In a talk I attended earlier this year, Shaun McCance mentioned, as though it was established science (which it is) the 90-9-1 principle of community participation. I’ve thought of it frequently since then, to set expectations and to keep myself sane.

The idea is that in any community effort, 90% of the people are going to sit around saying that it’s a great idea, but not actually doing anything about it. 9% of the people are going to work casually on it in their spare time, as convenient, and between them will do a huge amount of the work. Then 1% of the people – usually one or two dedicated people – will pour themselves into it wholeheartedly, putting every spare moment into making it a success.

Note that it’s not the exact numbers that matter here, it’s the undeniable fact that you can’t expect everybody to work as hard as you do on everything.┬áIt’s all too easy, when doing anything on a volunteer basis, to look around and get frustrated, discouraged, even angry, at the 90%. Understanding that this is the normal, expected, even healthy way that communities operate, can help you refocus on what you can (and can’t) do in any given effort.

Sometimes (most of the time) it’s ok to be in that 90%, and you don’t need to feel that you’re not pulling your weight. However, if you’re in the 9% or the 1%, it’s not reasonable to get angry with the 90%. They have other things to do, and are likely the 1% on something that you’re not helping much with.

By the way, here’s a couple of resources about this notion:

This article claims that the concept is dead. Note that this article appears to be someone just making up new numbers to illustrate the same concept. What’s important here, folks, isn’t the exact numbers, but the general concept. Way to miss the point. (This article also appears on dozens of sites in various different forms.)

Wikipedia claims that it’s a feature of Internet culture.

Here’s an actual statistician doing scientific analysis, rather than me making up numbers.

One thought on “90-9-1”

  1. Rich, I am trying to track down where you found Daniel Whitfield’s article “Alcohol and the Bible” that is at drbacchus.com/bible/alcohol.html. I would like to either contact him, or find a more permanent source than your blog (no offense intended!) Am writing a book. Any help tracking him or the source of his article down would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    As an aside, am a long time programmer at IBM.


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