Getting from the vital few to the viral many: Social media hype or hope?

Why are some people conservative and some liberal? Is there a connection between political perspective and intelligence, as new ‘evidence’ seems to suggest? And why do some kids seem to come out the womb extroverted while others are markedly more serious and shy by age two?

And why, related to all this, in a digital age when everyone can be a reporter, news photographer, pundit, wiki contributor, twittering observer of the passing parade, do only a tiny minority of people participate in media creation?

Clearly there is more and more participation by more and more people in the creation of media, through an often-dazzling disarray of machines, software and opportunity. Yet while some people seem to only want to send and receive tweets, messages and IMs to a smallish group of friends, others live-tweet their sex lives to the world to goose up their numbers of followers. Does it work? Let me know, if you know. I have 331 followers on Twitter, and I’ve never tweeted about sex.

For media organisations interested in generating more user-generated content or encouraging citizen journalism, these questions are pivotal. What unleashes good content and keeps it coming? Can the law of the ‘vital few’, aka the Pareto principle, be overcome by technology? Are ever-more smarter mobile phones the tipping point that will unleash a more participatory culture?

Based on our work on Iindaba Ziyafika at the Journalism School at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, it is clear that some training, some incentives, sometimes help with equipment (like subsidising a phone with a camera) encourages public participation and even generates the fluid (and always controversial) content of ‘citizen journalism’.

But participation inequality remains stubbornly fixed. There’s even the so-called 1% rule that says 1% of people create online content, 9% might edit or modify it, and 90% ‘just’ consume it.

Is that changing? Is there really the ‘wisdom of crowds’ if the ‘crowds’ who respond to calls for wisdom are made up of the same people that also make up, say, the 2% of Wikipedia users that contribute 80% of all Wikipedia content so far?

It might be a generational thing, and maybe eventually native ‘Facers’ (those born after 2006, when Facebook was launched) or the T-generation (those who were born after Twitter took off) will see a more even distribution among their ranks; more givers and fewer takers.

But what if it is mostly about personality? About that instinct of thinking you have something to say, and liking getting it said, and that value of simply caring about sharing.

I’m not a social blogger, or even a news blogger of note. I tweet, sure, but I follow people who tweet more often in a day than I do in a month. And from some of them, mostly consistently great tweets, so it’s not a quality/quantity thing.

Something has to knock me sideways before I think, hey, I’ d better share that insight, URL, story, or idea with the world through Facebook, Twitter or a blog post (not to mention IM, LinkedIn, or a zillion other avenues).

Multi-feed aggregators like Tweetdeck, audience segmentation tools, and smartphones are certainly making it easier for us to post to groups of people who might have something in common. But it seems to me that there is something about personality, instinct, talent and other slippery variables at play.

There is certainly something to do with a sense of a particular identity, and a sense of being in a particular ‘imagined community’, in which one feels like being an informant, rather than receiver, of whatever this content thing is.

Of course, identities can shift over time, in non-linear ways, which is another way of saying, some days you feel like blogging, twittering and posting a wiki entry, and other days you feel like a walk on the beach.
Positive feedback certainly seems to encourage any change in behaviour, as does ease of doing. But to return to my opening questions, can the law of the ‘vital few’ be shifted simply by better tech?

I’m not sure. Can curiosity be imparted and improved because the tech makes it easier? Can a ‘nose for news’ be inculcated at any age, or is it one of those have it-by-30 or never have it deals?

Working with whatever answers we come up with to these behavioural questions is going to help shape the contours of social media, citizen journalism and the whole ‘self-actualisation through expression’ movement that underpins so much of social media’s hype and hope.

Any great ideas as to where we should be looking for these answers? If of course we feel some kind of personal or professional instinct to look in the first place!



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