I Hate “Lurkers”

I just finished reading an article called “Active lurkers – the hidden asset in online communities.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Most communities have 90% of users who are lurkers – people who may consume things from the community, but who don’t contribute…While it is inevitable that larger communities will end up with 1% of their members being very active users who provide enough value for the 9% of somewhat active users, who together provide
enough value for the 90% of lurkers, the largest form of participation in online communities happens to be active lurking, which according to an MIT research study can make up 40-50% of your community membership.”

And it struck me that I hate the term “lurkers.”

The word makes it sound like you are engaging in some kind of criminal activity.

Like a flasher or a streaker or a “peeping Tom.”
That’s why I never use that term to describe members of the GovLoop community who choose to review
content without commenting or contributing to the conversation.
I prefer the term “readers.”

Why? I think it offers a level of respect and appreciation.

More importantly, it’s not about extracting value FROM you.
It’s about bringing value TO you.

Now I also believe that every member brings immense knowledge, and I’d love for more members of this
community to share their insight and information.

That’s what makes a social network so extraordinary – the diversity of people and the varied perspectives. Toward that end, I heard Chris Dorobek of Federal News Radio once say:

“All of us are smarter than any one of us.”

And it’s true.

It’s also true that sometimes you just want to read what smart people are saying as it informs your opinions and, ultimately, accomplishes GovLoop’s mission of “connecting government to improve government.”

So what do you think? Do you like the term?

Maybe this question will even bring out the lurkers…um, I mean, readers. 🙂

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Andrea Baker

I like to think of them as the mostly silent community, the 90%. Passive Consumers. They pipe up when really irked, moved, or its something directly related to their specific interest.

Then there is the 9% Active Consumer/Producers, not only are they taking things away, but they are also contributing back.

Finally, the super active 1% are the Super Consumer/Producers and, included within the Community Gardeners.

Shamun Mahmud

I agree, I feel that the “lurker” moniker is somewhat derogatory, criminal almost.
BOTH “Passive Consumer” and “Reader” are nicer labels.

Martha McLean

Ah Andrew, no one dare accuse you of being a lurker!! You’re active plus!

I like your new term. I’ve always referred to lurkers as “voyeurs” partially because I like the provocative nature of the word – just a little above the “peeping tom.” 😉 Voyeurs possess an inherent interest or desire in something. There’s a call to action and they hear the call, the simply may not act upon it.

Andrea’s passive/active consumer example is also bang on. The difference I see, however, in the passive consumer and the voyeur is that ultimately those passive consumers will act when compelled to do so.

You’ve started a good discussion around the definition of value – how do we measure this? Is a blog more successful because of the number of comments or is the fact that it was well-read more important? Does it matter?

I run the spectrum – a reader, a voyeur, passive, active, I can be any one of those at any time. I’m interested in the thoughts and experiences of others and how that knowledge may alter or shape my own thinking. That in itself is valuable. By providing a comment, I hope that I am in someway contributing to, and building the value chain.

As always Andrew – you’ve planted a wonderful seed.


Andrew Krzmarzick

Hmmm….interesting terms, Andrea. Not sure that I like “consumers or producers” either.

Feels like factory or marketing or sales terms.

What if we considered fellow social network members to be neighbors or colleagues…vs. people who are contributing or not?

Andrea Baker

In the focus of the fact that a community gathers around a central connection there is something being sold to the potential members to join… togetherness. It is a bit of marketing because a community manager must constantly market to grow the community and market the rules of the road, and other daily business. However, when I invoked those terms, you can visualize what I mean… hopefully, thus achieving the goal of using them. But I understand you might have a preference to say otherwise.

This is just some of what I have been writing about in my book on Community Management — due out sometime later this year.

The reason I call the lurker or voyeur the “passive consumer” is that until they no longer exist as a person or the community no longer stands, they will always have a possible voice to share.

Ingrid Koehler

I dunno. I think I like lurker better than reader or consumer – though clearly lurker has a sense of the pejorative about it. The reason I like it is because it means that they might just spring into action at any moment.

In one community I managed over a long period of time we had a lot of lurking – some of it not so passive. Sometimes people emailed – asking permission, asking me to post for them…etc, etc. Now it’s flipped. Sure, the percentages haven’t improved that much, although there is more participation – but the quality of interaction is just amazing.

Andrea Baker

Ingrid, I would still argue there is a passive nature to your former community members that ask you to post for them. The could flip to active if only that spark of contributing was nurtured.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Martha Not sure I’m diggin’ voyeurs either. One of the Dictionary.com definitions (the other was too sordid to share!): “An obsessive observer of sordid or sensational subjects.” Though the title of this post was somewhat sensational…

@Andrea – I like the term “togetherness” – evokes being part of a greater whole. And language is important. Just not sure about “marketing” either…for me, sharing is better. A CM wants a group to be more organically grown vs. automated and mechanical, right? Because it’s about human relationship.

I think about four kinds of people in an online community:

– Readers
– Members
– Contributors (open to ideas on this word)
– Leaders

They each bring something to a community and move between these roles. Most people are readers (view only) or members (join groups to view)…some are contributors (share content) and the fewest number are leaders (share content and help members make connections). We need all of them. BTW…would love to review your book in advance!

@Jean-Paul: Griefers get free coaching…on how to play nicely.

Adriel Hampton

Great thoughts, Andrew! And I really hate the term “consumers,” even though in some cases it applies. Words not only explain but shape behaviors, so use them wisely.

Gerry La Londe-Berg

Although I like the term readers, I think I prefer to be a member who comments when I think I have something to share.

Tim Bonnemann

Just curious: can anyone at GovLoop confirm the so-called 90-9-1 principle? At 26,000 members, we should see 260 very active users (or creators) and about 2,340 somewhat active users (editors). The rest are lurkers, according to the theory.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

I’m not sure that this is that much different than real-life communities. For the most part, you’re really going to get out what you put in. I have chosen to be active and engaged. I’m not sure you’re really getting the full value of GovLoop or any other social media platform if you’re not doing this to some degree. Also, I’m getting more from those who are participating more. Oh, and I don’t like the term “lurkers”; people still have the option to engage at whatever level they want without it having so much negative attachment to it.

Amanda Blount

OK – Since I have been away with surgery, I feel it is my responsibility to up my time on here as the contributor! LOL Yes, I have an opinion, and I plan on sharing it! :-)LOL Here is what I try to tell everyone I meet; everyone has a voice, but some do not think they have the right, or the smarts to share what they are thinking. I know in real life there are some people who stand to the side for hours and never say a word, because they are embarrassed of their own words, but when asked their opinion they have some of the brightest insights you could ever imagine. So, in meetings, I have made it a point to nicely say “anyone who does not contribute to this meetting is being selfish to the rest of the group. Those who only take away from the meeting and do not contribute are taking the easy road, and leaving the responsibility and embarrassment to the rest of us.” Of course, I put this in a way that is lighthearted, but with teeth. It is not to be mean, but it is a way to let others off the hook if their idea falls flat. They can always say “Well she forced me to say something.” I believe some people read and do not contribute, because they like being readers. But then there are others who need a little encouragement. I think more groups should take the time to force the good ideas out of the folks who are riding the fence. Encourage them strongly to jump right in – no harm here! Of course – the NO harm must be a true statement. In social networks, I have seen plenty of times when shy people share their opinion and get stepped on by the majority. They never speak up again. There needs to be someone in every group who stands up for the person who contributes. Even if they don’t agree. It takes alot of courage for some people to speak out, so if they have a moderator who at least keeps the dogs at bay, maybe there would be people contributing. I am not speaking for GOVLOOP. I have seen this type of behavior from all groups. I am kind of the moderator even in real life, if I see someone step up and say something, and then get their butts handed to them, I will normally help out and say “enough” let’s at least let the person breath a minute. I think every social network needs a moderator who steps in for conversations. That way more people will feel safer to speak out. In any case, I don’t have that issue… my husband says I can talk a tree out of it’s bark. LOL

BTW – don’t come to a meeting with me in charge and not expect to say something. LOL I call everyone out. 🙂 I really believe that no opinion or idea is a dumb idea. The ideas that don’t work, at least can be crossed off the list.

Ingrid Koehler

@Andrea – I agree – those people who asked me to post on their behalf weren’t taking the action I would have liked but they weren’t quite being passive. They were like the boys in middle school who get their friend to ask you to dance because they’re too shy to do it themselves. They want to participate but are scared to take the first step. They were preparing themselves for active membership.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

@Tim Bonnemann I, too, would like to see how these numbers bear out on GovLoop.

@Amanda Blount I believe that my “bad” idea can sometimes lead to another person’s good idea, might as well get it out there so it can be discussed and evaluated and add to the process.

Bob King

How much of this 90-9-1 is just part of the natural distribution? In Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” he explains about the power law. (Most of us usually here that as the 80-20 rule.)

Perhaps there is a need to come up with a different word, but lurker has been used for a long time and we may not be able to change it. I do not believe the term has a negative connotation to those that really understand the dynamics. In online forums, I’ve often seen people refer to themselves as a lurker – usually it’s in their first post, when they finally feel comfortable enough to chime in.

So, rather than try and come up with a substitute, perhaps we should focus on educating others what the term means, and that’s not a derogatory term. Instead, it’s just a step in the socialization process.

Refer to slide 18 of Maxine Teller’s “Social Media For Government” presentation which presents a Social Media Adoption Curve.

That curve shows six phases: education, observation, broadcast, participation, relationships and collaboration. Lurkers are in the observation phase – listening (or reading) but not yet broadcasting.

How many potential “lurkers” are not even observing yet? The 90-9-1 numbers are only those already in the community. What’s more important – how many are lurkers? or how much of the potential audience is observing? That’s the education piece.

Then, as Andrea Baker alluded, moving them along the curve involves gardening and mentoring. Perhaps they are lurking (in some generic system) because the system is not friendly to newbies. While there are merits to having a ranking system, could such a system be intimidating to first time posters?

Imagine someone reading a thread where he/she may have something to add. That user has never posted before and has a zero point ranking. All of the others in the thread are Ultra Premium Elite with 20,000+ points. Could that not be a deterrent?

Along the same lines, how are the users responded to when they venture forth the first time? Most of us have probably seen situations where some new person asks a question, only to have another rude user point out it was in the FAQ and they should have read it before asking.

I’d sign off with “long time lurker, first time poster” but no one would believe me… 🙂

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Amanda Agree that there needs to be gentle coaxing, assistance and whatever it takes to enable people to feel safe in making their contribution. And REALLY glad to have you back active on GovLoop! 😉

@Ingrid Just joined IDeA Community of Practice and will try to make some of the online conference this week. Everyone, please check out her follow-up post: “Facilitation and bringing the lurkers out of the shadows.”

@Tim and @Jay We’re hesitant to talk numbers because it’s not about numbers. I know, it sounds cliche, quality over quantity, etc…but it’s true! That being said, we have set up tracking in Google Analytics so that we can understand the community better. Number of members is one of a healthy community – if it’s growing. And we use pageviews to see what content is most valuable to people – sometimes a blog might not get a comment, but has hundreds of views. From the surface, it might appear that the blog is not getting read…but there’s always much more than meets the eye! The stats really tell a story when you learn how to look at them.

@Bob – Love Shirky’s HCE and have it within arm’s reach on my shelf. I don’t know if I am advocating for language change as I did in a previous conversation about “social” vs. “knowledge” media. But as @Adriel said below, language is important and I wanted to articulate a philosophical point of view for GovLoop’ers. One quick thing about the social media adoption curve – we’ve been working hard to put all kinds of stuff in place over the last couple months, including a Go! GovLoop for New Members Group, talking about a GovLoop Mentor Program and creating a special page and promotion for people to become community leaders…so we have opportunities for people all along that spectrum/curve to take their engagement to another level! Last thing: Ranking – human psych indicates that most people like it…but it has pros and cons, too. There’s a forum where people are talking about it…and I spent a couple minutes, but can’t seem to find it…stay tuned. I’ll get you a link.

Cris McGrath

@Camcgr – there are times when ‘lurking’ is justified. Listening to a conversation online, in a meeting, passively at a social event is a good way to gather intel on a subject which may prove to be useful or useless and which one may know absolutely nothing about. I would rather listen and learn followed by investigation before engaging and making a fool of myself.


How about- when a comment kills the thread? Not sure why it happens, but it’s not a big encouragement to engage…