If I Called You a Lurker Would You Want to Stay in My Group?

lurk vb. (intr.) 1. to move stealthily or be concealed, esp. for evil purposes. 2. to be present in an unobtrusive way; go unnoticed.   Collins English Dictionary (Australian Edition – 3rd edition 1991)

This post is about participation in online groups.

More specifically, it is about why we should be more polite in speaking about those people often referred to as “lurkers”, i.e. people who join groups but don’t start or join in the online conversations.

LinkedIn Bloggers groupThe post was prompted by a discussion thread started by my colleague and co-moderator, Dennis McDonald, on the LinkedIn Bloggers group. After posting my thoughts on the subject, I was encouraged by group member Miki Saxon to re-post them via this blog.

The discussion point was a reference to what Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen had written a couple of years ago about a phenomenon he dubbed “participation inequality“.

Nielsen cited research, which is pretty well known and which I have used on occasion, to the effect that, across a variety of large scale, multi-user groups and social networks, only 9% participate actively from time to time, by way of starting or joining in discussions, posting information and so on. And an even smaller group, 1%, participate a lot. For the remaining 90% “who read or observe, but don’t contribute”, Nielsen employs the commonly used online term “lurkers”. He provides a formula, the “90-9-1” rule, which I for one have quoted several times in different contexts:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute)
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

Nielsen goes on to make some very useful suggestions about how to increase active participation rates, explaining on the way why that is a useful objective.

But reading what he had to say I realized that, as the founding moderator of a group of now over 980 members, I had suddenly become uncomfortable with the suggestion, implicit in the term “lurkers”, that some 885 of the members should be seen as “non-contributing“.

At one level, that is probably unexceptionable. At another, I believe it could be seen as less than respectful of people who join groups, such as LinkedIn Bloggers, where there is no obligation to post, and who choose to read, learn, be amused, be indignant perhaps, and still choose not to post.

It’s perhaps a challenging thought for those of us who like to jump in and start discussions or comment on the views expressed by others, but some people evidently don’t feel a need to do that.

And those of us who participate actively are surely not wanting to lose our reading audiences! Show me a story teller, a presenter, a writer, an active participant in any online group who doesn’t like to have an audience and the bigger the better.

So my contention regarding the notional 90% is that their not participating actively does not warrant their being spoken/written of disrespectfully. Because let’s face it, in the world of online communities the term “lurker” is not only not complimentary, it is pejorative – as illustrated for example in the standard “equation” “lurker”=”non-contributor”.

Whereas I believe that people “contribute” by the simple fact of being members, with varying degrees of interest in the conversations going on. And further, for all I know, there may be a number of conversations that have been conducted/ are being conducted offline, between people who first got to know about one another on one or more of the groups to which I belong. Maybe even done business together. That, for me, contributes to the health and growth of the community, even if the rest of the group don’t hear about it and even if some of the people concerned don’t post or don’t post much.

But what really hit me was realizing that television stations don’t call the people who watch “lurkers”. Radio station announcers don’t say “Good Morning, Lurkers!”

So why, I asked myself, do we use this quite pejorative term in online groups? Do we want people who don’t post to either post or go away? Surely not.

Sophisticated research (irony flag) seemed called for, viz. in Google, type . Result:

The term (“lurker”) dates back to the mid-1980s. Because BBSs were often accessed by a single phone line (frequently in someone’s home), there was an expectation that all who used a bulletin board would contribute to its content by uploading files and posting comments. Lurkers were viewed negatively, and might be barred from access by the sysop, if they did not contribute anything but kept the phone line tied up for extended periods.

So there was a good enough reason then to use a less than complimentary term. But no longer.

It may be unrealistic to expect people to stop using the term “lurker”. I think it’s too embedded in the language of the online world.

But we could adjust what we mean by and even change the way we explain the concept of “lurker”.

Seattle-based Ryan Turner does just that in The Lurker Myth: Measuring the Value of Passive Participation in Community. As the title of his post suggests, he changes the language about “lurkers” from “non-contribution” to “passive participation“.

And he observes pithily:

Active participation creates potential value, and passive participation realizes that value. Most people do both.

He also has some great diagrams to illustrate the point.

On LinkedIn Bloggers we’ve always encouraged new members to introduce themselves, tell us a bit about themselves, but it has never been a group where there was any pressure to contribute by posting anything beyond that first “Hello, I’m …”. Certainly there is no rule that people have to post. There is no question in my mind that the “passive participant” members add value to the group.

And – shameless plug time – the door at LinkedIn Bloggers is always open for new members – passive participants included! (Note, the mechanics of signing up can be challenging – contact me if you have a problem).

What’s your view? Are you comfortable with the idea that some people are actually participating, even if they are not being “vocal” in the conversation?

Des Walsh

Business coach and digital entrepreneur. With coach training from Coachville.com and its Graduate School of Coaching, and a founding member of the International Association of Coaching, Des has been coaching business owners and entrepreneurs for the past 20 years. Over the same period he has also been actively engaged in promoting the business opportunities of the digital economy. He is a certified Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) coach, and a certified specialist in social media strategy and affiliate marketing.

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  1. Hi Des, thanks so much for writing this. The 90/9/1 rule applies to far more than social media. It’s roughly the same across corporations and in teams, volunteer organzations, churches and every other grouping of human beings. It’s the nature of the beast.

    But lurkers have clout when they do participate. After all, it was the lurkers who turned out and elected Barak Obama.

  2. Great post, Des. I’ve just tweeted it! I am a member of well over 100 online communities and on most of them, I prefer to just “lurk and learn”. To tell you the truth, I feel like starting a “WPPN” (Worldwide Passive Participants’ Network) LOL!

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  5. I experienced a vivid reaction to the phrase “lurker” when uttered by a guest panelist from BlogHer at 2008’s Blog World Expo. In fact, I experienced it as perjorative especially fueled by the presenter’s sense of self…enthusiasm masqueraded by hubris.

    By definition, I am lurker in the sense that I entered the social media space at a late age of 50 at Blog World ’07. However I came to listen and learn and yes be cautious, until I had some sense of what I was called to do with what I was attracted to learn.

    I am thankful to the generous blogging community who enjoy sharing and may not be aware of us “late adopters” who take the time to learn and discern.

    You are one of those who is an open platform and I in turn have been influenced to share my knowledge with other Baby Boomers who move at different speeds and directions.

  6. Hi Des, Happy 2009! I got to thinking about something and thought this would be a good place to ask my question.

    It seems to me that, considering the sheer number of social media available in which to indulge one’s passions and interests, a person will always be a lurker or a very rare commenter in several of those venues and active in just a few. Of course, I’m assuming a normal life that included earning a living, interacting in the real world, bathroom breaks, meals, etc.

    So when someone says to me that they are active members in 5, 10 or more social media sites I merely roll my eyes. I have the same reaction to those who claim to be closely involved with their multi hundred (or thousand) network.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, Des.

  7. A great summary of the issues and discussion, Des. I appreciate being included as a reference. The company where I work has a tremendous emphasis on measurement, analysis, and using data to drive decisions. What we’re finding as we evolve from brochure and e-com or transactive sites to community sites is that the traditional quantity-focused KPIs fall short when it comes to measuring social media. Lately we’re been evolving a new perspective based on measuring value creation above all. So for example, we’ll optimize for qualified content consumption rather than total number of posts.

    I look forward to more conversation on the subject! I’ll be mostly lurking/learning. 🙂

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