We Are (All) The 1 Percent?

May 20, 2015
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Written by Chris Henry

No small amount of hullabaloo was generated recently over the 50th anniversary of Moore’s law, and the likelihood that computer processor power may at last be close to plateauing. Venerable laws and rules have a habit of being overturned in a world of emerging technology. Similarly, the 1 percent or 90-9-1 rule, popularized about ten years ago, states that in any online community, only 1% of users are active content creators, with 9% more contributing or editing and the overwhelming majority just consuming. Since then, content creation has come a long way: Facebook, once an atoll scattered across college campuses, is now on the cusp of delivering aggregate data based on more than a billion active users. Much of the research upon which the rule was based on dates even further back to when Netscape Navigator was relevant and “blog” was still slang.

To the surprise of no one, the advent of modern social media and content creation has led most to go ahead and officially declare the 90-9-1 rule dead. Moore’s fifty years is looking like a pretty good run, comparatively.

Perhaps the primary reason why the 1% rule gained traction was the perception of an imaginary wall between how we as a culture communicate digitally versus how we communicate in real life. Witness another declaration of death, this time by the founder of the cult website 4chan, that “Internet culture” itself was dead. Perhaps, more accurately, a transformation: Internet culture had already reached the point where it was just culture, “digital communication” now indistinguishable from plain old communication.

The conclusion to be drawn here is that we are all potential content creators (and perhaps always have been). The tools to prove it were just out of reach. In the last couple of years, you have probably heard the buzzword “dark social” thrown around. If you click a link in many chat programs, or if my ‘90s reflexes makes me copy and paste a link directly into my browser, those are examples of “untrackable” dark social. It sounds shockingly normal for something with such an ominous name, so why has the idea only become visible so recently? Look no further than that juggernaut of buzzwords, “big data.” Increased visibility of the tools we have at our disposal to measure content in turn created greater visibility of our blind spots. Lucky souls who have not plumbed into the depths of Google Analytics have never witnessed the elephant named “(direct)/(none)” often perched near the top of incoming user sources. Hardly as grandiose as an elephant, in reality (direct)/(none) is the digital equivalent of a shrug from Google. Not an admission of defeat, just that there are only so many places it can go to quantify the flow of communication and interaction online. We, as content creators, are just that big.

This vast wave of data belies the popularity of content aggregator sites like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, or Gawker. Highly effective “clickbait” articles (not to mention highly lucrative affiliate marketing) on these sites make for only a small sample of content on these sites relative to their enormous reach. This sounds awfully similar to our supposedly dead rule, and it still remains to be seen whether these sites continue to adapt and survive. None of them are without problems: most recently, see BuzzFeed’s takedowns due to advertising pressure, even as more and more options to generate and share content on their own terms keep cropping up.

Is the 1% rule just one crest in a series of waves, driven by the need for centralization found in business but eventually overshadowed and dispersed by our need to be social? We have already seen what kind of longevity we can expect of the established and the entrenched in the information age, and when we are all content creators, change can happen very, very fast.

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