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Most Web 2.0 Users Are Really Just Couch Potatoes.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 22, 2007

A study by Bill Tancer, an analyst with Hitwise, which measures Web 2.0 audiences, shows that only a tiny fraction of people using social media actively participate. A miniscule 0.16 percent of visits to YouTube actually involve people putting a video up on it, according to his online surfing data. All the rest are visits by people watching the videos of that tiny fraction.

Only two tenths of one percent of visits to Flickr are to upload new photos. Again, everyone else is watching. Just how many users are doing user-generated content?

Wikipedia shows much higher active partipation—4.6% of all visits are for editing. But think a moment—that is still a very small fraction of the total number of people using Wikipedia.

Tancer presented his data to the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. Visits to Web 2.0 sites constitute 12% of all web activity, according to Tancer, up from 2% two years ago. It’s soaring.

So, the question is—who is shaping the conversation? These numbers suggest that only a very, very small number of people actively create content in social media. Nearly everyone watches.

So are we really just reinventing TV, with folks pretty much sitting back passively (like couch potatoes)? Is YouTube just another NBC or Fox TV network?

Could be. These YouTube and Flickr numbers are even worse than the 1% Rule—for every 100 users of social media, only ten actively participate, and only 1 actually creates something. Back in July, 2006, the ratio of creators to consumers on YouTube was 0.5%. Now it is 0.16%. Many more people are drawn to YouTube to watch than to create.

Mark Vanderbeeken, over at Experientia, links to a vnunet story that quotes Barry Parr, an analyst at Jupiter Research, saying: “Consumer created content is now the big leagues, but we still don’t understand it all that well. It’s a reasonable (and old school) rule of thumb that only one per cent of any site’s readers will post content on it, but that’s plenty.”

And Ted Shelton, vice president of business development at Technorati, says that “a small percentage of a huge number of users can still amount to a significant impact.Two per cent of a billion people online is still 20 million people writing blogs on a regular basis.”

Shelton has another point. “Very few of those 20 million people actually worry about getting paid for what they do. People under 25 are much more likely to blog, and contribute content of other kinds, so this may be a phenomenon that is increasing.”

Another point: These huge social media sites may no longer define what people are doing in social networking. I’m guessing that people are shifting their own conversations toward more direct,intimate social media, such as blogging. Numbers already show that young people are beginning to move away from MySpace as it grows bigger and more commercial for smaller, closer social networking sites.

The conversation economy is still iterating.

Reader Comments

Christopher Fahey

April 22, 2007 6:18 PM

Great observation, worth bringing back up to the center of the design world's attention.

On a recent social-media project, my team created user personas and use case scenarios for a client who had already conducted much of this kind of interaction-modeling work. We found, however, that at no point had anyone seriously considered the "voyeur" use case or user type: the person who likes to watch but doesn't contribute. Your numbers synch with ours -- that the "voyeur" in fact comprises the vast, vast majority of the social media audience.

We introduced this usage model into the design process in the form of user personas and use-case scenarios, and the ripple effects of its inclusion are affecting everything from the revenue model to the main navigation.

Bruce Nussbaum

April 22, 2007 8:47 PM

This is intriguing. Can you give more details here? How did it influence the busienss model?

Bob Jacobson

April 23, 2007 1:04 AM

Together with comScore's recent report that many web user statistics are inflated, the findings from the Web 2.0 analysts indicate one certainty: no one yet has a handle on web behavior or how it interacts with behavior in the "real world," offline.

One might expect more reliable understanding given the enormous amounts of wisdom dispensed on websites and blogs, and at the innumerable conferences discussing the web. What are all these people who work with the web and who study it being paid for? One begins to suspect a vast conspiracy -- or more likely, just a wrong-headed paradigm at work, like the Flat Earth theory that held up progress in geospatial thinking and the sciences for a thousand years.

It would be interesting for some entity (probably not a web marketing or design firm) to sponsor a thorough meta-study that (a) raises vital questions regarding the web; (b) critiques existing popular theories and the research (or unsupported opinion) on which they depend; and (c) offers novel, scientifically sound, and unbiased methods to inform us accurately of what's going on. Pew, MacArthur, and other foundations have taken a crack at this challenge, but still it seems we know very little about the web on which we can rely.

Absent that definitive study, it's not unfair to assume that much of what we know about the web is wrong and that much of the wisdom being dispensed muddies the waters even more.


April 23, 2007 3:46 AM

Yeah, Bruce, I know it's just a typo, but I do love the image of a Coach Potato. Available only at finer Coach retailers everywhere. There's the power of brand design for you.

Christopher Fahey

April 23, 2007 7:03 AM

When I write "business model", I don't think I mean exactly what you might think it means: This client's core objective -- to empower and promote another business unit via the social network -- makes it a bit of an exceptional case.

Suffice to say that strategic changes occurred -- such as integrating non-user generated content with user generated content more holistically, or permitting users to browse content more freely without registering -- that might not have been made had the strategy still focused on enabling user-generated content as the central added value. It also changed the focus for the way the site would be marketed -- different people, different message.

If this were a normal business, such a shift would have required the hiring of more writers and editorial staff, and would have generated a more intricate ad model, among other business shifts. These needs are not applicable here, but you can imagine how these and other changes might be more exaggerated in most organizations.

James Barclay

April 23, 2007 9:07 AM

Great article with cold hard statistics that prove that Web 2.0 is still a few years away from MASS integration.....

In a recent blog of mine, I gave a rather telling example of how we know we are not yet there. Whilst my article was mainly concerned with the upcoming promotion of the .TV extension by Demand Media as the extension of choice for interactive media, it holds true for the overall point you have made about a nation of internet couch potatoes.

I commented on one evening last week in which I went out to Barnes & Noble for coffee with friends. I wanted to buy a book on anything and everything to do with vlogging - which is the video version of a blog. Hunting around in the computer/internet section, I found nothing. And so, I went to the help desk and asked the young lady (early thirties I guess) if she had anything on vlogging in the store.

Once I had repeated myself and assured her that I was looking for a book on VLOGGING and not FLOGGING, she shook her head and said that the store had nothing on the topic.

I went out on a limb and said, “you have never heard of the term vlogging, have you”. She admitted that indeed she had not. Blogging yes, vlogging no.

So an entire bookstore without a single book on vlogging and a young trendy looking thirty year old with a puzzled look on her face.

Where am I going with all this……..?? Well, until vlogging becomes as popular in numbers of active vloggers as there are bloggers, I really cannot see what the .TV extension will have extended beyond the business community and the educated computer buffs.

Until the general public get comfortable with the technologies available to create video logs, and have bandwidth speeds and download speeds that make vlogging a joy rather than a chore, it will remain a hobby or business for the internet enthusiast.

The same rule can be applied to the .TV extension, because it will be the same technology issues, bandwidth speeds, download speeds and user friendly software that needs to improve significantly before the ordinary Joe on the street will be able to start producing interactive websites of the quality that WARRANT the .TV branding.

Bill Gates says 2010 will be the breakthrough year for the technologies to get there. I agree with him. Until then, books on vlogging may just hae to remain a well kept secret.

Bruce Nussbaum

April 23, 2007 3:51 PM

Thank you. I just corrected the spelling. My grade school teachers would kill me.

Brandon W

April 23, 2007 4:42 PM

Vlogging? I'm increasingly convinced most people don't really understand Blogging yet - even if they have heard of it.


April 23, 2007 6:28 PM

Re:No Vlogging materials at B&N. Given publisher lead times and the fast changing nature of everything technological, seems like it was more of a self-fulfilling question to ask rather than substaintive. Bookstores are hardy cutting edge by nature so to ask for something there that even Web 2.0 nerds haven't yet absorbed or embraced isn't really a fair assessment is it?

Andrew Green

April 23, 2007 10:43 PM

You say a "miniscule 0.16 percent of visits to YouTube actually involve people putting a video up on it, according to his online surfing data. All the rest are visits by people watching the videos of that tiny fraction."

Yes, but how many people are 'synthesizing content' - ie adding tags, comments, favourites and annotating content to make it become more findable?

I don't know the answer, but this would also give another dimension to how we understand a social media sites' performance.

We know that less than 1% of users are 'creating', but how many are actively 'synthesizing'?

Bruce Nussbaum

April 23, 2007 11:11 PM

Very important point. Just what is "active" participation, what does it mean? Synthesizing material is an active act (can you say that?).

James Barclay

April 23, 2007 11:31 PM

RE: Vlogging? I'm increasingly convinced most people don't really understand Blogging yet - even if they have heard of it.

I agree. Especially when you mention trackbacks and pings!!

Pete Mortensen

April 25, 2007 2:34 AM

This helps articulate something that was bugging me about the Corporate Design Foundation's @issue Business and Design Conference in San Francisco, which I attended yesterday.

The two topics most on everyone's tongues were the Creator economy (which basically just means Second Life, YouTube and the like) and co-creation and co-design.

There was a lot of talk about these ideas as being brand-new and also guaranteed to succeed. And this is far from true. YouTube's actual future is far from certain, and Second Life will surely be passed by another player, as it superceded The Sims, which superceded a lot of MUDDs and the like. Bill Moggridge even asked, "What is the YouTube of design?"

And I have to say, I don't particularly care. YouTube, Second Life, Flickr, Vlogs, blogs, they're all different solutions trying to meet some very core needs of people, whether they know it or not. And needs outlast solutions. I won't perform a straight-up needs analysis on these sites, but they definitely come from wanting to express oneself creatively, connect with other people, feel famous or even lead a different life, as in the case of Lonely Girl 15 and some others.

By the time we start analyzing a solution, the next way to meet the needs it addresses is already underway. We're going to miss the most important opportunities unless we see beyond the fun and exciting solution we hold in our hands.

Take this chunk of data you have presented, Bruce. It seems pretty likely to me that this is true. Why? Because tools that allow people to be designers or broadcasters have been around for years, and they have been niche. What YouTube has done is create a single repository that can find relevant video for virtually any subject you want to know about, and then provided a cross-platform, speedy solution to deliver it. The role of the people posting videos, let alone storing them, is a mechanism to this bigger goal, a place to find the videos you want when you want them. If all the clips were put up by an automated computer, most people wouldn't care.

This is the great myth of Web 2.0, that its revolution has come from people creating things. It has actually changed the Internet by putting people in control of how to measure popularity and identify your own interests. The actual content is generally from professionals. And that's a more sustainable view to take, I think. We don't become creators of entertainment, we become curators for the entertainment of ourselves and others. That's a very different kind of participation.

Maybe, and I'm just spitballing here, but maybe this is really about adoption theory, not empowering users. Maybe what Web 2.0 has done is make it easier to identify influencers and get fed the kind of innovative information you crave instead of having to sort through it yourself. We have created a more sophisticated, trustworthy way to disseminate ideas to the right audiences. As with anything, it's really the influencers who star in such a situation, not the creatives. And that is interesting.


April 29, 2007 8:21 AM

Great piece...I have written a piece related to this at:


August 21, 2007 2:46 PM

Nice article. To my mind, if people were more active we would get more from our life.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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