Is Online Lurking So Bad?

I am an online lurker.  I regularly browse certain websites with active communities but I don’t comment about how the articles or conversations have affected my thinking.  While looking at a friend’s photos on Facebook, I don’t post to reveal my perusal.  I like to move through the available information, read, and think, but without exposing myself and my ideas to other readers. According to both academic and popular sources, these are characteristics I have in common with many other lurkers.  Being a lurker is seen as slightly shameful and a problem.  While I do not believe lurkers deserve this negative perception, by lurking we cede control over content to the posting majority and in effect give up our right to object.  Despite my personal lurker history, to strengthen the available content and communities and reflect true diversity, lurkers, including myself, should reconsider.

I am not alone as an online lurker.  It is commonly accepted that about 90% of users are lurkers, about 9% of users post occasionally, and just 1% are regularly active (Neilsen 2006).  Jon Katz of Slashdot.com provides this description of lurkers, “online, Lurkers are a culture all their own. They can cruise from site to site in peaceful anonymity, picking up perspective, information and insight, even though they rarely seem to light permanently” (1998). While this makes lurking seem like a serene occupation, it is widely seen as a problem by communities.  The authors of “Online Lurkers Tell Why,” a study of 375 Microsoft Network online communities, reveal “The implication is that lurkers’ non-public participation somehow affects communities in a negative way, reducing the development of social capital and free-riding on other participants’ postings” (Nonnecke et al. 2004).  Bloggers Martin Reed and Rich Millington agree that a major goal for online communities is to change lurkers into active participants.

For certain open source communities, such as Wikipedia, which are dependent on users contributing information and upkeep, the difference between lurkers and posters is an important one since it affects their long-term viability.  Other web sites treat lurkers as a challenge, trying to find ways to encourage all users to be active.  If only a few people post, they  dominate the comments and contents of ‘open content’ websites.  Katz states that “the agenda is often set by the smallest, not the largest, group of Netizens, and so is the tone and style of public discussion” (1998).  This can be a positive if it attracts interest, but if a website is dominated by a fringe opinion, it can turn off other potential users.

A lot of thought and research goes into understanding why lurkers browse anonymously and into strategizing how they can be encouraged to post instead.  The most popular reason cited by the participants in “Online Lurkers Tell Why” was “Just reading/browsing is enough” (Nonnecke et al. 2004).  Similarly, I browse websites to see what’s new and to pass the time.  The next most popular reasons are “Still learning about the group,” “Shy about posting,” “Nothing to offer,” “No requirement to post,” and “Want to remain anonymous” (Nonnecke et al. 2004).  I am nervous about countless others in cyberspace reading and judging my words and how much I reveal on social networking sites.   Once something is posted online, it is out in the world forever.  In the US we see the results of thoughtless online posting on a regular basis; postings have the potential to affect college, job, and relationship opportunities.

Some lurkers send personal emails instead of posting to public forums, which allows them to participate in communities but avoid forum debates (Katz 1998).  Katz states, “Many Lurkers say in e-mail that they are uncomfortable with the tone and hostility of public forums” and he wonders “in a culture whose most shared common ideology is the free movement of ideas and information, who exactly fights for or protects the increasingly large numbers of people who are afraid to speak at all?” (1998)  Based on lurkers’ emails to Katz, he believes that many would participate in communities if there were “no anonymous postings, moderated discussions, [and] a ban on personal insults” (1998).  Nonnecke et al. also believe that an assurance of security and privacy within a community might help some lurkers to decide to post (2004).  This level of support for lurkers would require increased regulations and oversight of websites, which may not be feasible.

As long as an active group of posters provide content to community websites, lurkers can continue to browse without worry.  However, if the posters drop below a critical mass or if that group does not represent the community as a whole, it becomes a problem.  It seems unlikely that communities will create stringent rules to govern forum activity in order to encourage lurkers to participate, but better moderation might help in some situations.  However, lurkers cannot express frustration and disappointment with the movement of a community if they are not making an attempt to control the direction.  I plan to post a few comments to encourage continued great content on the open forums of my favorite web sites and I hope that other lurkers will too.

Featured Image from Jakob Neilsen’s “Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute” at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html

Nielsen, Jakob.  “Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute.” useit.com:Jakob Neilsen’s Website. 9 October, 2006. Web. 31 October, 2012. <http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html>

Katz, Jon. “Luring the Lurkers.” Slashdot. 29 December, 1998. Web. 31 October, 2012. <http://news.slashdot.org/story/98/12/28/1745252/luring-the-lurkers>

Millington, Richard.  “Most Online Communities are Designed for Lurkers.”  FeverBee.  FeverBee.  14 June 2011.  Web.  8 Oct. 2013.  <http://www.feverbee.com/2011/06/most-communities-are-designed-and-run-for-lurkers.html>

Nonnecke, Blair and Dorine Andrews, Jenny Preece, and Russell Voutour. “Online Lurkers Tell Why.” Proceedings of the Tenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, New York. August 2004. <http://www.cis.uoguelph.ca/~nonnecke/research/OnlineLurkersTellWhy.pdf?q=lurkers>

Reed, Martin.  “Inside the mind of an online community lurker.”  Community Spark.  Community Spark.  30 Sept. 2009.  Web.  8 Oct. 2013.  <http://www.communityspark.com/inside-the-mind-of-an-online-community-lurker/>

Emily Muth

Emily Muth is a former Master's candidate in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown and the Lead Blogger for gnovis. Her academic focus is on the strategic use of social media and digital communications. She loves to read, travel, and post photos of delicious food.

  • dj10

    Hey –I am definitely guilty of lurking and I rarely post on public forums, at least in part for the reasons you stated. In face to face encounters most people feel compelled to follow a certain decorum. However, when people get behind their computers with the idea that they can express their anger and there will be no consequences, I think it’s almost therapeutic for them. It’s probably too hard to resist. Hence troll-behavior and the proliferation of heinous bigotry in virtually every anonymous/pseudo-anonymous forum. If I know seventeen people are going to berate me for my perceived political affiliation then I can’t justify taking the time and energy to participate. But I’ll come out of the darkness to say that I am intrigued by your article.

  • AntoxaGray

    For the first time in my life I hear it’s bad. But I think it’s bad when someone declares %username% is here when that username is lurking. On twitch channels, for example.

    One of reasons (but not the only one) why I think greeting every follower on twitch is bad: when I lurk I have to wait till streamer stops streaming to follow him. Some streamers also act creepy and look in viewers list and greet people from it.

    When I lurk in twitch I want streamer not get distracted by me, or sometimes I feel like I dont want to talk for all day.

    There are few forums where I only lurk and have 0 posts, for years. Or sites like Stackexchange, though I get here mostly from google for specific question.