Lunchtime, Thursday November 7 2019. I had a sausage roll. If you’re American you have no idea what I’m talking about and you have no idea how important the sausage roll was to me. It was delicious. It was sublime. It was flaky and, according to my wife, who is American, the sausage was perfect because it had exactly no flavor whatsoever.
I love sausage rolls and no, they are not a euphemism.
I was having a conversation in Slack with some friends and it turned into an observation about expectations Twitter users might have: is Twitter a place where you’re supposed to be having conversations? If people aren’t having conversations with you, is that someone’s fault? Anyway, we got onto the fact that some of Twitter’s positioning these days is that it’s a place for you to go to for entertainment.
This thought spawned this thread, which I’m rewriting in an edited and hopefully more thoughtful way here.
I have a theory to explain why Facebook does things like Memories, or things like allowing provocative (sorry, false and lying) political advertising. It’s based a little on the time when I worked at Facebook’s ad agency and has a lot to do with this idea of active participation.
There’s a rule of thumb called 1:9:90 that describes behavior in an online community. It’s less of a rule and more of an observation, that says that only 1% of your userbase will be the most active (e.g. post lots of things), and then 9% would be marginally more active (post some things), and then the last 90% are essentially passive consumers, lurkers, the kind of people who watch TV and can’t talk about it because a TV isn’t a thing that listens to you. (You can tell this was the late 90s/early 2000s because TVs totally listen to you now).
This rule was borne out when I co-moderated a mailing list in the early 2000s. We had around 6,000 subscribers and one day, for Reasons, I ran stats on participation and it was broadly right. I mean, the proportions were roughly right. The conversation was dominated by around 150 people, and the remaining 5850 were watching and not regularly participating. I know, that’s not exactly 1%, but it’s certainly less than 10%.
In general, Facebook and Twitter don’t really work that well if you start dipping down from 1% active participation. From what I recall, one of the briefs we got was a bit panicky because the posting rate wasn’t exactly trending upwards. In hindsight, I see “innovations” like Memories as a way to prompt people to actively participate more on Facebook.
In conversation, Nick Sweeney mentioned to me that posting—actively participating in a community—is a habit, and not-participating is equally a habit. Perhaps there’s something in looking at what tactics are used to change those habits or to nudge behavior change?
I don’t think it’s necessarily that simple though—yes, there are habits, but I think those habits as much may come from psychology and temperament. Not everyone is the kind of person who will utter proclamations on Twitter and perhaps that’s a good thing.
At the same time, this 1:9:90 observation is one that older internet users (xennials and so on, no boomering here thanks) will be familiar with from listservs and newsgroups. Only a few core people would be the regular posters. Lurkers and lurking are terms that have practically geologic history in internet time.
But then if you’re Facebook, and part of your profitability and utility rests upon having things in a feed for people to react to, or having things in a feed for you to place advertising next to, and that ratio of production of content starts to fall, well that could be a bit terrifying. What to do?
I feel like this is a reasonable post-hoc explanation for products like Memories. Another contribution to the thread was the reminder that Photos can be “easier” to post than text updates, and I’d roll out Flickr having its lunch eaten by Facebook and Instagram as evidence. Facebook, when looked at as a photo-sharing network, is almost ludicrous in its scale. I’d almost say that photo-sharing/photoblogging has significantly eclipsed text-based blogging. Not in terms of blogs created or whatever (and by that I mean weblogs), but just in terms of daily active views or daily active posters. There are, I bet, more Instagram users than Wordpress accounts.
So: most people don’t post. Maybe fewer people are posting, too. Sharing is one way of combating this. Maybe you won’t post your own content, but maybe you’ll post someone else’s content. This is where you can envision some sort of horrific algorithmic, metrics induced slide into hell, where increasingly provocative “shareable” content gets produced because it shares well because people just don’t share stuff about themselves that much.
In a way, Groups might be the nicest and most likely saving grace of Facebook. I bet  that the dynamics of a 1:9:90 ratio on a small, closed Facebook group are qualitatively different from an undifferentiated feed full of, well, a bunch of random people who are associated to you in different ways just chucking shit at the wall.
Twitter feels like it’s dealt with potentially decreasing active participation/content creation in other ways. Retweets and Likes aren’t “real” content creation participation, but they do let The Algorithm (sigh) insert other peoples’ tweets into your timeline to make it look like other people are creating things. Then there’s more for you to watch, even if you’re not directly following those people. I mean channels. I mean topics.
Separately, my gut feeling is that the 1:9:90 ratio is roughly repeated across media. I’d love to see research where it’s explored in new formats and spaces like TikTok or (showing my age) Snapchat and so on. Again, this works as a post-hoc explanation as to why those acquisitions or straight-up cloning (sorry, stealing) of features are strategic to platforms like Facebook: they’re ways of shoring up the active participation ratio because that ratio changes amongst different people in different contexts: the 1:9:90 of ephemeral Instagram stories is different from the 1:9:90 of Facebook Stories is different from the 1:9:90 of straight Facebook posts. Anything to increase the kinds of 1:9:90s you get.
This is an interesting way to look at the platform companies and what we call the attention economy, this idea that we’re a resource with eyeballs x time and our (monetizable) attention is something to be mined and fracked until it’s fully utilized.
But the other half of that is that it’s cheaper for us to produce our own things to grab our attention rather than to pay content producers, right?
There is this idea that we are working and producing value through expressing our preferences and interacting with platforms, but what happens when we look at that through the lens of a 1% or significantly small fraction of the total userbase being the ones who create the things that others pay attention to? I get that the conversation involves talking about us as “content creators” but I genuinely think there’s nuance here that there are some content creators and then there are other content creators.
Also, it’s not as if we are all in one particular segment all the time. People are complex, complicated creatures and we move from context to context. I’m the lurker over at ao3, no matter how many of you exhort me to start publishing stuff there. I’m closer to the 1% on Facebook. There are groups I’m in where I hardly say anything and just watch.
But maybe something worth thinking about is what if there isn’t really any significant movement from the rough confines of the 1:9:90 model? Or what if there are inadvertent attempts to mine and squeeze that 1% more and more and more until the majority of us are in the lurking/consumption side? Will it really only be a few years until we get one tweet a year, and it’s from Disney, about their MCU slate, and all we can do is RT or Like it?
There was a comment in the thread that “there’s a reason the 90% don’t (and shouldn’t) post and it has to do with Sturgeon’s Law” and I’m not sure how serious that apparently snarky comment was. It certainly read as elitist to me - I’m more minded to treat Sturgeon’s law as something that might have made sense when publishing wasn’t as democratic (not to say it is increasing in democracy now, at least not along certain axes). 90% of everything might be crap to you, but when more people can publish, isn’t there a chance that the 90% of crap that someone published might be interesting or relevant to at the very least one person?
Anyway, that was about 30 minutes of writing and I’ve finished my lunch and have to run to an appointment.
I’m on vacation next week (well: there are bunch of family things I have to do), so will take a break from the newsletter. I should be back around 18 November.
Meanwhile, have a good time, take care of yourself and send a note, even if it is to say hi.