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Take any online community and analyze its membership and you’ll find that only a fraction of the group actually contributes in any kind of meaningful way. A similar point could be made about offline communities, which is why we even have a dedicated term for non-contributors: wallflowers.

A wallflower is a descriptive term for someone with an introverted personality type, but one that still seeks out and partakes in social events on a fairly regular basis. They are often socially competent enough to be liked and to attend group gatherings, but may choose or feel the need to blend in and remain silent.

In real life, wallflowers rarely make up the majority. You might find a couple here and there, but the line between “I’ll attend” and “I won’t participate” is so thin that few people tread it. On the Internet, however, everything changes.

Online, wallflowers become lurkers… and they vastly outnumber everyone else.

What Exactly Is a Lurker?

Simply put, a lurker is a member of an online community who lurks in the shadows (hence the term). They don’t contribute any new activity; rather, they consume the activity of others. They are invisible. Passive.

One harsh way to put it: if a lurker suddenly vanished off the face of the earth, that lurker’s community would not be impacted in any significant way.

The term first came to prominence back during the golden age of online bulletin board systems How We Talk Online: A History of Online Forums, From Cavemen Days To The Present How We Talk Online: A History of Online Forums, From Cavemen Days To The Present Let’s take a step back and think about the wonders of modern technology for one second. The web has made it possible to participate in near-instant communication on a global scale. Join me as I... Read More (BBS). These BBS communities relied on users to upload content and make comments on content that others had uploaded.

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One thing to remember is that these BBS communities operated during a time when dial-up modems The History Of The Modem [INFOGRAPHIC] The History Of The Modem [INFOGRAPHIC] It doesn't seem that long ago that I was sitting at my computer, waiting to go online while my torturously slow 56K modem whistled and screeched its way onto the World Wide Web. Fast forward... Read More were the primary form of Internet connection. Users who stayed connected without contributing were actually hogging up connection slots and wasting system resources. Thus, lurkers were often banned.

As such, the term “lurking” most often carries a negative connotation today. In a lot of ways, community lurkers are comparable to BitTorrent network leechers The Torrent Guide for Everyone The Torrent Guide for Everyone There are tons of ways to download files and there is no doubt that BitTorrent is the most popular and fastest way to download what you want. Read More : they take for themselves without giving to others. Non-lurkers tend to view lurkers as lazy, greedy freeloaders. Why don’t they just post something?

It almost sounds malicious when put forth in that way, but the truth is much simpler than that. Most lurkers don’t care about leeching content. In fact, most lurkers just don’t care at all.

The Lurker Mindset

Last year, the Wall Street Journal found that 44% of Twitter accounts had never sent a tweet. On the other hand, only 13% of all Twitter accounts had written at least 100 tweets. That’s a massive disparity, especially if we include all the lurkers who have never even made an account.

This leads us to The 1% Rule, which is a useful cultural guideline for topics like this:

The 1% rule states that the number of people who create content on the Internet represents approximately 1% (give or take) of the people actually viewing that content. For example, for every person who posts on a forum, generally about 99 other people are viewing that forum but not posting.

And then we have a variant called The 1-9-90 Rule:

The “1-9-90” version of this rule states that for websites that primarily focus on user-generated content, 1% of people are Powerusers, 9% of people are Contributors, and 90% of people are Lurkers.

So accordingly, we can expect anywhere from 90% to 99% of any given community to be lurking in the shadows, passively standing by and watching as the active minority engage with one another. But why? What is it that keeps these lurkers from joining in?

Well, there are several potential reasons. Each lurker is different.

For most lurkers, it comes down to the fact that they have nothing worthy to contribute. Remember that adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Lurkers have their own version of it. It’s better to say nothing than to spew meaningless drivel How Upvote Systems Have Damaged Online Communities How Upvote Systems Have Damaged Online Communities Read More . Plus, sometimes it’s more enjoyable to participate from a distance.

Tangentially, some lurkers are socially anxious about contributing. What if nobody answers their question? Or worse, what if they’re berated for asking something stupid? They may have something to say, but their anxiety keeps them on the outskirts.

online-lurkers-mindset

Lurkers of this kind will usually sit quiet for several months to observe how current members of the community interact. They’ll study social norms and internalize what kind of behavior is acceptable Why The Internet Provides A Thriving Environment For Hate & Trolling [Opinion] Why The Internet Provides A Thriving Environment For Hate & Trolling [Opinion] Aidan Dwyer entered and won a science competition. What happened next is something that those of us that have been on the Internet for a long time now would not find very surprising. The story... Read More before making the plunge themselves. Doing so minimizes the chance of getting burned for committing a social faux pas.

Sometimes it’s about fear of commitment. It’s one thing to join a community as a passive member to see where things lead. It’s another thing to spend time and energy into something that might not work out. Will the lurker’s efforts be rewarded? Or will it all be for naught? If the latter feels more true, it makes more sense to not take that risk.

Essentially, I believe the mentality of a lurker is summed up as someone who is interested but not invested. Most of us are interested in many things but invested in only a handful of them. It’s normal. It’s expected. It’s perfectly okay.

It’s Okay to Be a Lurker

Way back in 2006, the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) found that there was significant evidence in favor of The 1-9-90 Rule, though it sometimes leaned more towards The 1% Rule in certain contexts. Either way, the point is that lurkers are a vast majority.

The NNG uses different terminology, however, and describes this phenomenon as participation inequality. How do we overcome this gap between lurkers and contributors? The short answer: we can’t. Yes, there are ways to “convert” lurkers – those community growth methods The Right Way To Grow A New Online Community: 3 Examples The Right Way To Grow A New Online Community: 3 Examples Why do some communities thrive while others struggle to survive? Let's look at a few stories. Read More are beyond the scope of this post – but we’re overlooking the bigger question.

What’s wrong with having a lurker majority? Lurkers were understandably annoying back in the days of BBS communities, but times have changed for the better. What harm are they causing now? Not much. In fact, lurkers are actually pretty valuable.

For one, lurkers are still part of the audience. If you’re running a blog, that means they’re still reading your stuff. If you’re a product brand, they’re still buying your stuff. If you’re a consulting service, they’re still in need of your expertise. Being outside of the community doesn’t mean they’re valueless.

online-lurkers-acceptance

Along similar lines, lurkers can reach those outside the community. A loyal reader who never writes a comment can still spread awareness through word of mouth to their friends, and the people they bring in might end up being contributors. You never know.

But most importantly, lurkers are potential contributors. Some lurkers may never contribute, but many lurkers are just temporarily dormant. It may take them a few weeks, months, or even years, but eventually they’ll break out and start participating.

Regardless, at the end of the day, lurkers will always outnumber contributors. We have to make peace with that. There’s nothing wrong with having a lurker majority, and if you’re a lurker, just know that it’s completely normal.

Keep lurking until you feel like you have something to say — and when that day comes, go ahead and say it.

Do you think The 1-9-90 Rule holds true? When are you more likely to lurk and when are you more likely to participate? Do you think more lurkers should come out of the shadows? Tell us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Woman Peeking Through Blinds Via Shutterstock, Line of Paper People Via Shutterstock, Man In Bed On Phone Via Shutterstock, Paper People Circle Via Shutterstock

  1. Bobby Brown
    December 2, 2016 at 5:22 am

    Thanks for writing this post. This made me want to start contributing to the forums I read.

  2. Tom
    May 24, 2015 at 7:47 am

    As a full time lurker, thanks for a great article! I'd like to add one more possibility for the reasons behind lurkers: I have something better to do next, and I'd rather move on than spend time engaging further. Rarely (like right now) I feel like sharing something, but when I do, I do so. Then I move on. We're probably all lurkers in one aspect of life or another, somewhat interested, but not enough to spend a lot of time on a subject.

    And now I'm off to playing with my cats... they demand attention and are way better than anything else!

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 4:07 am

      Thanks for being honest, Tom. I actually agree with you 100%. There's always something next in my "queue", so I read the article and move on. Great insight, I hadn't thought of that!

  3. Moti from Postwaves
    May 23, 2015 at 10:06 am

    I think that the need to gain social status before someone will pay attention may deter many or have them give up after few tweets. I think that given the right stage many more will have a say

  4. Mike Merritt
    May 22, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Lurkers of the world "UNITE" - don't feel guilty because you are not a "Contributor" .... Without Lurkers, there wouldn't be enough traffic to appreciate all of the ads on the site ...

  5. Mike Merritt
    May 22, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    I'm a "participant" at MUO because they don't require me to "Log-In" and don't spam my email address. I feel sorry for people who post questions to, say, PC World. I may know the answer, but I refuse to prostitute myself with their comment/reply system. MUO does just fine, and the worse they ever do is to quarantine my comments if there's an URL in it.

  6. Mike Merritt
    May 22, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    @DragonMouth - Ahhh but having a Twitter account allows you to "follow" various people/organizations and see what's happening out there. That's where I find the most recent posts from MUO and also PC Magazine and PC World, etc.

    • dragonmouth
      May 22, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      Sheep and dogs also "follow" :-)

      I'd rather find out what's happening out there in a full-length article, not in a 140 character sound/word bite. However, each to his own.

    • Mike Merritt
      May 22, 2015 at 11:48 pm

      @DM - I fear that you misunderstand. The "Tweet" isn't the whole articles information. It's the "Title" of the article and a link to go to read the complete article. If the 140 character Title doesn't sound interesting; then I don't click through to read the article. If the Title sounds good - I click to read the whole thing.
      I'm not talking here about personal tweets with foolish personal comments like: "I just ate a bowl of corn flakes" - I choose not to follow people who just talk about themselves.

  7. Lucy
    May 22, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I am "a Lurker", sorry :), but I used to share "makeuseof" posts on my "netboard" , G+1 and ZN sometimes I retwitter. Every day I come here .....

  8. dragonmouth
    May 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    " 44% of Twitter accounts had never sent a tweet. On the other hand, only 13% of all Twitter accounts had written at least 100 tweets."
    If I had a Twitter account, I probably would not tweet, or at least very rarely. That is one of the reasons I do not have a Twitter account.

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 4:10 am

      I figure most people are initially interested in Twitter, but as soon as the account is created, they see how much "work" is involved and never come back.

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