Jakob Nielsen's latest research note on "participative inequality" raises (again) the issue that allegedly participative or user-generated resources generally draw the majority of their content from a minority of the users. This is a more general look at the problem with Digg (Enfact) raised by Jason Martinez in June, that 60% of Digg's front page is voted there by the top 0.03% of users.
Nielsen expands on this analysis, showing that on average 0.1% of the online population make a blog post per day or that the most active 1,000 Wikipedians, or 0.003% of its (US) audience contribute two-thirds of the edits.
It was this last figure - that just 1,000 Wikipedians contribute two-thirds of Wikipedia's edits - that got me wondering, mainly because I happen to know that the 1911 (11th) edition of the Britannica had more than 1,500 contributors. (Many of these 1,500 were the great luminaries and scholars of the day such as Bertrand Russell, G.K. Chesterton and Prince Kropotkin.)
What does it mean for the read/write web that the digital age's greatest experiment (so far) in participative value-creation has attracted marginally fewer significant contributors than what is widely considered the definitive reference work of the C20th? As Nielsen puts it, "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 ratio gets worse - far worse - for projects such as Wikipedia or Digg, with Digg in particular seeing most of its front page put there by the top 60 users. (It was of course this fact that Jason Calcanis aspired to exploit when he very sensibly offered $1,000 a month to the top Diggers from across the various allegedly social news sites.)
Digg simply isn't substantially more participative than a newspaper (that's "paper", not "site") - a few hundred people get to write the paper every day, a few readers write the occasional letter to the editor which he might or might not publish, and everyone else passively consumes. And Wikipedia in 2006 isn't substantially more participative than Britannica in 1911. I'm not saying that Wikipedia (or Digg) is dead. Just that we should bear Nielsen's data in mind, and understand that the difference between tools that hypothetically facilitate participation, and participation itself. Moving media online has not magically cleansed the doors of perception and made everything infinite.