Friday, September 15, 2006

If "They" Build It, Will "They" Come?

In the "early days" of the web site development it was common to adopt the line whispered to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams - "If you build it, he will come."

Within the past 12-18 months the attention has turned to social and participatory networks. A growing number of library customers are now using discovery tools and information seeking patterns that do not involve the library. In fact, the concepts of findability and getting in the flow have become very important.

The question being whispered now is "If they build it, will they come?" The question I am starting to ask is if web sites with content built by the user the answer for libraries? An emerging rule of thumb may suggest they are not.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, introduced in a 2004 presentation the 80/10 Rule. In Wikipedia 10% of all "logged in users" make 80% of all edits, 5% of all users make 66% of edits with half of all edits are made by just 2.5% of all users. This is also supported by Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo (once a grad student at MIT's famous MediaLab) who points out that inYahoo: in Yahoo Groups, the discussion lists, "1% of the user population might start a group; 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content, whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress; 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups."

The emerging rule is that of a group of 100 people online only one will create content, 10 will interact with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will simply view it. This fomula seems to hold true with other attempts by libraries to create systems which customers can interact, such as MyLibrary.

After evaluting the MyLibrary service after three years at Virginia Commonwealth, James Ghaphery reported that 4% of the user accounts accounted for 60% of the use of the advanced features (similar to Wikipedia's 5% of users making 66% of the edits). Additionally, Ghaperty reported that 62% of the established accounts used the features two times or less. Similarly, only 4% of the total population at North Carolina State took advantage of the system.

While user centered sites are great in concept, the question is how many customers will actually take advantage of the features? Does the low percentage of customers actually using the advanced features in exsisting customer / user driven warrant the cost in time and resources to build it? By the time such a site is conceived, built and deployed will the paradigm have changed yet again?

This is where the wonderful world of web services and mash-ups may fit in. Instead of developing large scale local systems should we instead be looking at ways to leverage services like WorldCat at let organizations like OCLC do all the large scale stuff. Libraries could then focus on building light weight throw away applications which mash that data to create local services. The social software concept would be a feature but not the focus of such systems. I will be participating in a discussion with an OCLC representative on Sept 18th on ways to use WorldCat in this manner and will post anything interesting that emerges.


Ghaphery, James. "My Library at Virginia Commonwealth University" D-Lib Magazine
July/August 2002 8(7/8). Available at:

Gibbons, Susan. "Building Upon the MyLibrary Concept to Better Meet the Information Needs of College Students" D-Lib Magazine March 2003 9(3). Available at: Sphere: Related Content


walt crawford said...


Great post--but I feel the need to correct one thing.

The line in the movie is:

"If you build it, he will come."

Singular. Shoeless Joe, presumably.

Which may be happening with some initiatives...although it may be a bit early to tell.

Eric Schnell said...

Thanks Walt. If a movie line quote is the only issue with the post I am in pretty good shape. :-)