Continuing along in the quest to evaluate Web 2.0 tools for biologists, I came across two recent articles, one by web usability guru Jacob Nielsen and one featuring an interview with him. Some valuable points found within:

He offers some cautionary advice on the actual patterns of user involvement on websites that follow the Web 2.0 dictum of having the users create the content:

—article continues—

Well-established patterns of user involvement with sites also led Mr Nielsen to question the sense of adopting Web 2.0 technologies.
Research suggests that users of a site split into three groups. One that regularly contributes (about 1%); a second that occasionally contributes (about 9%); and a majority who almost never contribute (90%).
By definition, said Mr Nielsen, only a small number of users are likely to make significant use of all the tools a site provides.
While some sites with particular demographics, such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, have large involved communities of users that will not hold true for all sites, he said.
“Most people just want to get in, get it and get out,” said Mr Nielsen. “For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool.”

Which seems to be the case for Wikipedia, at least according to founder Jimbo Wales:

Wikipedia was actually written by “a community … a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers” where “I know all of them and they all know each other”. Really, “it’s much like any traditional organization”….”I expected to find something like an 80-20 rule: 80% of the work being done by 20% of the users, just because that seems to come up a lot. But it’s actually much, much tighter than that: it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users … 524 people. … And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.” The remaining 25% of edits, he said, were from “people who [are] contributing … a minor change of a fact or a minor spelling fix … or something like that.”

This gets back to arguments made here and here. While it is possible to have a community of highly-involved participants, at this point most people don’t have the time/interest to invest. Is it really possible to get the majority of members of a widespread community participating, or are you always going to just attract those who have an affinity for the process of participation? Ah, but the counterargument is that kids today are growing up with Myspace and Facebook, so they’re going to expect things to work this way for the rest of their lives. Nielsen comments on this as well:

Mr Nielsen also questioned championing teenage use of the web as a harbinger of what people will continue to do when they were older.
Although people in their late 30s make very different use of the web to those in their teens, Mr Nielsen expects that when those teenagers grow up the time they spend online will diminish.
“It’s because they are 20 years old that they act differently to 40-year-olds,” said Mr Nielsen.

In his Alertbox column, Nielsen also offers some sobering advice for Web 2.0 startups out there, so many of which seem to be lacking a business model beyond the hope of gaining a large customer base and selling ads:

“The number of companies that chase the same advertising dollars as their only business model is a sure sign that we’re at the peak of Bubble 2.0. It would be much more sustainable if companies aimed to create services that users valued enough to pay for.

Right now, considerable advertising money is sloshing through the Web because most marketing managers remain clueless about how it works. They think that because search advertisements generate lots of business, other Web ads must work just as well. What a fallacy — brought on by ignorance of the basic Web user experience. People go to search engines when they’re explicitly looking for a place to do business. This is why search engines profit from sucking up the work of content sites (where users exhibit strong banner blindness).

Marketing managers won’t remain clueless forever. Sooner or later they’ll discover that Web advertising offers almost no ROI. Only two forms of Web ads actually work: search ads and classified ads (such as eBay and real estate listings). A third type of Internet advertising that might work are video ads, because video is a linear media form (in contrast to nonlinear website navigation). At this point, we don’t have enough user research about Internet video to say for sure. “

This is particularly worrisome in the world of science publishing, where the death of print means the death of revenue from print advertisements. Tim O’Reilly makes a similar argument for book publishers:

He made the case that for most book publishers, an advertising-based model simply won’t work because the audience for any particular book content is not large enough or high-value enough for most advertisers.