I just read a new paper from Jennifer Preece and Ben Shneiderman that provides a nice framework for the ways people contribute at different rates to collective projects in general and social media on the Internet in particular.
Preece, Jennifer and Shneiderman, Ben (2009). The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation, AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction (1) 1, pp. 13-32.
Available at: http://aisel.aisnet.org/thci/vol1/iss1/5, the paper is published in a new journal, Association for Information Systems Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, and is likely to be of interest to those in the social media and network analysis community. The main argument is that there are distinctive activities that people move through: initially as readers, then contributors (in small then larger ways), then collaborating with others to make larger contributions, and then to leadership (policy making, enforcement, coping with disruptions, mentoring novices, etc.). The figure (above) from the paper is modeled on Wikipedia where these activities have been studied extensively, but they argue that these activities can be found in many technology-mediated social media. The conversion rate from one activity to another is often as low as 1 percent (for example, there are half-a -billion readers of wikipedia, but just 1600 admins who are effectively the leaders), so the paper offers suggestions for improving the usability and sociability design to raise the conversion rate.