Since online communities have become far more popular than ever before, their members are being paid close attention to for being an essential study object. In general, they could be divided into two distinctive groups, namely posters, who post text and non-text threads, comments and engage in conversations, and lurkers, who would not participate like posters in public but still read threads and observe others’ behaviors.
Not surprisingly, most of prior studies have been focusing on posters and their intentions to contribute, while it is understandable that there is very little research on lurkers, their behaviors and the intentions behind. For lurkers, it also suggests that there are various reasons that they would not participate publicly. For instance, it is possible that expertise and professionalism of a field could be negatively linked to the number of lurkers in such communities due to the high barrier to entry. An example is that lurkers in technical support communities are significantly more than those in medical support.
However, as the majority may or may not know, the authors emphasize that lurking is not negative but normal behavior. Quite a few lurkers would also consider them as an important component of those communities, and their contributions, direct or indirect, should be measured and valued, since lurkers usually account for the majority of online community members. However in this study, the portion of lurkers are fairly low because only extreme lurkers who never post publicly are taken into account. Besides, it is possible that a lurker may remain silent in one online community but actively participate in a different one.
From a web-based survey covering 375 randomly selected Microsoft Network communities of total 1,304 that are focusing on four different fields, the authors were trying to examine the reasons of lurking and attitudes of lurkers, especially if and how they differ from those of posters. One thing that needs to notice is that only 18 survey invitations were rejected initially, which could indicate that not only posters but also lurkers in fact not tend to separate themselves but instead would like to provide help. However, it is astonishing that the results show the differences between lurkers and posters are huge.
For both posters and lurkers, “getting a general understanding of the community” and “reading conversations and stories” are the top two common reasons that they are attracted to certain online communities. However, these two groups differ for many diversified reasons, where “get answers to questions”, “tell stories or participate in conversations” and “access to expertise” are among the top three. It therefore can be concluded that posters tend to be more engaging and more purposeful, and therefore they create conversations and interactions. Instead solely reading or browsing is enough for many lurkers, and they have more personal reasons not to post, which may be the reason that lurkers are less positive or satisfied with their online community experience. However, the authors also emphasize that while lurkers are reading threads, they can be also evaluating and assessing. When the time and condition is right, they may post. But no matter how they behave online, it has no direct link to how they act offline.
Similar to the study of Phang, Kankanhalli and Tan (2015), lurkers’ attitudes towards their community as well as themselves tend to be more negative and would affect their behaviors, although lurking itself is not negative by nature. Community managers could try to inspire lurkers to post as this is highly possible as long as there are enough drives. However, managers could also let lurkers keep lurking by providing them opportunities to contribute in a discrete way. Further studies may cover both methods and make comparisons to see which is the better way to help not only lurkers but also the whole community.
Nonnecke, B., Andrews, D., & Preece, J. (2006) Non-public and public online community participation: Needs, attitudes and behavior. Electronic Commerce Research, 6(1), pp. 7-20.
Phang, C. W., Kankanhalli, A., & Tan, B. C. (2015) What Motivates Contributors vs. Lurkers? An Investigation of Online Feedback Forums. Information Systems Research, 26(4), pp. 773-792.