Lurker

1 percent rule

In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively.

Research indicates that lurkers make up over 90% of online groups. Lack of trust represents one of the reasons explaining lurking behavior.

The term dates back to the mid-1980s when bulletin board systems (BBS) were often accessed by a single phone line (frequently in someone’s home). There was an expectation that those who used a bulletin board would contribute to its content by uploading files and posting comments. Lurkers were viewed negatively, and might be barred from access if they did not contribute anything but kept the phone line tied up for extended periods. By contrast, many modern Internet communities advise newbies (new users) to lurk for some time to get a feel for the specific culture and etiquette of the community, lest they make an inappropriate or redundant comment, ask a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ), or incite a flame war (argument). This leads to the tongue-in-cheek command to ‘lurk more.’ The verb to ‘de-lurk’ means to start contributing actively to a community having been a lurker previously.

There are also some who lurk on a forum habitually, and rarely, if ever, contribute. It is generally difficult to guess how many such lurkers are present, due to their silence. In flame-wars, a participant who is losing an argument will sometimes claim to receive email support from lurkers, which may be unverifiably true, or a form of sockpuppetry (an online identity used for purposes of deception).

Lurking is not entirely free of its prior negative connotation from its BBS roots: Lack of participation may be validated by a user’s post count, which would indicate lurking tendencies if they have been around for a while with low participation. Having a lower post count in a forum may dissuade lurkers from participating in an active part of the forum populated with higher post-count users as a self-imposed form of rankism. If someone with a lower post count (whether a lurker or newbie) has a genuine question that is germane to the discussion and hasn’t been considered yet, but is not adding to the active discussion of veteran participants, they may simply be ignored even if they are not breaking any other rules. Users may ‘pad’ their post counts to avoid this appearance while still lurking as a whole, or enter into less heated topics until others start to recognize them.

Researchers who study online communities grapple with the potential negative implications of lurking. Specifically, the act of lurking, or ‘completely unobtrusive observation’ may provide insight into how individuals interact online by reading their posts or chats. However, if the researcher’s presence is detectable and individuals are able to see that someone is lurking rather than participating, they may feel that they are being spied on. Additionally, ethical issues may be apparent if lurking researchers ‘harvest’ or take posts/entries featured in chatrooms/online journals without asking for the individual’s consent. As a result, individuals in online communities may feel that they are experiencing private interactions, but a lurker may see it as a public space for observation.

Differing factors between communities can also create different lurking behaviors and patterns; topic, size, and traffic level all can affect the amount of lurking that occurs in a community. For example, as the number of members in a discussion list rises, the percentage of lurkers also rises. However, this may actually be a desired effect, as high posting levels could create chaos within the community if every member was posting daily.

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