from ‘passive’ to ‘intense’. There is evidently a spectrum of internet involvement, with some people being much more involved than others – but the main conclusion of this study is that people are more involved on the internet than ever before and that increasing numbers of people are choosing to participate online.

However, there is a flip side to this and not everyone agrees that the study discussed above has got it right. One response to the study suggests that the 1/9/90 rule was never supposed to be representative of the entire internet. Rather, it is to do with the expectations of behaviour ‘inside any given online community or service’.

Part of this argument is to do with the fact that there are lots of different web platforms a user could choose to be active on, yet they might only engage with one or two. For example, just because someone is part of the ‘1%’ creating content on Twitter, they might fall into the ‘lurker’ category when it comes to lots of other websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. The internet, this argument suggests, is a huge place and everyone is likely to be taking part somewhere, but not taking part in many other places. Therefore the ‘1%’ rule still holds sway when we are talking about particular sites or services, because for everyone who is participating, there will still be plenty more lurkers even if those lurkers are taking part on other sites elsewhere on the web.

The debate arises when you are trying to determine whether this means a particular user is participating or passive on balance. It’s not difficult to see the points that both sides of the debate are making, and they are both in some way right. However, to get too bogged down in ‘internet rules’ of participation could be to miss the point a little bit, taking our focus away from what matters. We could argue that even though someone isn’t participating on a website, it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged or interested in what is happening there. The job for web designers and others is to work out which method works best for the individual sites they are creating and to make sure those sites offer a great user experience – no matter how those users eventually choose to get involved.

By Chelsey Evans

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