Participatory asymmetry: Theorizing media objects and media flows in a framework of participatory production
First Monday

Participatory asymmetry: Theorizing media objects and media flows in a framework of participatory production by Rob Grace and Fred Fonseca

Social media develops a common asymmetry: few contribute much, the majority little. By “participatory asymmetry” we understand this long tail of participatory production as an interactive dynamic among two types of social media users, regular and sporadic, that shapes the curation of social media spaces. Examining online discussions surrounding massive, open, online courses (MOOCs), we observe interactive differences between regular and sporadic users that shape patterns of social media curation across the networked discussion forums of a major, online newspaper. Whereas regular users reply directly to other users to durably articulate discussions as “media objects;” sporadic users post one-to-many messages which aggregate in platform-reconfigurable cascades of social media or “media flows.” By mapping the relationship between regular and sporadic participation, one-to-one and one-to-many interaction, and the curation of social media spaces in patterns of media objects and flows, we propose a four-part typology of participatory asymmetry: broadcast, feedback, moderated, and dialogic.


Observations of participatory asymmetry
Examining online discussion of MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education
Theorizing a framework of participatory asymmetry
Limitations and future work




Asymmetry has always defined participatory production. By the time Twitter was launched in 2006, the one percent rule, where only one percent of users produce content consumed by the remaining 99 percent, was popularly acknowledged to characterize content creation on Web 2.0 (Arthur, 2006; Horowitz, 2006). According to the related “1/9/90 rule,” social media users can be divided into three categories based on a frequency distribution of participatory production: the top one percent of frequent users, the next nine percent of actively contributing users and, third, the remaining 90 percent of infrequent or sporadic users (Bruns and Stieglitz, 2012; Albrecht, 2006; Bruns, et al., 2013; Graham and Wright, 2014). In terms of participatory production, the top ten percent of regular users contribute over half of all social media content (Bruns, et al., 2013).

In this paper we shift perspective on this classic disproportion of participatory production. Beyond a skewed frequency distribution among users posting social media content, we approach participatory asymmetry as an interactive dynamic among regular and sporadic social media users that shapes the material-discursive curation of social media spaces. We show that participatory asymmetry reveals important, interactive differences between regular and sporadic users, and these differences, along with social media platforms, mediate opportunities for online public deliberation and understanding.

We draw on the theory of “media logic” first developed by Altheide and Snow (1979) to explain how standard media formats in mass media such as television become organized around patterns of media selection and presentation, or media logics, that come to mediate our understanding of various fields of social life, from politics to professional sports. More recently, Klinger and Svensson (2015) and Dijck and Poell (2013) have separately drawn on media logic theory to outline dimensions of “network media logic” or “social media logic,” respectively, to consider how social media now mediates social life. Yet while mass media logics were specified by Altheide and Snow, their analog in social media has not been fully understood. To address this gap, we explore the phenomenon of participatory asymmetry to find two patterns of interactive selection and presentation among regular and sporadic users — logics we refer to as articulation and aggregation — and the media formats they curate: material-discursive configurations we refer to as media objects and media flows, respectively.

In this study, we examine participatory asymmetry among users commenting on news articles about massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an issue of active discussion and disagreement among news readers. Commenting on the Chronicle reveals the skewed distribution characterizing participatory asymmetry, with a minority of regular users posting many comments, and a majority of sporadic users posting comparatively few (Graham and Wright, 2014; Grace and Fonseca, 2016, 2015). In contrast to prior studies, however, we analyze patterns of interaction among regular and sporadic users that reveal how they uniquely interact with both the social media platform and other users. Regular users tend to reply directly to others, sparking conversations around select points of agreement and conflict that durably configure material-discursive spaces or “media objects.” Sporadic users, conversely, tend to post monologues addressing the accompanying news article and produce platform-reconfigurable aggregations of social media or “media flows.” We examine how these social media formats emerge through patterns of interaction negotiated among users and the platform, and suggest that two social media logics, aggregation and articulation, characterize participatory production and intersect to curate the material-discursive spaces of social media. In short, we hope to show how participatory asymmetry matters.

We proceed as follows. First, prior literature surrounding user participation is considered to highlight the gap between studies that treat participation as either media production or social interaction. Combining these strands of research with recent theorizations of social media logic, we examine a case of participatory asymmetry in the Chronicle. The dynamics we observe in this case study motivate the outline of a new framework and four-part typology of participatory asymmetry — broadcast, feedback, moderated, and discursive — which attempts to theorize the relationship between online participation, interaction, and the curation of social media spaces. We conclude by drawing on the concept of “core loop” to consider how the design of platform features facilitating activities, feedback, and triggering can encourage participation and discussion among both regulars and sporadic users.



Observations of participatory asymmetry

Participatory asymmetry represents a commonly observed phenomenon of participatory production, here understood as the public use of online social networking platforms to create and share user-generated content or social media (Deuze, 2006; boyd and Ellison, 2007; Bruns, 2016). Prior research has noted participatory asymmetry when describing the demographic characteristics or discursive roles of regular and sporadic users, but has so far ignored how disproportionate interactions among these users create and curate the material-discursive content or “spaces” of social media.

Studies examining the demographic characteristics of social media users conceptualize user types according to varying frequencies of content creation. These studies typically rely on survey and interview methods to construct classifications of users — the “who” behind people creating social media (Brandtzæg, 2012, 2010; Livingstone and Helsper, 2007). Through a meta-review of user typologies, Brandtzæg [1] describes a universal classification scheme of six “user types” based on user participation frequency and usage behavior: advanced and instrumental users, socializers, lurkers, sporadics, and non-users. Significantly, advanced or regular users (the most frequent contributors) and sporadics (the least frequent contributors) are the most commonly identified user types across the studies reviewed.

Further studies of regular users’ socioeconomic status find correlations between online content production, information-oriented practices (e.g., accessing political and economic resources), and class privilege (Deursen and Dijk, 2014; Schradie, 2011; Zillien and Hargittai, 2009). Other research speculates that forms of digital inequality open between users who produce content and users who primarily consume it (Brake, 2014; Schradie, 2011). These studies identify regular and sporadic user types and observe demographic differences between them yet stop short of analyzing how these users actually interact with social media platforms and other users.

Elsewhere, studies of online communities recognize participatory asymmetry in social dynamics of disproportionate interaction and influence between regular and sporadic users. Extending from Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theorization of legitimate peripheral interaction, studies have examined the core membership of online communities of practice: expert or experienced participants who extend legitimacy to and integrate new members, and also represent the most frequent contributors in online communities (Bryant, et al., 2005; Borzillo, et al., 2011). Here, Huffaker [2], while analyzing emergent patterns of leadership online, concludes that “sheer communication activity is central to being influential”. Importantly, studies of online communities understand participatory asymmetry as a dynamic of social interaction between regular and sporadic users that organizes social media as a discursive space — a medium through which users can interact to negotiate and construct meaning.

However, these analyses often disconnect the discursive roles of users in online communities from the sociotechnical conditions mediating users’ online interactions with social media platforms and other users. According to van Dijck and Poell, these conditions of “programmability” follow from the mutual steering enacted between users and platforms curating streams of social media content:

On sites like Twitter or Reddit, users can post content and steer information streams, while the sites’ owners may tweak their platforms’ algorithms and interfaces to influence data traffic. Programmability can hence be defined as the ability of a social media platform to trigger and steer users’ creative or communicative contributions, while users, through their interaction with these coded environments, may in turn influence the flow of communication and information activated by such a platform. [3]

How regular and sporadic users interact with platforms to steer the flow of information on social media, what we have referred to as the curation of social media spaces, remains missing from studies observing participatory asymmetry. This omission suggests a critical gap in our understanding of participatory production: the persistent skewed distribution among users posting social media not only distinguishes differences between regular and sporadic users, but, as we will see, represents a dynamic of interaction among these users that curates social media spaces.

This possibility arises in Graham and Wright’s [4] account of “superparticipants,” highly active users in networked discussion forums, who they find to “undertake a range of largely positive functions including helping other users; replying to debates and summarising longer threads for new users.” Graham and Wright understand participation with the help of Oldenburg’s conception of “third place,” real-life places, exemplified by the neighborhood pub, that serve as “core settings of an informal public life” [5]. They do so by dropping “place” for a conception of “third space” in which network connections replace physical co-presence as “the key link between participants is not normally their location but shared links that draw people together” (Wright, 2012; Graham and Wright, 2014).

For Oldenburg as well as Graham and Wright, the presence of superparticipants or “the regulars” underpins forms of sociality inside these online spaces. As Oldenburg describes:

The third place is just so much space unless the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars. It is the regulars who give the place its character and who assure that on any given visit some of the gang will be there. [Italics added]. [6]

The notion of participatory asymmetry, however, recognizes that frequent participation by such regulars emerges only in relationship to the sporadics, newcomers, and passers-by whom Oldenburg, Graham, and Wright only imply; and who, despite their majority, remain rarely analyzed in studies of social media (Lomborg, 2015; Malinen, 2015).

Moreover, “third spaces” in social media never exist as “just so much space,” but are created through the participatory production of regular and sporadic users who post content on social media platforms. At the same time, this involves the curation of social media spaces — networked forums, e.g., Facebook News Feeds, Twitter Timelines, etc. — according to dynamics of “programmability” that emerge among regulars and sporadic users and social media platforms. Just as recurring relations among regulars and newcomers provides the spark for third places, participatory asymmetry might be similarly recast as an essential logic of social media which makes third spaces come alive.

In the case study of the Chronicle of Higher Education that follows, we explore participatory asymmetry among regular and sporadic users discussing MOOCs and observe two general patterns of interaction we conceptualize as social media logics of aggregation and articulation. Next, we examine how these logics intersect to curate material-discursive spaces, social media formats we refer to as media objects and media flows. Lastly, we draw together the conceptual users — regular and sporadic — and social media logics — aggregation and articulation — as dimensions of a framework of participatory asymmetry that characterizes the curation of social media spaces according to four unique patterns of media flows and media objects.



Examining online discussion of MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education

We examine participatory asymmetry among comments posted to the Chronicle of Higher Education related to news coverage of massive open online courses (MOOCs) during the first two years of their public reception. We assembled a corpora of news articles and comments posted to their respective networked discussion forums hosted by the social media platform Disqus between 6 June 2012 and 13 June 2014. During this period the Chronicle devoted consistent news coverage to the development of MOOCs by universities and for-profit companies such as Coursera, the largest MOOC provider, and how these open, typically free-of-charge courses, portended to disrupt institutions of higher education. The articles and comments were collected in June 2014, using the Chronicle’s search function to retrieve results from the query “MOOC.” The resultant dataset includes a total of 72 articles and a total of 3950 reader comments submitted by 999 unique contributors.

The following analysis proceeds in two stages, initially “zooming out” on the patterns of participation and interaction found across the forums, and then “zooming in” on one forum to illustrate how these patterns produce dynamics of aggregation and articulation that curate social media spaces in the Chronicle (Nicolini, 2009). First, descriptive measures reveal both participatory asymmetry, a minority of users post most of the comments, while the majority post few, as well as distinctive patterns of interaction among regular and sporadic users discussing MOOCs in the forums [7]. Second, looking closely at the evolution one discussion forum over 30–31 March 2013, illustrates how different patterns of interaction among regular and sporadic users shape different patterns of curation within the forums.

Participatory asymmetry: Participation and interaction

Participatory asymmetry appears in the distribution of participatory production among users posting comments to the forums of the Chronicle. Over half of all comments are posted by the top 10 percent of regular users, while among the remaining majority of sporadic users (90 percent), nearly half (47 percent) post a single comment. As identified in previous studies, however, this distribution is far from uncommon.

Organizing users according to a 1/9/90 distribution, the most frequent one percent of participants (n=10) collectively post 879 comments or 22 percent of all comments to the forums, while the next nine percent of active users (n=88) post 1,237 (31 percent). The remaining 90 percent of users can be divided for comparative purposes between infrequent users (n=430), those contributing between 2–9 comments each, and single users contributing only a single comment to the forums during the two-year period (Table 1).


Participatory asymmetry among users in the Chronicle


In this participatory asymmetry, however, distinct patterns of interaction emerge among regular and sporadic users. To comment on a news article in the Chronicle, users must first register a username and login with Disqus, a social media platform and comment hosting service commonly used among online communities and media Web sites. Disqus allows users to manage comment discussions across multiple Web sites hosting comment forums. A user posting to multiple forums in the Chronicle as well as other Web sites such as, for example, the Atlantic, will find all their activity and that of other users they follow aggregating on the social media feed of their Disqus profile. Here they also receive notifications if another user replies or upvotes their comments, as well as the ability to reply in turn (without returning to the original Web site featuring the comment forum).

Using Disqus, therefore, revolves around the activity of posting comments. The platform supports two primary interactions in this regard: users can either post a monologue or reply. To post a monologue requires a user to interact with the text field (“Join the discussion ...”) at the top of the comment forum immediately following a news article on the Chronicle. In contrast, to post a reply requires the user to scroll down through the comment forum and select the comment to which they would like to reply.

Across the forums of the Chronicle regular and sporadic users engage in different patterns of interaction with the Disqus platform and other users (Table 2). While regular users post a majority of replies (76 percent), the vast majority of all users, sporadics, display an inverse tendency (75 percent monologues vs 25 percent replies). Among sporadic users, however, infrequent users tend to post less monologues (54 percent) than single users (24 percent).


Patterns of interaction and curation among users in the Chronicle


Second, replying to posts on Disqus creates triggers in the form of notifications to the replied-to user’s profile and email inbox. Notifications alert users when they receive a reply, and provide local affordances to reply in kind, without having to return to the Web site (i.e., the Chronicle) hosting the comment forum. In this way, notifications make possible asynchronous discussions with other users and renews the primary activity Disqus supports: posting comments.

The tendency of frequent users to post replies generates social triggers for others to return to Disqus, read replies they have received, and continue discussions by posting reciprocal replies. Patterns of relative reciprocity among regular users point to their tendency to post replies and respond to feedback (Table 2). A measure of mutual replies among two participants, reciprocity expresses the tendency by which participants sustain (reply) exchanges. While regulars engage in reciprocal exchanges with 26 percent of their interlocutors, single participants, unsurprisingly, do so only rarely (two percent). Reciprocity also indicates the tendency of regulars to use platform affordances (e.g., notifications) that enable asynchronous and distributed (across Web sites) discussions to persist.

Lastly, like all social media, users receive feedback (i.e., replies) from other users. After first posting a monologue or reply, users can receive up votes or replies to their post from others on Disqus. Feedback overlaps with and occasions social triggers for users to return to the Disqus application to discover the “popularity” of their posts and the sorts of responses they elicit from others. In discussions on the Chronicle, regulars tend to receive more feedback from other users than sporadics. Regulars thus not only reply more often but, even when posting monologues, receive more feedback than sporadic users. This can be observed in the proportion of isolates, monologues left without reply, that are posted by users. Stark contrast develops with few comments of frequent (12 percent) and active (14 percent) participants failing to elicit a response, compared to 50 percent of single posters and 30 percent of infrequent participants’ comments.

Curating social media spaces: Media objects and flows

In this section we investigate how participatory asymmetry shapes the curation of social media spaces. The following provides an illustration of how spaces of many-to-many communication become curated in the forums of the Chronicle as a result of two logics of interaction that emerge among regular and sporadic users to curate social media spaces. The first, a logic of aggregation, emerges among users who interact with the Disqus platform to post one-to-many messages or monologues, as well as those users who disregard monologues by not posting replies. This interactive process results in the aggregation of media flows. The second, a logic of articulation, forms as users selectively interact with the comments of other users by posting one-to-one messages or replies, joining comments together in subthread discussions that we refer to as media objects.

The following comments were posted 30–31 March 2013 to a forum following an article reporting on MOOCs. Among the users posting comments are regular users discussing MOOCs on the Chronicle, including “Frequent A,” the most frequent commenter across the two-year period and optimistic supporter of the MOOC model, as well as Frequent B, a consistent critic. In addition, sporadic users post comments and come into interaction with regular users. The following episode of participatory asymmetry illustrates the interactive dynamics that develop among regular and sporadic users, and how the recursive interplay of logics of articulation and aggregation curate social media spaces.

The following comments are numbered chronologically, beginning with the earliest post, and indicate the type of comment posted (monologue or reply):

(#1: Monologue) So flipping the classroom and then having active learning with the students worked! ... (Single A, 2013)

(#2: Monologue) ... I predict that, with widespread use of MOOCs, we will see the pool of quality faculty shrink to virtual non-existence ... The rush to embrace MOOCs is shortsighted. The way to fix higher ed is to cut costs by eliminated unnecessary initiatives and administrators (I mean, do we really need an office of diversity sensitivity training? ... (Infrequent A, 2013)

(#5: Reply) [Infrequent A] You are wonderful ... But they are facts. Yes teachers 1,000,000 will be jobless in 10 years. State schools’ land and buildings will be sold. State budget will be reduced by $ 10 billion to $ 2 billion only ... But providing schools must be NON PROFIT elite universities + quality of the existing MOOCs must be improved too ... (Frequent A, 2013)

(#7: Reply) “They are facts” is not an English sentence. Neither is “Yes teachers 1,000,000 will be jobless in 10 years.” But when MOOCs have completed their destruction of the American system of higher education, no one will be left who knows that ... (Frequent B, 2013)

(#8: Reply) Hopefully this will not happen. The last thing the USA needs are 1 million more unemployed! If this does come to pass, maybe some faculty will get hired overseas — at universities and schools that still appreciate live teaching as opposed to MOOCs ... (Active A, 2013)

(#3: Monologue) Bill and Melinda Gates supporting MOOCs? Who would have guessed? Personally, I am all for televised lectures by some of the allegedly finest minds in academe ... But, they are not education in any formal sense worthy of the name ... (Infrequent B, 2013)

(#4: Reply) Good ONLINE by reputable, elite universities are here to stay. More and more universities will adopt the NON PROFIT elite universities online courses to their curriculum. Otherwise they will die within 3 years instead of 13 years ... (Frequent A, 2013)

(#6: Reply) I can't wait until MOOCs have completed their destruction of American public higher education ... No one will write in complete sentences. NewSpeak, here we come! Orwell saw this coming. (Frequent B, 2013)

As the numbering reveals, the comment thread of the forum recursively evolves as sporadic users first post monologues aggregating in media flows, and then, in successive (re-)articulations, regular users selectively post replies in durable material-discursive configurations or media objects. This process of participation and curation can be analyzed as three stages of curation (Figure 2).


Curation of a discussion forum in the Chronicle


Stage one

Disqus allows users to comment on an article in the Chronicle by posting a monologue or a reply. Posting a monologue finds a comment posted to the top of the forum in reverse chronological order, as the most recent comment in an ongoing, dynamic aggregation of social media. In Disqus, these aggregations can be re-ordered in additional ways, for example, chronologically or by popularity (ranked according to the up votes). Monologues generally concern the news article which they follow and may or may not address other comments. Aggregations of monologues (when not replied to) can be referred to as media flows: one-to-many messages and discrete units of social media that remain changeable, fluid, and dynamic in their curation.

The first configuration sees a media flow develop with the aggregation of three successive, on-to-many monologues (#1–3). These do not address each other, but rather the news article which they append, respectively discussing the news article’s reported success of a flipped classroom, bemoaning the apparent consequences for traditional institutions of higher education and their faculty, and criticizing commercial interests perceived as pushing an inferior service. These users rarely contribute: Infrequent A and Infrequent B will post just nine comments each over the two years examined. This is Single A’s only comment. Like most users, these three sporadic users tend to post monologues that aggregate as media flows.

Stage two

Or users can reply. To post a reply in Disqus requires a user to scroll down through the comment forum and select the particular comment to which they want to respond. A reply opens a new text field immediately following an existing comment and, once posted, creates a nested subthread durably affixed to the replied-to comment. Regardless of platform reordering, these subthreads remain durably structured. Replying allows users to selectively interrupt the aggregation of media flows by interjecting new one-to-one posts that articulate stable, material-discursive spaces of discussion, or media objects.

Two new media objects develop with the interjection of Frequent A’s two comments (#4–5). Like most frequent users, Frequent A primarily posts replies and, as previously described, often celebrates a future vision for higher education in which MOOCs are prominent and disruptive. Interestingly, Frequent A’s posts selectively reply at moments when this vision is shared or opposed. The replies thus articulate new spaces of closure or conflict. In this sense, the initial comments of Infrequent A and B, submitted as monologues and left within a mutable aggregate, enter a more select and permanent contingency. Whereas before they were merely one-to-many commentary, they now become social conversation, agreement, and debate.

While the replies of more and less frequent users alike contribute to media objects in the forums, a select minority disproportionately create and extend them (Table 2). Regular users, the most active 10 percent, post comments in fully 85 percent of all subthreads (i.e., media objects). Comments posted by the ten most frequent participants alone, such as those posted here by Frequent A and B, contribute to over half of all subthreads (55 percent). In contrast, comments by the 471 single users collectively feature in only 29 percent of subthreads. As the comment by Single A illustrates, social media posted by sporadic users often remain as media flows, excluded from discursive spaces articulated by regular users.

Stage three

The final stage of curation develops through the continuous participation of regular users as they post replies and continue to (re-)articulate the emergent media objects curating the space of many-to-many communication in the forum. Frequent B posts replies and intensifies the points of disagreement opened by Frequent A’s previous posts. Ridiculing Frequent A’s replies, Frequent B both extends a space of conflict (#6) and re-opens one (#7). The next day, newcomers like Active A (#8) find a space of many-to-many communication neatly curated around points of agreement and conflict selectively articulated by only two regular users.

The three stages of curation illustrate how the recursive interplay between logics of aggregation and articulation emerge among regular and sporadic users to curate the social media space of the forum. The first stage features three sporadic users who post one-to-many monologues, and do not return to post additional comments or reciprocate the replies they receive. In contrast, the second and third stages involve regular users who repeatedly post one-to-one messages that successively re-articulate the material-discursive space of the forum.

The dynamics of participation and curation illustrated in this example suggest a type of “core” media object: a small core of regulars interact among themselves to articulate discussions as media objects, while a periphery of sporadic users tend to contribute one-to-many messages which aggregate as media flows. Here dynamics of articulation and aggregation emerging among regular and sporadic users can be understood to produce core and peripheral media objects, those articulated among regular users alone, and between regular and sporadic users, respectively (such as among Infrequent B, Frequent A and B in Figure 2). At the same time, peripheral media flows develop as sporadic users post one-to-many comments that fail to elicit feedback from other users. Interestingly, this process of participatory production offers insight into the core-periphery structure of interactions within online communities of practice (Borzillo, et al., 2011). The following discussion explores how a framework and typology of participatory asymmetry can provide heuristics for exploring the relationship between participatory asymmetry and the curation of social media spaces.



Theorizing a framework of participatory asymmetry

When examining participatory asymmetry in the Chronicle, we observe a few regular users creating most social media content while many sporadic users create little. At the same time, however, we observe regular and sporadic users engaging in different patterns of interaction whose intersection curates the material-discursive spaces of the online newspaper’s discussion forums. In particular, we find that regular users post one-to-one comments by replying directly to other users and, in so doing, durably articulate discussions as “media objects.” Meanwhile, sporadic users post one-to-many comments which aggregate as platform-reconfigurable social media cascades or “media flows.” Drawing on media logic theory, we conceptualize these patterns of interaction as logics of articulation and aggregation, and associate each logic with the social media formats of media objects and media flows, respectively. Consequently, rather than an incidental aspect of online participation, we find participatory asymmetry to be an essential dynamic organizing the character of online discourse. Below we discuss three implications of our findings.

Theorizing user typologies and participatory asymmetry

First, existing user typologies can help explain differences in online behavior we observe among users posting comments on the Chronicle. These typologies recognize regular and sporadic users as the most common user types and point to high-level differences in online activity — proclivity for social interaction, activity and content preferences, and proficiency using platform features (Bulut and Doan, 2017; Brandtzæg, 2012, 2010; Lüders, 2013) — to distinguish regular from sporadic users. In this regard, regulars are characterized as power users who are intrinsically more sociable, more interested in online activity (e.g., online discussion) and content (e.g., MOOC news), and more experienced and proficient in the use of online applications than sporadic users. Our findings align with these high-level distinctions: regular users posting comments on the Chronicle more often interact directly with others, argue passionately and consistently about MOOCs, and use more Disqus features more frequently than sporadic users.

However, our findings also suggest that high-level differences in regular and sporadic users online activity translate to low-level differences in interaction with social media platforms and users. These differences, we argue, shape the nature of online discourse in social media spaces. Thus, while user typologies distinguish users based on general observations of online activity — frequency of use, variety of use, typical online activities, typical media platform (Brandtzæg, 2010) — we show that, in the context of a single activity (i.e., commenting), content type (i.e., MOOC news articles), and social media platform (i.e., Disqus), regular users engage different platform features than sporadic users. Regulars often reply directly to other users comments and reciprocate replies, and do so by using email and profile notifications that facilitate engagement in ongoing, asynchronous discussions. In contrast, sporadic users typically utilize the basic, one-to-many comment feature, suggesting a lack of interest in social interaction, the discussion topic, or experience using Disqus notifications. Our findings thus further characterize regular and sporadic user types and, furthermore, suggest that examining users by frequency of use is essential to understanding patterns of platform use and social interaction in online discursive processes.

Designing for participatory asymmetry

More than a common phenomenon defining participatory production, participatory asymmetry describes the presence and potential roles of users in online discussions: regulars who can sustain, guide, and dominate discussions and sporadics who may contribute new ideas or remain ignored. As we have shown in the case of the Chronicle, interactive differences between regular and sporadic users contribute to the material-discursive curation of social media spaces, highlighting the importance of deliberately designing platform features with the phenomena of participatory asymmetry in mind.

To understand the design implications of our findings we draw upon the concept of “core loop,” a recurrent pattern of activity which defines the use of a software application. For developers, a core loop framework functions as a design heuristic to understand user engagement (i.e., participation) as a set of interactions that can be repeated ad infinitum — a loop (Sicart, 2015). While heavily influencing mobile game development and the gamification of applications, in which compulsive user participation is a deliberate design objective, the core loop concept has not been sufficiently considered as a framework for designing social media platforms to facilitate participation and interaction among regular users and sporadic users.

The core loop, as a design framework, breaks participation into three, iterative phases of interaction with associated design requirements intended to sustain participation by renewing the core loop of activity (Kim, 2014a). First, activities consist of short and repeatable interactions which constitute the “atomic units of any good core loop.” Second, feedback informs users about the results, performance, or progress of activities through in-use information such as likes, replies, or up votes. Third, and lastly, triggers provide out-of-use notifications that draw users back to the application to resume an activity. Triggers often recall prior activities and provide asynchronous feedback outside periods of use to renew participation.

In the case of the Chronicle, Disqus supports two primary activities, posting monologue or reply comments, which regular and sporadic users engage in inverse tendencies. As observed, these tendencies create different opportunities for social interaction that generate forms of feedback (i.e., replies from other users) and triggering (i.e., notifications of users’ replies) which sustain participation among regulars participating inside core loops across the forums: regular users reply more often and receive more feedback via other users’ replies than sporadic users. As in any conversation, these replies create opportunities to continue a dialogue which the Disqus platform mediates through bespoke design features. Receiving a reply, in turn, triggers a notification that appears on the replied-to user’s Disqus profile or e-mail inbox and allows the users to reply in kind. In this way, notifications make possible the ongoing, asynchronous discussions that constitute the core loop inside which regular users participate. The tendency of frequent users to post replies generates social triggers for others, typically other regulars, to return to Disqus, read replies they received (i.e., feedback), and continue discussions by posting reciprocal replies. Alternatively, either through the lack or disuse of feedback and triggers, sporadic users post comments but never return and re-enter the discussions carried on among regulars. Below we draw on the core loop framework to consider design implications of participatory asymmetry by focusing attention on the design of platform affordances for activities, feedback, and triggering that enable and constrain patterns of frequent, regular participation inside core loops and patterns of infrequent, sporadic participation outside core loops.

Framework of participatory asymmetry

Lastly, we propose a four-part typology of participatory asymmetry which we discuss with respect to the contributions of regular and sporadic user types and the design of platform affordances facilitating regular and sporadic participation inside and outside core loops, respectively (Figure 2). As such, it might replace influential frameworks of interaction developed in early studies of the Internet which preceded the affordances for many-to-many communication of social media (Mcmillan, 2002). The four types we outline below — broadcast, feedback, moderation, and dialogic — represent heuristics for understanding participatory asymmetry as a process by which interactions among regular and sporadic users curate the material-discursive spaces of social media.


Framework of participatory asymmetry


The framework is organized around two dimensions. The dimension of participation recognizes regular and sporadic users, as defined by the phenomena of participatory asymmetry, while the dimension of interaction recognizes patterns of one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Importantly, between the dimensions of participation and interaction two dynamics or logics emerge that curate social media spaces. The first, aggregation, refers to interactions among regular and sporadic users posting one-to-many (i.e., monologues) messages and ignoring (i.e., not replying to) the one-to-many messages of others to curate media flows: platform-configurable aggregations of social media. Conversely, the logic of articulation refers to patterns of direct interactions (i.e., replies) among regular and sporadic users which curate media objects: durable arrangements of social media articulated through one-to-one interactions among users.

The four types of participatory asymmetry — broadcast, feedback, moderation, and dialogic — account for alternative dynamics of interaction among regular and sporadic users which pattern social media spaces in distinct arrangements of media objects and media flows. The latter can be further defined as “core,” involving one-to-one interactions among regular users only; “core-peripheral” (C-P), involving one-to-one interactions between regular and sporadic users; and, finally, “peripheral,” when media objects and flows involve one-to-one interactions among only sporadic users. The four types of participatory asymmetry are described below:

Broadcast spaces find regular and sporadic users posting one-to-many messages which platforms “broadcast” to general audiences of users (e.g., news feeds). The absence of one-to-one interaction sees the curation of social media spaces through the aggregation of media flows featuring content produced by a minority of regular users. Regular users may be news agencies, celebrity and political “influencers,” as well as commercial advertisers and spam accounts. It should be noted that many regular “users” may not be human at all but automated accounts, or bots, which post one-to-many or, in the case of feedback asymmetry (see below), one-to-one messages promoting the visibility of other, regular users’ accounts (Chu, et al., 2010).

From the perspective of core loops, a variety of design features support broadcast activities through forms of feedback and triggering. Platforms provide users posting one-to-many messages with measures of engagement (e.g., likes, up votes) and associated triggers that commonly follow variable reward schedules, similar to those of slot machines, which create conditions of uncertainty and surprise and can be timed to periods of user inactivity in ways that sustain participation (Kim, 2014b). However, these affordances for feedback and triggering amplify rather than initiate participation and, therefore, facilitate engagement among the minority of regular users characterized by intrinsic preferences for online interaction, interest in content and activity, and proficiency using a variety of platforms and features.

Feedback resembles broadcast asymmetry with social media spaces curated as media flows, with the exception that sporadic users respond or provide “feedback” to the one-to-many communications of regular users. These responses curate core-peripheral media objects and, when sporadic users respond to other sporadic users, peripheral media objects. Platforms commonly facilitate forms of feedback when triggers notify sporadic users that an influential, regular user has posted content which they are invited to view, like, and post comments in response.

Different platforms may be more likely to facilitate broadcast and feedback types of participatory asymmetry. Research shows that social media spaces appearing on YouTube and Twitter, for instance, often emerge through interactions between users with many followers (e.g., public figures and organizations) and posting one-to-many messages, and the majority of Twitter users with relatively few followers (Kwak, et al., 2010). Conversely, online communities interacting through spaces such as Facebook Groups, for example, may be expected to curate more “moderated” and “dialogic” spaces patterned by media objects as they involve relatively more direct and reciprocal interactions among users (Polonski and Hogan, 2015).

Moderation, such as analyzed on the Chronicle, finds regular users participating in patterns of one-to-one communication while sporadic users tend to post one-to-many monologues which aggregate in core and core-peripheral media flows. Due to their activity, regular users often interact with one another, articulating core media objects, while also replying to the occasional messages of sporadic users. The spaces which result involve a few, persistent voices “moderating” discussions among themselves and a diverse number of sporadic passers-by. Moderated asymmetry thus features a minority of regular users making use of platform affordances for feedback and triggering which facilitate frequent participation inside core loops of activity, while sporadic users engage in similar activities (e.g., commenting) but lack or spurn opportunities which facilitate continued engagement.

“Moderated” discursive spaces characterize online communities of practice which are distinguish by both active, established members and newcomers (Bryant, et al., 2005; Borzillo, et al., 2011), and an associated core-periphery social network structure (Rombach, et al., 2017). As earlier presented, Graham and Wright’s (2014) conclusion that “superparticipants” or regulars provide orientation to sporadic users, participate in discussions and summarize debates, aligns with the role of established members of online communities of practice (Fayard and DeSanctis, 2009), and suggests that “moderated” social media spaces curated among regular and sporadic users align with these discursive roles. In this sense, core-peripheral media objects may often include regulars in practices of orientation and summarization, while core media objects will reflect the established arguments and conflicts that bind online communities. We observe the latter when core media objects articulated in spaces of the Chronicle emerge around the arguments for and against MOOCs consistently presented by regulars across the forums.

Dialogic asymmetry recognizes a general tendency for one-to-one interaction among regular and sporadic users that articulate core, core-peripheral, and peripheral media objects. Although most users tend to engage each other in discussion, the condition of participatory asymmetry — a minority of highly active users and a majority of sporadic users — nevertheless remains. Consequently, “dialogic” spaces may only emerge temporarily in the life cycle of online communities (Malinen, 2015), such as when events prompt users to more intensely engage each other around issues of mutual interest and concern (da Cunha and Orlikowski, 2008). In this sense, designing for “dialogic” spaces would promote activities of one-to-one interaction among all users, in addition to feedback and triggering affordances attempting to facilitate reciprocal engagment among regular and sporadic users.



Limitations and future work

The framework of participatory asymmetry provides new opportunities for analyzing the relationship between online participation, social interaction, and platform design. First, we highlight important low-level differences in how regular and sporadic users interact with social media platforms and users that extend prior high-level observations of online activity used to construct typologies of Internet users (Bulut and Doan, 2017; Brandtzæg, 2012; Lüders, 2013). While these findings further characterize regular and sporadic user types (Brandtzæg, 2010), the differences we observe between regular and sporadic users remain limited to a particular context and social media platform. Future research examining interactive differences among regular and sporadic user types must look to and compare across more diverse instances of participatory asymmetry.

Second, the framework of participatory asymmetry can guide empirical analyses of online discussion by connecting patterns of participation (regular and sporadic) and interaction (one-to-one and on-to-many) with processes (aggregation and articulation) shaping the material-discursive curation of social media spaces (broadcast, feedback, moderated, and dialogic). In particular, the framework stands to inform studies of online deliberation given its intense focus on the relationship between user participation, computer-mediated communication, and interaction design (Freelon, 2010; Dahlberg, 2001; Albrecht, 2006; Graham and Wright, 2014; Friess and Eilders, 2015). For example, content analyses of online discussion using common measures such as “substantial interactivity,” whether users refer to the content of others messages when posting a reply (Friess and Eilders, 2015), can also categorize messages as core, core-peripheral, and peripheral media objects or media flows. The resulting analysis could examine which types of arguments are discussed (i.e., what and how often do arguments occur and co-occur in core, core-peripheral, or peripheral media objects) and by who (i.e., what arguments are posted by regular and sporadic users), as well as which arguments fail to generate debate (i.e., what arguments compose media flows). Such analysis can show how regular and sporadic users shape online discursive processes by discussing particular topics while ignoring others. Furthermore, observed patterns of participation and interaction can be associated with general types of broadcast, feedback, moderated, and dialogic discursive processes outlined in the proposed framework.

Third, and lastly, considering online discursive processes with respect to types of regular and sporadic participation inside and outside core loops, respectively, provides opportunity for designing platform features that can facilitate open and dialogic online spaces. Finding instances of “feedback” asymmetry, for example, designers may attempt to move toward a more “dialogic” arrangement by prioritizing feedback regulars receive from sporadic users while also introducing triggers that can sustain sporadic user engagement. Examining participatory asymmetry from the perspective of core loops allows design researchers to connect types of discursive processes with affordances for feedback and triggering enabling and constraining recurrent activities among users, as well as consider design requirements for facilitating alternative modes of online discussion. While we have merely suggested the utility of a core loop design framework, it remains for future research to articulate more fully the elements of such a framework and its scope of application in the design of social media platforms. More generally, opportunities exist for critically interrogating and adapting industry design approaches such as the “core loop” in design research on platforms supporting online communities (Spagnoletti, et al., 2015), journalism (Ksiazek, 2018), and political discussion (Freelon, 2010; Bossetta, 2018).




As Malinen concludes, “a theoretical and conceptual framework for user participation remains undefined as most of the research has approached participation in terms of its quantity” [8]. Our exploration of participatory asymmetry attempts to address this gap by exploring the relationships among the frequency of user participation, patterns of interaction among regular and sporadic social media users, and the material-discursive curation of social media spaces. The framework we present outlines a typology for understanding these relationships and provokes further thought into participatory asymmetry as an important phenomenon around which social media logic emerges. Altogether, the implications of our findings contribute to theory by explaining the relationship between participatory asymmetry and the material-discursive curation of social media spaces, and orient design efforts to facilitate interactions among regular and sporadic users that can contribute to open, rather than closed, online discursive spaces. End of article


About the authors

Rob Grace is Assistant Professor in Technical Communication & Rhetoric, Department of English, at Texas Tech University.
E-mail: rob.grace [at] ttu [dot] edu

Fred Fonseca is Associate Professor of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
E-mail: ffonseca [at] ist [dot] psu [dot] edu



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5. Oldenburg, 1999, p. 15.

6. Oldenburg, 1999, pp. 33–34.

7. Shead, 2013, p. 401.

8. Malinen, 2015, p. 228.



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Editorial history

Received 30 July 2018; revised 1 June 2019; accepted 4 September 2019.

Copyright © 2019, Rob Grace and Fred Fonseca. All Rights Reserved.

Participatory asymmetry: Theorizing media objects and media flows in a framework of participatory production
by Rob Grace and Fred Fonseca.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 10 - 7 October 2019

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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