Fostering community activity: the cumulative participation graph

Posted on: January 6, 2010

In an online community setting users are frequently faced with the information exchange dilemma of the new economy. Contributing costs time and effort but taking from the collective bank of others’ contributions will cost nothing (other-wise known as the free-rider problem). 

Lurkers are still hits, and it has been found that traffic is positively correlated with the opportunity to participate, however if engagement is a priority the more hits that can be turned into useful community members the better. So if the active member is the holy grail for an online community what can designers do to help get lurkers active?

Joseph Kimmerle and Ulrike Cress’s (2009) research on Visualization of Group Members’ Participation has found that showing community members a cumulative visualisation of others’ contributions will make them more likely to contribute. Furthermore, showing the group’s cumulative contributions tally in comparison to a users’ own will spur them to contribute even more. Surprisingly, although it is actually a clearer representation of data, there was no preference in the experiment for data showing number of contributions per time unit (below right) to that which showed cumulative group activity over time (below left).

Kimmerle and Cress did not make any assumptions about “why people are prompted to make more contributions by cumulative presentations” – however I might suggest that a large, growing body of activity in the community you are in is rather an attractive, exciting thing to see. Furthermore watching it grow is, well, even more attractive. So helping that curve to get steeper is of course about being part of the crowd, following and contributing to the group you are in, and watching the contributor tally rise. Its a bit like watching the height of a child creep up a door frame in pencil marks. There is the nurturing, parental side of it – then there is the little scientist in us all that just likes to watch things grow.

There’s something almost troubling about discovering a well-kept secret. Displaying graphs of total cumulative contributions can encourage activity in online communities – it certainly will do it no harm – but I have done a tour of my favourite and not-so-favourite social sites and I’m struggling to find any. It really is incredibly hard to find an example of an online community which displays a cumulative expression, never mind a graph, of user contributions. Here are some examples (no graphs though I’m afraid):

From the everywoman Network on the Groupsites platform – shows total discussions.

Money saving expert goes for the daily route – but this info is a bit hidden (see under STATS CENTRE) and again, no graph. However it’s cute the way they write the number of posts in terms of how many books it’s equivalent to. invites users to share playlists and makes it very clear how many have already been shared.

I’m going to leave it there for now, and I’ll post if / when I spot a good use of a group’s cumulative activity on graph. Do comment / tweet me if you’ve seen one in practice anywhere.


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