Every online community or social networks has lurkers- people who read messages but never post, who join groups but never participate. This is a common aspect of online life. I too am a lurker on many occasions online. I read, I think about what has been posted and on many occasions, I compose responses either in my head or on the screen, but never push the send button.
There are many reasons for this behavior – in some cases, the idea of responding is too challenging – maybe my ideas aren’t good enough or my point of view isn’t salient enough for prime time? Perhaps, as a senior professional, a CEO, I feel the need to refrain from exposing what I *don’t* know, and therefore don’t participate (which I suspect is a common condition in professional networks). Other times, the pure logistics of the day prevent participation – a phone call or interruption prevents me from completing the task of posting.
The role of the lurker has often been examined in research about online communities- but it has mainly been to quantify the numbers of lurkers but not to explore their value. I believe they are an often overlooked style of member.
One of my first publications in 1995 (!) was “Active Readers–What Benefits Do They Gain from an Educational Telecommunications Network?” where my colleague Gloria Jacobs and I studied what lurkers – or what we preferred to call Active Readers did offline with the information and ideas they found online. We specifically focused on those elusive community members who visited the community frequently, spent time regularly on the community but were silent members.
Much to our surprise, we found that the Active Readers are a vibrant and engaged group of community members. They often took the concepts they read online and brought them into their professional lives – in real life. They shared information in meetings, talked about what they learned and even referred people to join the network or community even thought their participation was never traceable online.
Active readers often considered themselves a part of the online fabric of the group and were often more engaged than those who posted or participated on occasion. They frequently brought value to the community and helped considerably in extending the reach.
As the rush is on to assign ROI to the professional communities so many companies have created, it is important to consider these people when factoring the benefits and reach of the communities. Current social media tools can’t even begin to track or trace impact of the Active Reader when capturing the data about the members at large.
Therefore, I believe it is important to reach out to the Active Readers to find about their participation experiences, include them in redesign efforts, find out what their needs are accommodate them as much as those who are visible. In other words, value them and treat them as an important part of your membership base.
Fifteen years after my first exploration of this topic, I am pleased to see a resurgence of interest in this group – the lurker, the silent member, the Active Reader — because they matter. A fellow community builder just launched a new blog called Lurkers Anonymous that will be dedicated to exploring the topic in depth and worth a read, even if you don’t comment!