Participation Culture

Today was National Ban Bullying at Work day. We had an awareness activity at work today – not that bullying and intimidation is something that’s rampant or even existent in our workplace, or in any work place I’ved worked in so far (thankfully), but it’s important not to take that as a given.

It got me to thinking about intimidation and participation though… and then to lots of other issues related to participation. It’s a vexed but important question in a Web 2.0 world.

Many of the projects we work on these days are all about community and participation. Now, some of us are participation junkies… there are so many things we want to participate in that we run out of time for all of them and end up being online way too long!

But there are many people out there who *should* be participating, but don’t.

There are plenty of reasons why people opt out – some of them are good reasons, like that they have something better to do with their time (you know, friends, family, ‘real life’).

But other reasons are not so great.

  • they don’t think their contribution is valuable/relevant/topic/important
  • they’re afraid that their contribution will not be valuable (which is different to the first point)
  • they’re afraid that they’ll be ‘wrong’ (they might not know the complete answer, they might miss something out, the might make a mistake)
  • they’re afraid that they’ll be not good enough
  • they don’t see the value of participation (there is no/not enough incentive)
  • they’re intimidated by louder voices that sound authoratative
  • they’ve seen other people attacked/confronted and don’t want to be subject to this aggression
  • they don’t know how to work the mechanics of participation (I’ve seen a lot of this lately with people trying to work the WordPress backend! same goes with mailing lists, wikis, podcasts and more)
  • they feel stupid/inadequate because they don’t know how to work the above mechanism
  • they don’t understand how the mechanism works and why it is powerful/interesting/important

Now, we know that when we create an architecture for participation, the majority of the participants will actually be lurkers. Of all people, Jakob Nielsen doled out a set of tips for how to get more people to participate (mostly about reducing the effort involved and increasing the incentive). These are all great tips, but they don’t touch on that issue of intimidation that is apparent in the list above (afraid, inadequate, don’t understand).

What can we do to address these more personal issues? How can we design architectures of participation that are supportive and welcoming and comfortable and secure?

Is this just about the people who populate the space? Or are there ways that we can design to promote this?

This is something I’ve been dwelling on for a long time now. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

I know for me, I ‘listen’ to a lot of mailing lists but actively participate in very few because of several of the points I listed above.

To people who wouldn’t usually comment on a blog for example… why don’t you? is there something we can do to encourage you? do you feel tempted or are you just here for the read and not the interaction?

And for those who do comment/participate regularly – are there places where you feel comfortable contributing and others where you don’t? What makes the difference?

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