(cc) Jake McKee

90-9-1 Principle for online communities

Among people who work in, study, and manage online communities, there’s something called the “90-9-1 Principle.” The idea is that in most online communities, 90 percent of the users are audience members, passively reading posts and comments. Nine percent of the users are “editors” editing posts (in wiki-style communities) or adding comments (in blog-style or forum-style communities).

Just 1 percent are “creators” — people who start threads and articles from scratch.

A corollary of this idea is that, for online community managers, one of the leverage points is the Creators. More Creators will multiply into more action by Editors.

In consulting and in business management, there are lots of similar theories and ideas that hinge on a catchy duo or trio of numbers. I always wonder if these numbers are accurate, what they are based on, and if there is any way to test them.

But the 90-9-1 idea seems intuitively true. I wonder how it would hold up in real life communities.

In a physical, place-based community like a neighborhood, the roles might go by different names.

Remember, in the online community the 90-9-1 rule does not take into account the people who are unaware of the community or only have glanced at once or twice. Similarly, in many neighborhoods, there is a large segment of the public that isn’t engaged and is unaware of some of the community issues. They go to work and go about their business, but aren’t connected in in any significant way.

Outside of that group, the in-person 90-9-1 rule might look like this:

  • The majority of “audience” might be called the attentive public. They attend community meetings, and keep up on events and news.
  • The next group (“editors”) might be called the active public. They stand up and comment in meetings. They write letters to the editor, and take substantive part of
  • Finally, there are the leaders. These are the people who step forward and take focal-point roles. They run for office, lead neighborhood groups, chair committees, serve on commissions.

These “leaders” are not just the officials in office. It’s lots of different kinds of people. Someone who is a leader in one context might be active in another and simply attentive in a third. But the key leverage point for increasingly community vibrancy is on getting more leaders.

For a number of years, there has been a new theory of community leadership building. The idea is that people emerge as leaders from communities — they aren’t anointed, appointed, or made.

This simple notion has driven new kinds of community leadership programs, ones which don’t focus so much on creating a Chamber of Commerce-style network, or even a policy school-type of cohort of highly knowledgeable lay people (even though both of these are important and necessary). These new kinds of leadership programs focus on cultivating leadership skills among people who might not otherwise see themselves as community leaders . As more of these people step forward, into the public square, more active and attentive people follow suit.

Growing the ranks of leadership is one key leverage point (not the only) in fostering a vibrant community life.