Not really lurking

The phenomenon of lurkers and lurking has been well studied and noticed over the past decade. Other than the observation they exist almost as a norm in certain online communities, the fact that they actually make up the majority of members in online communities is staggering. Katz (1998) and Mason (1999) reported that lurkers make up over 90% of several online groups, and since then there have been several studies examining the reasons and motivations for lurking and what lurking comprise of. Let me use the definition of a lurker by Nonnecke (2000):

The term, lurker, is frequently used pejoratively and usually refers to anyone who never posts or posts infrequently. In fact, lurking is non-public participation. Lurking is a situated action, and many personal and group-, work-, and tool-related factors affect the activities and level of public and non-public participation. Lurking is ‘normal’ in the sense that everyone is likely to be a lurker at some point in time. Lurkers are heterogenous in most respects except in their lack of public posting. Therefore, in the absence of an understanding of the context in which it takes place, lurker is a meaningless term. Avoidance of the term lurker is recommended. Instead, the term ‘non-public participant’ (NPP) is suggested. NPP is not pejorative and suggests there are other forms of valid participation outside of public posting.

Bimber and his colleagues (Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl, 2005) has recently completed a work focused on reconceptualizing collective action theory, arguing collective action in the contemporary media environment be based on the principle of boundary-crossing between private and public domains. While this is beneficial in informing research and studies done on lurking, there are also other interesting propositions. I’d like to propose two of them, and will use some examples to explain them:

  1. That the phenomena of lurking, or rather, non-public participation is diluted by a convergence in media applications
  2. Peer to peer technologies can be instrumental to convert non-public participation to public-participation.

Posting to blogs, forums, bookmarking a link on, Facebook, or the act of contributing entries to Wikipedia range from private to public spheres, and some of these applications exist in between. For example, a post on a blog may be perceived to be a private action, while a Wikipedia entry may be seen as relatively more ‘public’ than a blog posting. Other applications such as, enable actions to traverse between the private and public spheres recursively and quickly, and some of such actions may be unconscious. A private bookmark may be added using, but when posted, it contributes to a public sphere of bookmarks with similar tags. While users are usually conscious that their actions contribute to private interests, they may be unconscious that they are contributing to a public sphere. There is another dimension to this convergence. Knowledge that has been acquired from one application such as a forum or a wiki, may also lead to the impetus for further knowledge to be contributed on other media applications. Perhaps someone has been seen to be ‘lurking’ or not publicly participating in a forum – but he may be posting frequently to his blog or contributing bookmarks to Or the opposite may be true: the contributions of a prolific public participant may be a result of a prolonged period of non-public participation. In these examples, peer to peer technologies can be instrumental to convert a non-public participation into a public one.

Lurking has often been tagged with the label of ‘free-riding’ in the pursuit of private interests, explaining the lack of public participation. My proposition is that with the convergence of media applications, social networking sites and peer to peer technologies, the distinctions between public and non-public participation are no longer clear.

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