The 1% Rule: Is The Net A Mirror?

Posted on February 6, 2012

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The “1% Rule” claims that 1% of the people on the Internet create all the content and everyone else only consumes it. Sometimes, it is also claimed that an additional 9% or 10% of people on the Internet edit and modify content — rather than create it — leaving the other 89% or 90% to consume it.

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this claim as an unverified hunch perpetuated by content creators, but there appears to be some empirical research that supports the theory. In broad terms anyway, it seems plausible to assume that a much smaller segment of the Internet population produces most of the content and everyone else only consumes it.

It occurred to me the other day that the 1% Rule might also apply to the human population more generally and not only to the population on the Internet. Perhaps, it is also plausible to assume that a much smaller segment of the population produces all the “content” of life and everyone else only consumes it.

Eventually, after thinking about this notion for awhile, I had to ask myself: what do I mean by “content?”

Lots of people produce “content” that others consume, without ever going near a keyboard, instrument, or stage. Farmers, trades persons, public servants, and parents all produce “content” for the consumption of others. For example, in any given conversation, the people involved create plenty of content for each other to consume. In other words, everyone, at some level, creates content for the consumption of others.

I started thinking and, then, writing about the possibility that the 1% Rule might apply to the entire human population because I was disturbed by its implication. I didn’t like the idea of a world with a tiny minority of active creators and a vast majority of passive consumers.

It soon occurred to me that my worry, however well intentioned, originated in my own prejudices and the all too human tendency to want other people to be just like me. For example, even if it is the case that only a small minority of the human population creates “content” in the fairly narrow sense of blogs, books, music, or movies, what’s so wrong with that? My worries about a world with a minority of content creators is no different than a farmer worrying about a world with a minority of farmers. And while our food supply is infinitely more important than our blog supply, I don’t think anyone laments the fact that we aren’t all farmers.

It also now seems obvious to me that I moved too quickly from a claim about Internet behaviour to a claim about human behavior more generally. The experience of creating, sharing, and consuming content on the net is unique, it serves the needs, wants, and desire of a unique group of people, and the net tends to work best for a certain kind of content creator. There really is no reason to think that human behavior on the net necessarily mirrors all behaviour off of it and vice versa. In fact, there is even good reason to think that people will behave differently on the net.

The lesson I draw from all this is simple, important, and worth restating again and again. Whatever your purposes online may be, you can’t expect success to mirror success offline and, again, vice versa. This is true whether you are a content creator, a marketer, or an organizer. The net’s population, however, large is not necessarily a representative of sample of the whole population or even any particular population. What people do on the net is unique to it and it should be understood in its own terms. Indeed, the sooner we recognize that the net can do much more than mirror life off of it, the sooner we will unlock its greatest potential.