Why is mainstream media still confused by the 80/20 rule?

A recent study by Purewire revealed that only around 20% of Twitter users are contributing to the service, with 80% having fewer than 10 followers, and 37.1% having no tweets – leading Techcrunch to suppose most people on Twitter are sheep.

Meanwhile the New York Times reports the shocking discovery that bloggers who assume it’s an easy way to get a book deal or give up their day job often get disillusioned and give up. The article quotes the 2008 Technorati State of the Blogosphere, with 7.4 million (5%)  of the 133 million blogs tracked by Technorati having been updated once in the last 120 days.

The most active 2% of Wikipedia users made 73.4% of edits in 2006 (including maintenance and administrative edits).

The iPhone OS had 8% of the smartphone market, but generated 43% of mobile web requests and 65% of html usage.

Are we noticing a pattern here?

I suspect around 20% of the people reading this post will be knowingly thinking of Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 20% of the people of Italy owneed 80% of the land back in 1909, which was then generalised by Joseph M Juran in 1941 into the Pareto Principle, as the common rule of thumb that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, i.e. a Power Law with a The Long Tail.

Internet access gives everyone the ability to self-publish – it doesn’t mean everyone will. Or entitle everyone to be able to make a good living out of it.

And more importantly…

Even if just 1% of bloggers, people uploading video to Youtube, or podcasters achieve sustainable fame and income – how does that compare to the number of aspiring writers, film directors or radio DJs who never even got published or broadcasted under the old model?

The Long Tail never said everyone would get rich – you can either try to rise up to the hit end by being one of the small percentage working harder, being smarter, and getting luckier – or you can aggregate the long tail by working harder, being smarter, and getting luckier, just as Google did with Adsense.

As usability godfather Jakob Nielsen broke it down in 2006: “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

The internet doesn’t radically change that dynamic (although it’s definitely possible to move the figures slightly within a specific online community). What it does is hugely increases the numbers included in that 1%, and in that 9%, which has a bloody big impact on the 90%.

That’s the big lesson – a small number of people can get Wikipedia over 55 million U.S. visitors in a year, or create the fact that 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute (equivalent to Hollywood releasing 86,000 films every weekend!). It’s what got facebook to over 200 million users, and Twitter to over 32 million.

It doesn’t mean it’s all popular, or high quality.

It just means that most of mainstream media is likely to end up covered in content as if it went out in a desert sandstorm – and successful businesses need to figure out how to engage and build on that 1% or 20% which creates the value for everyone else.