Me? A lurker? How ignorant of you! I am an empowered listener!

In our networked world, we hear a lot about ‘lurkers’. The 1% rule  (or 90-9-1 principle) reminds us that in any network or community of practice/interest or just discussion group, 1% of the people actively facilitate, organise and manage the space, 10% actively contribute to it and 90% are ‘lurkers’.

Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)
Is active, empowered listening like lurking? Certainly not (Credits: Ängsbacka / FlickR)

It’s time to nail this one down too, because the term lurker sounds ugly and is arguably as far away from the truth as possibly imaginable.

First off though, let’s see what is the definition of a lurker?

Lurk: to lie in wait in a place of concealment especially for an evil purpose (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Wow! I already felt uncomfortable with the sound of the word, now I get the creeps thinking about its meaning!

No one gives ‘lurkers’ such ill intentions in networks (let’s use ‘networks’ here to refer to any grouping of people with a common interest or purpose, even though it’s more complicated than that) but let’s say that they are generally seen as people doing nothing much for that network. In fact, Wikipedia clarifies their (lack of) activity:

In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing, social networking site, listening to people in VOIP calls such as Skype and Ventrilo or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively.

In reality, what do ‘lurkers’ really do?
We need to think about this in dynamic terms: What do they do in the network and what do they outside of it? What do they do at the time of action and what do they do afterwards?

We can imagine different types of ‘not-so-active’ network participants:

  • People who are indeed not even listening or checking any of the network interactions, at any time – they probably lost interest a while ago and were just too busy or lazy to quit that network. They’re not even ‘lurkers’, they should be called ‘deserters’ and it’s totally ok. We have our own commitments and are best placed to know where we can provide and/or get value, it’s fair enough to leave a network (even though a good digital practice is to close one’s online commitments properly by unsubscribing or closing one’s account);
  • People who are not acting or reacting on the spot, but are following interactions, with a little delay. This is also the simple effect of our asynchronous networked world: we can connect with people that are far apart, but also apart in time, which leads to this a-synchronicity. And many people travel a lot for their work so they may not be able to react on the spot. Does that make them lurkers? I don’t think so, they are just not there at the time, they’re ‘travelers’. And perhaps when they come back they will show that they are one of the following…
  • People who are following interactions on the spot but not intervening. This is the group targeted by the Wikipedia definition of  lurkers. Wikipedia adds: “Lack of trust represents one of the reasons explaining lurking behavior (Ridings, Gefen & Arinze 2006)”. Perhaps that is true, perhaps they don’t know other members of the network enough and don’t feel like talking to a giant crowd of strangers. Perhaps they feel they don’t have anything valuable to share. Perhaps they are just not interested in that particular conversation in the network. There is a range of reasons for their behaviour. But at any rate, if they’re not deserters, they are listening. At least at the beginning of the conversation to see if that particular bit is relevant to them. And they have the power to intervene any time. They are ‘active listeners’ and they might be learning profoundly through that active listening, which is another type of change that any community might wish for.
  • People who are following interactions on the spot, who are not intervening but actually influence other spaces and groups. Many of us are part of different networks and, depending on our level of confidence, connectedness and interest we play a different role in each. These are perhaps the online equivalent to Open Space Technology’s ‘bumblebees’, who cross-pollinate from a place to the next by sharing insights, ideas and perhaps even taking action, only in another space. They listened, they liked, they adopted elsewhere.
  • People who are following interactions and make it a point to not intervene, so as to leave space for others to build their confidence, mutual trust and conversations. They do so because they want to invite a richer diversity of participants, to achieve cognitive diversity and perhaps because they are so influential that they might impress others and curb discussions (when a genuine expert talks, everyone listens). These are what a KM4Dev group from 2008 described in their conversation about words for change as ‘power-lurkers’ – the “unseen but highly influential champions of online communities”. I would call them the ‘silent wise’, because they know all too well that ‘speech is silver, silence is gold’.

Does anyone up there deserve to be called a lurker? I don’t think so. So let’s stop using this terrible word and let’s appreciate the rich and varied contributions of these empowered listeners. We all are empowered listeners.

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Thanks a lot, the word “lurker” has been bothering me since I first heard it. In addition to all the great explanations and observations in your post, it also bothers me that it doesn’t just describe a behavior (which I may sometimes engage in) but rather is a label for WHO you are – making it sound like you either are a lurker or not. In reality, we all show different behaviors at different times and in different communities. Granted, some have a stronger tendency to listen and learn quietly, others feel a stronger urge to engage but our behaviors are what we do, not who we are.

  2. Very interesting segmentation of what was previously put all in the same sack. Thanks! Reading the definition of lurking you mention in the post, it seems to me, however, that lurking, although evil, is not passive, it is actually rather empowering, it prepares you to make a better decision. Maybe what makes its use inadequate in online life is the supposition of evil behaviour, not passivity. In any case, «empowered listener» is a better expression to describe the behaviour.

  3. Some call them / me 🙂 “peripheral participants” but empowered listeners sounds much better and seem st bee more adequate. Thx for this expression! Boris

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