By: Gigaom
Is the 1% rule dead? The BBC thinks so, but it’s wrong
New research from the BBC suggests that one of the web's most common rules of thumb no longer applies -- and that online engagement has risen dramatically in recent years. But is its surprising conclusion based on a dramatic misinterpretation of the rule itself?

If you’ve hung around the internet long enough, you may be familiar with the “One Percent Rule”. It’s the social web’s twist on the Pareto Principle, and it says that in an online community one percent of people will create content, another 10 percent will engage with it, and the remainder will simply lurk.

It’s been a rule of thumb for the last few years, and has developed into an important guiding principle for a lot of people thinking about how the web helps us connect with each other.

But is its time over?

In a post on the BBC’s Internet Blog, senior research executive Holly Goodier suggests that the One Percent Rule has outlived its usefulness, with a study of British web users showing that people are now drastically more interested in — and likely to engage with — online content.

In fact, she says, the One Percent Rule has not just become outdated — it’s been blown away. Surveys by her team found that a full 77 percent of people were now engaged online:

My team and I conducted a large-scale, long-term investigation into how the UK online population participates using digital media today – from sharing links, to writing blogs and uploading photos. And it revealed a fascinating, and at times, surprising picture.

1. The model which has guided many people’s thinking in this area, the 1/9/90 rule, is outmoded. The number of people participating online is significantly higher than 10%.
2. Participation is now the rule rather than the exception: 77% of the UK online population is now active in some way.
3. This has been driven by the rise of ‘easy participation’: activities which may have once required great effort but now are relatively easy, expected and every day. 60% of the UK online population now participates in this way, from sharing photos to starting a discussion.

Wow!

While it should perhaps be no surprise that making the tools for interacting and sharing easier leads to more interacting and sharing, who would have expected that such a drastic change could occur? After all, we’re seeing a nearly eightfold increase in what we thought was happening to what is really going on.

Amazing, huh?

Not quite.

The BBC appears to have missed the fact One Percent Rule was never intended to dictate a single pattern across the entire web: it was a rough guideline for expectations inside any given online community or service.

Should it be a surprise that 77 percent of people are active in some way in some sort of community? I don’t think so — and to suggest otherwise ignores the fact that people behave in different ways in different places. After all, like me, you could be highly active on Twitter, and therefore part of the one percent, but remain a lurker on a site like Metafilter (even though I’ve been a member there for a decade).

Or you could be a highly active Wikipedia editor (one percent) who uses Instagram simply to browse pictures from people you know (10 percent). Or you could be an active commenter on one blog but never leave comments anywhere else. It goes on.

That’s where your 77 percent comes from: the BBC research is really just comparing apples and oranges.

In fact, at the same time as declaring the One Percent Rule dead, another post Goodier uses to support this thesis actually seems to prove that it’s very much alive and kicking.

In a post about the levels of participation with BBC Radio 1, one of Britain’s most popular stations with a reach of around 13 million people each week, producer Jem Stone points out a couple of statistics.

  • Regularly over 1.5m users now regularly see photos, links and clips via the Radio 1/1xtra Facebook pages every week.
  • Radio 1 Twitter accounts regularly receive over 150K retweets and replies a week.

So out of a total audience of 13 million, 150,000 actively create messages about the station on Twitter, and 1.5 million — and order of magnitude more — consume and interact with that content on Facebook. The remainder, more than 11 million people, simply listen to the show. Looks a lot like the One Percent Rule to me.

I’ve no doubt that the way we share and engage online, and in different communities, is shifting as the web becomes richer and more popular.

But the reality is that almost everyone online does something, somewhere. And that fact doesn’t make the One Percent Rule any more or less valid — all it says is that the internet is a vast place, and we do different things in different places. And if you’re surprised by that? Well, perhaps it’s time to take a break.

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