Where is everyone?

It’s a common complaint: “Where is everybody? We built a great new tool and nobody is using it. I don’t understand. It’s important for our organization that everybody participates. How can I make them join in?” 

This is so wrong. Let’s look at how.

First, it doesn’t pay to make people participate. Control produces obedience, but from compulsion the best one gets is the least they can give. 

Three conditions determine whether or not an individual (or group) participates:

  • It has to matter. Either the process or the goal must be seen as important. You won’t get golfers who hate classical music to participate in a charity golf tourney to support the local string quartet. The value may br either the goal or the process. Someone who loves golf but hates music might play in the tourney, or someone who loves string quartets but doesn’t care much for golf. 
  • It has to count.  It is not enough that the goal is important. There must also be a sense that participation will result in some benefit or change or impact. There’s not much point in trying to recruit people for a charity event to raise money to buy books for the local library after it has closed because of a larger and better staffed library in the next community.
  • It has to be easy. There can’t be barriers. Time and energy are finite, with a tremendous mismatch between supply and demand. The success of Apple’s iTunes store is due in no small measure to how easy it is to quickly and cheaply find and purchase music. Recruiting people to staff a phone bank on Christmas Eve in a location a three hour drive would be a challenge, regardless of the value of the cause.

Someone disappointed in participation in their project should ask three questions:

  1. Does it matter?  Have I made a good case for the benefits of the goal or the fun of the project? Have I targeted the right audience? Have I cast my net wide enough? (More about this crucial piece later.)
  2. Does it count?  What changes will occur as a result of participation? Is it possible that past history has led them to think that participation is pointless?
  3. Is it easy?  Does it interfere with work or play? Have I offered enough options? What barriers exist? How inclusionary/exclusionary does it seem to potential participants?

These questions are not a rhetorical device, to be used as a framework for the original planner(s) to review the original plans. The concept of epistemic closure comes into play. If someone solves a problem incorrectly because of a careless error, they may be able to identify and correct the error when they review their work - though we are famously poor at proofreading our own work.  If someone solves a problem incorrectly because they do not have the most appropriate perspective or the necessary cognitive tools for that problem, reviewing the incorrect solution with the same wrong tools will result in the same wrong solution. 

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he said: “Because that’s where the money is.” The obvious way to answer these questions is to ask the targeted (non)participants:

  1. How would you rate the value to you of the goal and the process? How could the value be increased to get you to participate?
  2. Do you think participation in this project can make a difference? If not, what needs to be changed?
  3. What can we do to make it easy and efficient for you to participate? 

The larger and more diverse the group asked, the more valuable the information will be. In this era of ridiculously cheap and easy networking/communication, there is little excuse for not giving the entire target population a chance to answer. 

If the project leader is flexible and a good listener, has good institutional support and reasonable resources, has effectively surveyed the target population, and has redesigned both the project and the project roll-out process to be a good fit with the target audience, the chance of success is greatly improved. But be prepared for the complaint that it still didn’t work. After describing a tremendously successful initiative, they will say it is a failure, because there are still a only few who are the most active. To understand why this does not mean failure, they need to understand the Power Law and the universality of asymmetric participation. (You might also suggest that they read Here Comes Everyone by Clay Shirky. Or they can listen to the Cliff Notes version on YouTube if they don’t like to read.)

Throughout our lives we have been exposed repeatedly to a lie: the Bell Curve.  A popular phrase referring to one form of a normal or Gaussian distribution, the Bell Curve itself is not a lie. It accurately describes a certain kind of random distribution and is useful when describing certain kinds of data collections. However, using it to describe or evaluate non-random events or data is a lie. A BIG lie. Few systems in nature, from biology to economics to gardening, are usefully evaluated with a symmetric Bell Curve. It is particulary unsuited to describing human behavior. For discussion of social networks and participation, the curve described by the Power Law is the best tool. This is the principle that underlies the popularly described 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle, and the internet 90-9-1 principle. The Power Law simply states that in social systems, a small number contribute the most, and most contribute only a small amount. This is true for informal and autonomous groups like Wikipedia, the Linux community, Facebook and Flickr, and donations to charity. It is equally true for committee participation in a medical staff, bill sponsorship in Congress, golf championships in the PGA, and dollars earned in the food service business. It is one of the commonest mathematical relationships in Nature: the inverse square laws  of both gravity and electrostatic forces, Keplers third law, the Stefan-Boltzman law, fractals, Zipf’s law, weight/length relationship of fish, surface area to volume, the students t-distribution in statistics, bibliograms, Gutenberg-Richter law of earthquake magnitudes, pink noise, population data for cities, the Zeta distribution, etc.

The curve looks like this:

In a pure case, the contribution by the most prolific member is double the contribution of the next, and the long tail consists of individuals with the smallest possible contribution. The larger the group, the more extreme the variance becomes. Always.

If a project champion expects the bulk of the participation to come from the ‘average’ participant, they are expecting something that simply never happens.The average person is simply not the engine that drives social systems or networks. Unlike the population of Lake Wobegone, the majority is always below average.  In fact, the strength of robust social networks like Communities of Practice and other collaborative groups is that they are perfectly designed to capture both the major contributions of the small group of power members, as well as the smaller but varied and valuable contributions from the long tail. This is the reason to cast the net very wide, and make the barriers very low.  Barriers that won’t stop the 5% power users at the steep end of the curve will be insurmountable for the 85% at the flat end of the curve. And successful participation at the flat end of the curve is always characterized by tiny - but potentially crucial - individual contributions by a large number of infrequent participants.

In summary, the keys to maximizing participation are:

  • Offer value.
  • Ensure impact.
  • Make it easy.
  • plan for - and be happy with - many contributions from a few, and few contributions from the many.



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