In search of micro-elites: how to get user-generated content

The excitement of modern collaborative environments (call it Web 2.0
or what you will) lies in the hope of bringing the masses on board to
create something collectively. Hundreds of thousands, it is thought,
can be not only consumers but producers. But more often than you’d
think, what you need is not hundreds of thousands, but just five or
ten people who know best.

This is often true in my own field of computer documentation (which
I’ve researched and
written about
for some years). A new, bright, shiny tech toy comes out and you want
to bootstrap people’s use of it–but the documentation doesn’t exist,
or is embryonic and hard to decipher. Where do you turn? Probably only
half a dozen people in the world understand the library or utility,
and many of them are too close to the guts of it, having worked on it,
to explain it clearly. Unless you find that rare person who knows the
technology intimately, can empathize with users, and can take time off
from what is certain to be a busy career in order to write, there’s
little hope.

The idea of micro-elites actually came to me when looking at the
Peer to Patent
project. There are currently 1611 signed-up contributors searching for
prior art on patent applications. But you don’t want 1611 people
examining each patent. You want the 20 people who understand the
subject deeply and intimately. A different 20 people on each patent
adds up to 1611 (and hopefully the project will continue, and grow to
a hundred or a thousands times that number).

Even Wikipedia follows this rule in some cases. There are some
subjects where everybody in the world holds an opinion and a huge
number actually know some facts. But other subjects would never see
articles unless a couple of the few dozen experts in the world took
time to write it.

A corollary of the micro-elite principle is that one of the best ways
to help a project requiring a micro-elite is to find the right
contributors and persuade them to help out. We should also examine the
rewards that such projects offer to see whether they offer enough
incentives to draw the micro-elite. The key prerequisite for good
writing is good writers.