The Unusual Exception to Pareto’s Law in IT, Updated

Pareto’s Law is based on the observation by an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who found that 80% of the wealth and property was held by 20% of the people, the same concept has held true in many other areas. For example, 80% of your user tickets will come from 20% or so of the same root causes like simplified sign on problems, a specific installation process or common issues like forgotten passwords. When determining areas for improvement, unless risk management or contractual requirements demand it, industrial engineers should focus on the 20% of the problems and their root causes to have the greatest impact on an organization.

A 2014 study by the Nielsen Normal Group found an exception to Pareto’s law on the internet in the form of user participation. About 90% of all visitors to a website like a social networking site are lurkers, people who read but never post. Nine percent are users who contribute rarely, often only a single comment or review. Over a quarter of all content, from online comments to consumer reviews, comes from only one percent of the community. This is a far greater concentration of power or prominence online than the democratizing effects of the internet should see. Blogging is somewhere in the middle. Of the estimated 1.1 billion internet users, there are about 55 million blogs. So personally managed content is equivalent to 5% of the user community.

Why do you want more equal distribution of online content creation and feedback? Why does the unusual exception to Pareto’s Law in IT matter?

Collaboration is Only as Good as the Collaborators

Collaboration can be described as the combining of ideas from many different sources to make a whole that is better than the work of a single person. There are various studies on the wisdom of the crowd, found to be accurate in everything from unusual medical diagnoses to guessing the number of candy in a jar. However, low rates of participation mean that there are very few people in the problem-solving crowd, despite the large number of visitors to a site.

The idea of collaboration is great until you realize the team contributing may be as small as the in house talent you could have brought together for a brainstorming session. And many of the great sources of ideas the crowd-sourcing collaboration was intended to tap do nothing but read the results and rarely respond. If the top 1% of contributors are not subject matter experts or experienced in the area, the most valuable talent that a crowd-sourced project hoped to find isn’t the group participating in the project.

Excessive Weight Given to the 1%

There are often complaints about how much wealth and influence the top 1% have in society. Setting aside economics and politics, let’s look at the impact online. Online marketing relies on hitting that top 1% to generate most of the word of mouth advertising we see online. Upsetting or annoying ninety users has little impact until that one-percenter is annoyed, and then broadcasts to the world how lousy your product or service is. Conversely, the nine content rare contributors are glossed over by the one-percenter who has a disproportionate voice due to far greater involvement online. While politics seeps into everything from Wikipedia articles edited to remove all mention of the Medieval Warm Period by global warming advocates to bolster their claims that it has never been hotter to a one person campaign to promote a particular website who does better than some companies due to sheer persistence and being the first to comment on all related articles, the top one percent of contributors have a greater web presence and influence than the other 99%.

The Nielsen Normal Group 2014 report also describes how private arguments shut down entire discussion forums because of their volume. Two one-percenters in a public argument on the merits of Unix versus Windows or the interpretation of a technical standard can crowd out the few other contributors on the site or even prevent the infrequent contributors from risking getting burned by adding a single comment. SJW do this almost everywhere online, breaking up discussions on technical matters with social issue debates. The end result is the same. All of the content comes from the top one to two percent. The creator may defend his or her points of view in the forum, or their greatest advocates argue with others over those points. One person’s insightful analysis or simple observation is lost, because the two impassioned arguing parties drown it out. And the intent of online collaboration and technical review is lost.

Search Results and Rankings

Even lurkers search the web, so that isn’t the adverse impact of the top 1% of online content generators. Their impact is in back-linking and link promotion, affecting search engine rankings for those sites. A small group of motivated individuals has as great an impact as a professional marketing campaign. For more mundane projects, the online ratings of other employees or voting to rank content they create impacts the search results of queries on internal corporate intranets.
One exception to the Pareto rule is one that Nielsen didn’t bring up. Many networks bias toward specific content creators. This may be a system update from the administrative group, a political elite person given a top spot on a social network because of their political connections or featured content by paid providers. These people have the limelight because of the power they wield or influence they already have. This shifts search results and website rankings to their sites in corporate intranet searches and sites like Facebook and Linkedin.
The result is that inane posts by someone with currently high status is deemed more important than deep and insightful content from an average user. The content by the top few percent thus remains in the top few percentage points because of its higher distribution level and greater priority, depressing the content sharing of those who don’t have premium status.