Is the Web half full or half empty?

by Mathew on May 7, 2007 · 13 comments

Lots of chat out there about the latest Pew study into how people use the Interweb. These studies are useful in part because the Pew Internet & American Life Project does such a thorough job with them — you know they weren’t cooked up by marketing types to sell more banner ads. The latest one (PDF is here) looks at how many people engage in “Web 2.0″ activities such as blogging, commenting, posting photos, etc.

social.jpgGreg Sterling has a good breakdown of the results at Search Engine Land, and so does Jordan McCollum at Marketing Pilgrim. But what’s interesting about a lot of the reaction to the study is how pessimistic it is — some speculate that Web 2.0′s upside “is capped”, or point out that “nearly half say no” to Web 2.0, or gloat that geeks are “in the minority.” John Paczkowski of All Things D says that it’s clear from the study that Web 2.0 “has far fewer participants than its architects would have us believe.” But is that really clear? I don’t think so. Did I miss the part where Tim O’Reilly or the other “architects” of Web 2.0 said everyone would be blogging and posting content within a year or two? I must have.

And while most seem to be somewhat depressed by the results of the study, I was pleasantly surprised to find how *many* people engage in “Web 2.0″-type activities. The study says that when asked about things that include blogging, posting comments to a blog, uploading photos or video, creating webpages or mixing and mashing content from other sites, 37 per cent of those surveyed said they had done at least one of those things.

What’s not to like about a number like that? I was expecting the proportion to be much smaller — along the lines of the emerging 1-9-90 rule of thumb for social media, where about one per cent of people create content, 9 or 10 per cent consume it and about 90 per cent couldn’t care less about it. I find the fact that almost 40 per cent of people blog, upload photos, post comments and so on cause for considerable optimism.

  • http://mdoeff.com/blog Mike D

    I agree – 37% of those surveyed contributing some kind of content is a good number and much higher than I would have expected. Put me in the half full camp.

  • Anonymous

    Definitely half empty. Just look at all the Twitter hype and ask regular people whether or there’s any value in anything like it.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joseph Hunkins | Joe Duck

    Yes, exactly right! I was amazed at the headlines suggesting how “few” people were doing 2.0 when the study actually shows how remarkably fast adoption has been. Must be a SillyCon valley perspective on that. The social web is already half full and filling up fast.

  • http://www.useit.com Jakob Nielsen

    It’s overstating this survey to say that “almost 40 per cent of people blog, upload photos, post comments and so on.”

    What the survey found was that 37% *said* that they had (at least) *once* done *one* of these things.

    Remember that this is only a survey, not primary research, so it can only assess what people say, not what they actually do. However, it’s safe to assume that many of these respondents engage in these activities on a highly intermittent basis.

    That’s why we experience the 1-9-90 distribution of participation when we look at any given community. There’s 1% who are extremely heavy contributors, and so most of the contributions you see are from this small minority, even though there is a larger number of people who once in a blue moon may make a contribution (but probably not to the community you are looking at).

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howard Lindzon

    3/4 full

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2007/03/25/newspapers-im-not-dead-yet-or-dead-men-walking/ Rob Hyndman

    I’m more with Jakob on this one, and only partly because I’m a cynical SOB. It’s more because among my social circle, my mesh buddies [Ed: who dat?] are about the only people I know who do any of these things.

    My 1-9-90 number is that of every 100 people I meet, 1 is an assiduous blogger, 9 know someone who blogs, and the other 90 look at me like I have an antler growing out of head when I tell them I blog (honestly, now – tell me: does this blog make my ass look big?).

    But I think there is genuine cause for optimism despite all of this, and not just because it’s a beautiful day outside. Just because it’s all coming – one way or t’other – and yes, resistance is futile.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/kimsasso Kim Sasso

    I confess I didn’t read the original study but I think it is important to consider the reality of time…. I know a lot of people who are very interested in blogging, feeds, online photo galleries and similar uses of the Internet, but they are still trying to squeeze in enough time to check email!

    People who blog for a living or otherwise have the good fortune of exploring web.20 on a daily basis are obviously going to be on the forefront, but that doesn’t mean they are the only people who have an interest in these new technologies. It took years for the majority of people to understand email and web search and even what “www” stands for – not because people are not interested, but because for most folks, it doesn’t pay the bills (nor does it clean the house, repair the car or take the kids to little league practice.) Once people figure out a way to efficiently incorporate “web 2.0″ into their lifestyles, usage will rise. By then, we may have “web 6.0″ being explored by the vanguard.

  • Jason Boyd

    I agree completely — I was mystified not only with the disappointment so many have expressed over the Pew study, but also the surprise. Are geeks *that* out of touch? It seems to me that despite the huge presence of the internet in general in my own life (being a software and web developer), that the vast majority of things that interest people I know are not things on the internet.

    Which leads me to another point: what is “optimistic” about expecting more people will adopt Web 2.0? Why do we want this? It reminds me of how stoners always want more people to smoke dope. Everybody must get stoned! I, for one, am glad that there is still an active offline community somewhere out there.

  • http://marshallk.com Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Honestly, if a higher percentage than 40% are *reading* blogs, much less ever leaving a single comment, that sounds like substantial engagement to me. Personally I can’t stand the things – Perez Hilton is more than enough for me!

  • Stu

    It’s not that Tim O’Reilly claimed that everyone would be blogging, it’s more like he and his ilk overhype the importance of people who do — and then the TechMeme echo chamber fills so many of your heads with the idea that the real world really cares about it. Except that they don’t.

    Most people just want to get stuff done, they don’t really do that trying out the latest ajax calendar, joining the latest social networking site watching low quality, 8th-rate “content” on Joost or youtube, etc. How much productivity has been wasted by Web 2.0 tailchasers signing up for dozens — hell, hundreds — of different services after reading about them on TechCrunch, never actually getting acclimated to one service and becoming proficient with it?

    I thought this story was perfectly timed with two other recent stories: (1) Yahoo moving its users from its more popular Yahoo Photos site and toward the less popular, but way the hell more hyped in the blogging echo chamber, Flickr; (2) Microsoft pulling back from all the Ajax-y changes that they were making to the default Hotmail, and why? Because they did research to find out — tighten your seatbelt, ’cause this is really startling — WHAT THE USERS ACTUALLY WANT.

    And, yeah, I think I called it in the comments of your post on the Yahoo Photos news, too. :)

    Despite my grumblings (holla to my fellow lackluster veterans!), I generally like your attitude and blog — the cluster**** on the right side of your page, well that’s another story — but I do think you’re a little too quick to swallow the k00l-aid sometimes and are kinda reaching with this post. 37% tried those things once. Given the other numbers, it seems like most of them thought once was just about enough.

  • Mathew

    Jakob, I did say that 37 per cent had tried one or more of those things, so I don’t think I was overstating the study. Did they do them once and give up, or 10 times, or 100? We don’t know.

    And Stu, I like Kool-Aid as much as the next guy, but I do try to limit my consumption. And I think assuming that the 37 per cent tried such things once and then gave up is just as unfair as assuming that all of them do all of them all of the time.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joseph Hunkins | Joe Duck

    I’m still floored by how many are misapprehending the Pew findings, which clearly suggest a widespread adoption of much of the new technologies in the USA. Read the details, not the foolish headlines.

    If the findings are correct, approximately half of *all people* are engaged with new media, and many of those people are steeped in it.

    How in the world can half be seen as a small elite? It’s like saying that NFL Football is the province of a small, elite group of sports fans!

  • Tim

    The data in this report is now a year old, so how relevant is it?

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