The Impact of the Vocal Minority — A Tale of Two Sites

In this article, I want to talk about the Vocal Minority on two large, but very different sites: NPR and Reddit.


Recently, NPR announced that they were disabling comments on their site, and moving discussions over to social media and other platforms. Those that commented on the story were upset to see that this was the case, and felt that NPR was betraying their audience. Were they?

I did find the numbers quite startling. In July, recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Montgomery said. That’s 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.
When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience.

I’ve talked about the 90–9–1 internet rule in the past. From Wikipedia:

Variants include the 1–9–90 rule (sometimes 90–9–1 principle or the 89:10:1 ratio),[1]which states that in a collaborative website such as a wiki, 90% of the participants of a community only view content, 9% of the participants edit content, and 1% of the participants actively create new content.

Let’s ignore the content creators (since NPR is different then Reddit, where anyone can submit). That number doesn’t even come close to the 9% of commenting. In June and July, it was only 0.06% , or 19 400 people who were commenting. From that number, more than half of all comments in those months came from 2600 users.

Now, of course, many people can get value out of reading these comment sections. In fact, there were a couple of comments who created accounts just to comment on the value they receive from the comment section. However, it’s hard to gauge how many people are reading the comments, or find value of them, when they never comment themselves.

Looking at these numbers, would you want to moderate or support something that has such a tiny, TINY fraction (0.06% of users), when you can be focusing on more important things? The answer is obvious. Yes, I have found value out of comment sections (sometimes participating, sometimes just reading), but at the end of the day, I understand their decision.

Yes, they upset a very tiny vocal minority of users, but with NPR, users are not submitting stories, which is different then how Reddit works. Let’s see what happens when you deal with the vocal minority of Reddit.

One of the most visited sites in the world, Reddit has had a troubled history.

From controversial subreddits to the investigation of the Boston marathon bombing that went sideways (and was promptly mocked by the media and Reddit themselves), Reddit has seen its fair shares of ups and downs over the years. In a site that lives and dies on user-submitted content, the impact that the vocal minority has is monumental.

What I want to focus on is the controversy in mid 2015 around then-CEO Ellen Pao, and the impact that it had on the vocal minority.

Let’s look at what Ellen Pao had to say about the vocal minority in light of several controversial decisions made on Reddit at the time.

But Ms. Pao says that the most virulent detractors on the site are a vocal minority, and that most of Reddit users were not interested in what unfolded over the past 48 hours.
“Most of the community is made up of thoughtful people, and they can appreciate what we all do, even if we don’t always agree,” Ms. Pao said.
Source: Reddit Moderators Shut Down Parts of Site Over Employee’s Dismissal, New York Times

Does the 90–9–1 rule apply to Reddit?

Once again, to summarize the rule:

  • 90% of users are Lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users are Commenters. They edit or rate content but don’t create content of their own.
  • 1% of users create content and are Creators.

There’s a great post on Reddit that does what I think is a good guesstimate of the rule for Reddit.

He proposes that for Reddit, it’s more like 98/1.9/0.1. 98% are readers, 1.9% comment, and 0.1% of users submit posts.

For more info, Reddit sees about 160 million users a month, and has about 8 million registered accounts.

Unlike NPR, the vocal minority is different when you deal with a community like Reddit where anyone can submit content.

A post from a comment section on Gizmondo (I hate to use them, but the point made was loud and clear) summarized it best:

As other people have commented, but to expound, this is the worst thing she could have said. Because the people feeling they’re mistreated are the mods and top content creators that actually make the site what it is. That shows such a fundamental disconnect and poor management on her part. Of course casual browsers don’t give a fuck. But if the people that basically maintain reddit as an unpaid second job stop doing it because they’re treated like shit there will be nothing to casually browse.
Source: Reddit CEO: Vast Majority of Users Don’t Actually Care About Drama, Gizmondo

Yes, the casual browser or lurker may have not cared. However, what would happen to the site if mods, those who comment on stories, and posters started to leave the site en-mass? Would other users step up and take their place? Sure, but it’s a safe estimate that these users are more likely to go elsewhere and find other places where the community is creating content for them.

There are always different cases when it comes to the vocal minority.

It will be interesting to see how traffic changes on NPR over the next few months. Will users leave in noticeable amounts due to the lack of comments? Or will it barely make a blip?

In the case of Reddit, when you start going after the tiny, TINY vocal minority that submits content and comments on it, you need to treat them with respect. In the case of what happened on Reddit last year, this was not the case. Yes, Ellen Pao was right that a vast number of users simply didn’t give a shit. However, they will give a shit when those that are submitting the content that they view and consume get treated like shit and end up leaving.

Originally published at on September 13, 2016.