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 (BBS). These BBS communities relied on users to upload content and make comments on content that others had uploaded.
One thing to remember is that these BBS communities operated during a time when dial-up modems 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: 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. 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.
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 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 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.
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!