Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lurking is Not a Static State

Lurking and its role in communities has been on the forefront of my mind for the past few days. It has received a lot of attention in the past from the thought leaders in the realm of learning and the role of communities in personal as well as organizational learning. I have recently taken on enterprise community facilitation and was curious to see how people are interacting on our enterprise collaboration platform. The analytics told me that over 40% of the users are Active Users (a term Jive uses to describe all users who log in to consume content without necessarily interacting with the content in any manner). This is also proved by the fact that many of the groups on this platform have membership of ~300 but obviously not everyone is a Contributing User. They are lurking on the edge, consuming content.

Somehow, the word lurker has become associated with pejorative connotations of people taking from communities without giving back, of not contributing, of being selfish and feeding off the hard work of others. They are the free riders. However, is that truly the case? Would we consider silent participants in a meeting or at presentations lurkers? Not really. They showed up. I think what makes lurking seem dubious in an online environment is that we can't technically "reveal" our engagement. No one can see the engrossed look on my face when I read discussion threads in the Learning and Skills group. A lurker might very well be giving back by performing better at their jobs, by sharing insights with others in the context of their daily work by using the learning gleaned from lurking. This is especially true of communities in enterprises. Since the give back is asymmetric and happens in a different context, this goes unnoticed. Does that mean they should always continue to lurk? I don't quite think that happens. Some of the research material points to a cycle of participation that I have mentioned later.

I recalled some of the posts and articles I had read in the past about lurking as a behavior in online communities and what it indicated, and decided to dig through those again. At this point, I also "serendipitous-ly" stumbled upon a couple of conversations recently that touched upon lurking (this is why I love social media). 
The questions going through my mind were:
  1. Do people learn when lurking?
  2. Is it an indicator of the value of the content being generated on the platform?
  3. When does lurking change to participation?
  4. What can community facilitators do to turn lurkers into participants? 
  5. How is lurking different from non-participation? 
  6. Finally, are lurkers considered as community members?
After digging through the references and some old articles I had saved, these are some of the key points that emerged. 
Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith in Digital Habitats calls lurking "legitimate peripheral participation."
From a community of practice perspective, lurking is interpreted as “legitimate peripheral participation,” a crucial process by which communities offer learning opportunities to those on the periphery. Rather than a simple distinction between active and passive members, this perspective draws attention to the richness of the periphery and the learning enabled (or not) by it. (p. 9)

Etienne Wenger in the Communities of Practice: Learning, meaing and identity explains the five trajectories of participation behavior:

  • Legitimate peripheral participation, not fully participating (lurkers)
  • Inbound, headed toward full participation
  • Insider, fully accepted into the community
  • Boundary, sustaining membership in related communities of practice and “brokering” interactions between them
  • Outbound, in the process of leaving a community
There are subsets of lurkers who are Active Lurkers. In Active lurkers – the hidden asset in online communities, writes
Active lurkers are those that may take something from the community and pass it along to others using different channels – so they participate in your word of mouth. Active lurkers also include those people who may visit a customer support community and find a solution to their problem without contributing to the community. Those people derive a lot of value from that community interaction and so does your company since they do not clog up your customer call center. Active lurkers also include those who will contact the original poster through a different channel, like telephone, email, or perhaps a face to face meeting – in effect continuing the conversation outside of the visible public side of the community, but not outside of the community itself.
From Lurking builds commonality
...Sometimes. Lurkers are part of a group's latent energy; good things happen when that energy is activated. Lurkers are part of the all-important weak-tie network, and it's important to keep them engaged, even if engagement does not translate to participation. ... the lurkers are a critical part of the weak-tie network -- they need to understand the concepts being discussed so they can discuss them cogently with people who may be outside the network in question.

Just a couple of days back I read Luis Suarez's post on Social Learning at TELUS by Dan Pontefract, where Dan Pontefract says (and I am quoting Luis Suarez's post here):
You don’t have to have everyone on board to get value: Indeed, something that we have seen ourselves, over at IBM as well with some of our social software tools, like IBM Connections Bookmarks where about 35k fellow IBMers make use of it, yet the entire IBM population of 400k benefit from it, because the search results from our corporate Intranet search engine are injected with those social bookmarks that folks keep adding along. And it looks like the folks at TELUS share a similar experience; while they may not have achieved just yet 100% penetration with their social tools, the ones who are making active use of them are helping everyone else get enough value, perhaps not just producing valuable content, but digesting it as well.
This is, in my opinion, a critical point regarding the adoption of social tools within the enterprise, mainly from the perspective of setting up the right expectations and encouraging those who would want to make use of the tools to use them, while allowing the remaining ones adjust accordingly and figure out by themselves whether they would need to jump in as well or not. Let them figure out the value they would want to get from it is probably as good as it gets in order to allow for knowledge workers to understand how, when, why and what to contribute, whenever they may be ready.
There are communities where we continue to remain as lurkers. This happens due to various reasons. Participation, I think, is a factor/output of multiple variables. Some of these are:
  1. Comfort level with the topic under discussion and having something substantive to say.
  2. The perceived expertise level of the others in the community (if I am out of my depth, I may just lurk).
  3. The place of the community in my daily life (if it is on a topic of peripheral interest, I may just lurk).
  4. The attention/time ratio I can devote.
  5. The feel of the community--does it feel welcoming and generate a sense of belonging, accepting of different opinions, composed of people at different levels of expertise, and so on.
When one or more of the above mentioned participation criteria are not met, users tend to lurk. But, as described above, lurking is not necessarily a bad thing. Lurkers often have weak ties to a community but form bridges between communities. They often try to use their listening engagement to distill many opinions and seek the larger pattern. By virtue of being distant from the core of the activities, they may spread themselves thinly across multiple communities and are in the key position to know what is happening where. And talk about these communities cogently to those external to the communities thus driving users towards the communities. 


  1. Great post that makes some fundamental points about the benefits of lurkers particularly in the case of businesses investing in SoMe - you do not need 100% participation for it to be a success!!!!

  2. Thank you Steve. I think so too. We have to understand that communities are living, dynamic entities where lurking turns to engagement leading to participation. People move from the edges to the core and back again. It's a constant ebb and flow driven by people's purpose, level and interest in the topic.

  3. I agree, lurkers are an essential part of a healthy learning community. One think we struggle a lot has to do with small numbers. Let's say you have a community of 35K like the IBM example, and 0.5% of those users are active. That's still 175 people, enough to drive conversations. But most organizations don't have the scale of IBM, and struggle in getting a critical mass involved. For instance, if I wanted faculty members at my institution to be involved in a community, and that out of the 1100, 200 sign up, chances are that only a fraction of those will be active, leaving the same 10 people supporting the whole group. At some point, when no new blood joins ever, energy fades away and the community dies. That's been my greatest frustration: I get a lot of value from communities in social media, yet, this process is hard to replicate institutionally, because, in the end, the individual is in charge of its own learning and decisions on how to develop professionally (mostly making sub-optimal decisions and hindering institutional growth). Any thoughts on this?

  4. I absolutely agree with you. I think these are all issues and challenges that as community facilitators, we need to work around. On the open web, where numbers of community members run into thousands, lurkers don't really affect the health of the community even if they don't ever become participants. But in nascent communities within enterprises--small and mid-sized ones especially--having too many lurkers can definitely be detrimental to the growth of the community. In such cases, the facilitator needs to be truly active in nurturing the community and engaging people. I also understand your frustration when you say that on many occasions individuals--even if they do take charge of their learning--don't really do it in a way where the learning feeds back into the community in a manner that helps others learn as well. Often, knowledge silos get created and the overall org wisdom is lost.

    In our org, we are actively reaching out to group administrators to help them understand why siloed groups are not a good idea. We are also reaching out to individuals with request to share anything that is non-confidential as widely as possible on our collaboration platform. Moreover, getting people out of emails and on to the collaboration platform is also another way to ensure key learnings and knowledge don't get lost in individual's Inboxes. And all of these require quite a huge amount of change management planning, ongoing support and community facilitation.

    I will keep writing about my day-to-day experiences and challenges here on a weekly basis. Perhaps, some of these experiences may be of use. I would love to continue this conversation.


Thank you for visiting my blog and for taking the time to post your thoughts.

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...