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?

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).