The 1% rule and why it still matters

A look into the old rule about online communities, and how relevalt it still is today

Ramy Khuffash
4 min readApr 2, 2014

I need to do some research on the 1% rule, and I’ve been feeling guilty for not writing any articles recently, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by sharing my findings.

What is the 1% Rule?
The 1% rule, which is also referred to as the less catchy “90/9/1 rule” is this:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

The term was coined by authors and bloggers Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba in 2006.

Initially, research that supported the rule was based on communities like Yahoo Groups, Wikipedia, YouTube, and a few online health communities.

The rule applies to individual communities, not an individual’s overall contribution online. A person may be an active contributor fitting into the 1% on Tumblr, while being a silent lurker on Quora.

Is it still relevant?
Does the rule still apply in communities like Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr, where anyone can effortlessly share in one or two steps?

The short answer is yes. The ratios might not be accurate, but the general structure still applies. The majority of people in online & publishing communities spend their time consuming content that’s created or curated by a much smaller group of people.

An article published in 2011 by Fred Wilson, one of Twitter’s early investors, goes through some numbers from a Twitter announcement and suggests that the numbers are expected because of the 1% rule:

Let’s remember one of the cardinal rules of social media. Out of 100 people, 1% will create the content, 10% will curate the content, and the other 90% will simply consume it. That plays out on this blog, that plays out in Twitter, and that plays out in most of the services we are invested in.

Twitter has 400mm active users a month, 100mm of them are engaged enough to log in, but only 60mm tweet. For years people have made it out like this is a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing. It is an amazing thing.

As you can see, around 15% of Twitter users were doing the majority of the content creation in 2011. Although it’s certainly not the expected 1%, the general structure of the rule still applies.

I’d expect to see even bigger differences in services like Facebook, where the main focus is on communicating with friends and family. I imagine way more than 1% of Facebook users regularly create content, but I’m sure the majority still spend most of their time browsing through photos and status updates.

Here’s an interesting theory from Don Rainey: People shift between roles over time. Someone might join Instagram or Facebook and instantly upload a bunch of photos, before settling in as a lurker.

Catalogers seek an online home for their information and knowledge. In the view of the 1-9-90 model, they start in the 1 percent of heavy contributors and migrate over time into 9 percent and maybe into 90 percent.

Although there’s no evidence to back this theory up, it fits in perfectly with what I’ve seen on Facebook and Pinterest, but not so much on Twitter.

Why does the rule even matter?
It’s a useful benchmark and a great way to manage expectations for creators and people running communities.

Creators want feedback for their work, and might be disappointed to find that they’re hardly getting any comments or social shares on an amazing article they just spend two hours on. Knowing the 1% rule, they’ll be able to manage their expectations better.

The same applies for people looking to build online communities. When you expect only 1 person out of 100 to create content, you know that you’ll need to attract a heck of a lot of people to kickstart a new community.

How to shift the balance?
If less people are lurking, and more people are getting involved, the community will be more likely to grow.

I’m certainly no expert, but from what I can tell, the best way to encourage more people to join the 1% crew is to make sure they have a great experience whenever they do try getting involved. When I share a photo on Instagram, the first delightful part of the process is seeing how easy it is to make beautiful photos with the filters. If people end up liking or commenting on my photo, I’m even more likely to want to continue sharing.

Part of moving more people into the 1% group is making it easy for people to join the 9% camp. The “recommend” button on Medium makes it effortless for lurkers to engage more, while also making life better for the writer.

One problem with this approach is the pressure that comes with feedback systems. Someone who might have once shared a photo on Instagram, might decide not to because they’re afraid it wouldn’t get many likes. I have literally no clue how such a problem can be solved, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about.

Better resources
Writing this has helped me learn more about the 1% rule and how it fits in with today’s networks and publishing platforms. If you’re looking to learn more about the 1% rule too, here are some great resources you should check out:

This article was originally published on NowVia