Jonathan Bright, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
Over the last decade the internet has been the source of a wide variety of democratic innovations, from the creation and maintenance of political forums and discussion sites to the establishment of e-petitioning platforms, voting advice applications, and social media enabled activist organisations and campaigns. One well known characteristic of these online participatory services is that contribution levels typically exhibit a highly skewed distribution, whereby the majority of people who make use of the service contribute only a little, whilst a small minority contribute a lot. In many cases this active minority, who are often described as the “power users”, account for a significant percentage of all the activity taking place: they create most of the discussion threads, write most of the comments, upload most of the reviews, sign most of the petitions and so on. These exceptional activity levels mean these individuals are extraordinarily important in terms of keeping a given community alive; it also means they wield disproportionate influence within it.
Despite their importance and potential impact, these power users have received scant attention in the literature on online democratic participation, and indeed democracy in generally, which has typically placed much more emphasis on the other end of the scale: i.e. whether people choose to participate at all. This article aims to fill this gap. It addresses two key debates. First, we ask what explains why some users become power users whilst others do not, looking at both theory on demographics and theory relating to user experiences with the site. Second, we examine the impact of power users. Are they crucial components of online democratic activity, who through their extra dedication start movements and get things going? Or are they the archetypes of Morozov’s “civic promiscuity”, mindlessly flooding sites with content which has little effect other than to water down the impact of the group as a whole?