I admit it.

I have used the term 'lurker' liberally over the years when talking about online communities and member engagement.

But I'd like to make the case for all to stop using the word 'lurker' in community strategy and community building.

Here’s why.

It’s an unhelpful, pejorative label with many negative connotations. There were reasons why it was used in the 1990s and early 2000s, but now it’s time to ban the word.

What is a lurker in online communities?

There are many articles describing a member of an online community who doesn't actively engage in discussions, threads, challenges and online other community activity as a 'lurker'.

There are academic studies discussing lurker behaviours. For example this paper from 2007 and this paper from 2014. Many suggest that it's important for lurkers to become active participants in communities.

A lurker is broadly viewed negatively and as a 'challenge' for community builders. They're seen as someone who should be moved from being a non-posting, non-engaging, passive community member to one who is fully engaged.

What's the origin of the term 'lurker'?

It's hard to discover when and where the term 'lurker' was first coined. Online communities have been active community platforms have been around since the early 1970s.

I've tried to make sense of these early online communities and today's online community platforms, by creating a visual and categorising online communities into 4 distinct types:

  1. Group Chat/Messaging
  2. Virtual Worlds
  3. Forums and Bulletin Boards
  4. Web based communities/Blog networks
  5. Social Networks

There’s a theory that the negative associations of 'lurking' were formed when Bulletin Board online communities were popular.

These communities were active at time when dial-up modems were used. Internet connectivity was comparatively expensive and complex in the early 1990s.

Bulletin Board users who signed in without contributing took up valued connection slots and so these community ‘lurkers’ were often banned.

Why we need to ban the word lurker in community

It’s 2022 and things have moved on. Most of us have lightning-fast internet connectivity.

The word ‘lurker’ is pejorative, judgemental and it assumes that the only measure of success in a community is engagement. It also ignores the need for communities to be inclusive.

It doesn’t account for neurodiversity, introversion, people who are low on confidence, or perfectionists who don’t like to engage unless their thinking is fully-formed.

The word ‘lurk’ sounds like someone is hanging around a group of people in a grubby raincoat. Standing outside looking in. Watching and listening, with evil designs or intentions.

The truth is that in most communities, the largest member segment will be ‘lurkers’.

Reasons why we ‘lurk’

Introversion, perfectionism and neurodiversity asides, sometimes people are simply too busy with life or work to take the time to engage.

Some people are constrained and are not allowed to engage for contractual, reputational or legal/governance reasons.

For example, in-house legal counsel may not be able to publicly comment on specific issues. A comment from an employee or senior executive from a publicly listed company could send share prices rocketing or plummeting. Public service broadcast journalists need to maintain impartiality.

We may lurk in some communities, but not in others

It’s important to recognise that even the most engaged and active people in some communities may be ‘lurkers’ in others.

There are subjects where I have decades of professional and personal experience and expertise. For example digital marketing, comms/PR, community strategy, non-profit digital strategy etc. I’m a highly active and engaged participant in communities on Guild where these topics are discussed, such as Comms & PR Pioneers, Charity Non-Profit Trailblazers or Digital / Marketing Pioneers. [links]

In other communities, I may have some knowledge, but I’m definitely in pupil/learner mode.

There are other members with decades of expertise and experience who are active in those communities. It’s rare that I engage by starting or adding to discussions. Communities such as Building Inclusive Cultures or Delivering Sustainability in your Business are examples of these types of communities for me.

I expect as I learn more, that I will feel able to contribute. For now, I’m a both a member and a silent reader. But I’m one who values these communities and the people/discussions within the groups very highly. Even though the community data may tell a different story.

So what should we call ‘lurkers’ in a community?

Well, how about starting there.

We call them a ‘Reader’ or simply ‘Member’.

I did start to draw a list of possible 'lurker' alternatives, but then saw that the wonderful community strategist Rosie Sherry had already done this.  

She also provides thoughts about how best to engage the silent majority.

No need to recreate the wheel, but here are a few alternative ways of describing people who don’t engage in your community:

  • Advocates
  • Explorers
  • Followers
  • Learners
  • Listeners
  • Members
  • Readers
  • Skimmers
  • Silent Majority

I strongly recommend that you consider what value members get from the communities they belong to.

Consider perhaps how they would describe themselves and their engagement behaviours in relation to your community.

A one Comms & PR Pioneers community member said to me recently: “I love the community, but I’m way too busy at the moment to contribute meaningfully so at the moment I’m a skimmer, looking out for the useful nuggets. When things slow down, I’ll be a full on Firestarter.”

Above all, remember lurkers are people.

People are complex.

Their needs from communities, their motivations and participation behaviours may change from day to day, week to week and year to year.

It’s up to us to design community strategies around multiple groups of these wonderful, complex people.

But whilst we’re doing that, can we please agree that engagement isn't the only community metric - and to stop using the term ‘lurker’?

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

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