Sunday, June 25, 2006

Freeloader? Who you callin' a freeloader?

ZDNet columnist Donna Bogatin writes that most of the membership of social websites like Digg and Wikipedia are what she terms freeloaders.

For instance...

Wikipedia’s “small core community” that does the vast majority of the work reflects the extremely low ratio of contributing users to non-contributing users throughout the new social Web that relies on user contributions for its content.

Her point is that although companies like Digg are preparing to sell their supposed up-to-the-second knowledge about what young people with money to burn are talking about, the reality is that the web sites' content is created not by all of the millions of people who have registered, but by a core of dedicated users—sometimes numbering in the low thousands or fewer—who do all the writing. So what they think is cool isn't exactly representative of the other 99% of registered users.

But I have a problem with the use of the term "freeloader." I visit sites like and a lot. Participation isn't exactly actively encouraged. It may be obvious how to create an account, but important big-picture details such as what being a member entails is not explained clearly at all.

Social websites' low-key approach to enrolling new members may be for a good reason: They're afraid of attracting the Internet equivalent of hecklers and vandals. (Some "active contributers" in Wikipedia, for instance, get their kicks adding "humorous" sentences to serious articles: "Abe Lincoln is some dead guy with a beard.")

Like many things, the problem is also one of perspective: The owners of a social website may look and see a site burdened with freeloaders, but the "freeloaders" see a website with an exclusionary culture, one that, for whatever reason, does not encourage wider participation.

Remember, grasshopper, that no matter what kind of problem a company faces, responsibility for dealing with the problem lies with he who takes home the biggest paycheck.

—Mellow Monk

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