Monday, June 02, 2008

Community defined? You can't take part without creating part of it

My buddy Badgergravling got me thinking with a question on twitter this morning.

I don't know the 'why' of what he wants to know at the moment ( "Still researching content creators vs audience figures/ratio...anyone got examples/figures etc?") but the question itself made me think about our definitions, and valuation, of community.

Wikipedia and YouTube provide great examples of products made entirely from user generatated content. The question often thrown at them is "yeah but, how many people create content compared to those who simply consume it?"

The answer is thought to be a consistently low number (1%?) who contribute while 99% consume. I'll gladly update this with more accurate stats if you happen to have them.

Let me be clear. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The 99% now have something they want to consume, created by that busy 1%. It didn't exist before. It's been carved from that cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky introduced us to. New value has been created.

Of course, it could achieve twice the scale and value should another 1% of the consumers become creators. But then, the theory goes, each time you double the number of creators, you'll scale up the number of consumers, too. That means the ratio of creators to consumers will remain static. Let's call it 1:100 for the sake of argument.

So, the more people who join the community by creating, the more 'audience' you'll grow. Clearly worth getting the tools of creation right then? If nothing else the audience gets to connect with the community through repeated exposure... and that drip-drip effect may inspire some to cross the theshold from audience to community.

All good, of course.

What made me pause for further thought was the fact that I was having this discussion on twitter.

Without creators there is no twitter. Same with YouTube or Wikipedia of course.

But twitter is made with communities of creators as its primary concern, not for consuming viewers. It is built for communities of purpose to form in a networked conversation-driven way, not for an audience to consume what they are creating. It's about small numbers sharing their conversations.

SecondLife follows that formula, too.

In both cases you can't take part without creating part of it.

I'm not about to claim there's no value in products which mix creation with consumption - YouTube and Wikipedia stand as testimony to the folly of that line of argument.

But I do think this raises questions about how uniformly we can apply laws of creator/consumer ratios. The purpose of the tools has a huge influence on this.

I imagine there are some twitter users who only 'follow' (ie only read the content others have created). But I'll make a wild guess: That number is way closer to 1% than the number of people who create content on twitter is.

In really community-focused models (from the architecture up) the creator/consumer ratio is likely to get turned on its head.

And that clearly hasn't done any harm to the likes of SecondLife and Twitter.

So being part of a community is to take part in creating it. All the rest is broadcast - sharing the community's metadata with a world of self-selecting potential members.

It means of course that twitter must come up with a monetising solution which fits the networked world. Can't wait to see which way they jump.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?