A new view on lurkers

For several years, there has been a rule-of-thumb, called “90-9-1”, that 90% of online participation in groups/communities consists of “lurkers” or more politely, “passive participants”, and only 1% are active creators. Jacob Nielsen’s 2006 post on Participation Inequality provides a good overview of this phenomenon.

All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background.

In contrast, a tiny minority of users usually accounts for a disproportionately large amount of the content and other system activity.

A recent BBC survey of 7,500 people shows significantly different results.

Here we see that passive lurkers make up only 23% of participants; active (intense) participants have increased to 17%; and there is now an “Easy” group in the middle who, “ … respond largely to the activity of others. This includes replying, ‘liking’ and rating, all activities where there’s little effort, exposure or risk.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that many early adopters, those who used to be active online, are dropping out and are classified as “passive”. I’m not sure if they are actually dropping out or have just moved on to other media and communities.

One conclusion I would make is that in 2012 it is now easier to get people engaged in online participation, whether for work or pleasure. This is the Facebook effect, which I have noticed since the service became mainstream. With a concrete model of what a social network looks like, people can more easily understand online communities. Of course, there comes a saturation point which many of us have faced as we add social networks to our lives. The YASNS effect [“Yet Another Social Networking Service” ~ Clay Shirky] is also becoming ubiquitous.

If nothing else, this report indicates that social media are making people more social online. The medium is the message, or so it seems.

12 Responses to “A new view on lurkers”

  1. Chris Collison

    Yes – the power of the like button and +1 eh?
    Perhaps historically it wasn’t a total reluctance to participate/interact – it was sjust that it required too much thought, so people stopped short.

  2. Joachim Stroh

    That’s good news. Of course, it depends on the context of the participation – collaborating on a project with your boss: intense; skimming through Hacker News w/o replying: passive.

  3. OldBAM

    I lurk because the odds of getting flamed go to nearly 100% when you comment. Not my idea of a fun time. Nobody gets flamed for hitting the “like” button.

  4. Jane Bozarth

    I’ve never bought the idea of “passive participant” as synonymous to “lurker”. It’s one thing to watch for awhile to learn the norms of a community, or to decide if it’s for you, before jumping in (what Wenger calls “legitimate peripheral participation”), but at some point it becomes just eavesdropping, and, worse, taking without giving back. In my view real lurking has no element of participation. (And as I recently Tweeted, “everyone loves a lurker until they’re stuck on a grad school project team with one”. ) We need better terminology for that. I DO hope, though, that the evolution of social tools — and I see a lot of promise here for Pinterest — will bring the change you describe for those who want to join in.

  5. Peg (@ethnobot)

    Although I participate actively in social media, I also do a lot of passive lurking (eavesdropping) on blogs and websites of experts in topics that interest me, but about which I know little or nothing.

    I’d characterize it as “lurking to learn,” and I learn a lot. I’d recommend it as a terrific way to begin immersing yourself in a subject you want to learn about.

    I suggest lurking to learn also adds value to the bloggers/site owners, since folks like me often link to or recommend posts, articles, links, or graphics we encounter during our lurking adventures.

  6. Christian DE NEEF

    I don’t think that the results of the BBC survey prove that anything has changed. At least not fundamentally. I think that we are inherently lazy, and that if we make it easier to participate, then the threshold is lower. So yes, more people do participate, but liking or retweeting is quite different from starting a thread, expressing an opinion, or writing a blog post for that matter. The stuff that requires thinking and formulating (not for lazy people) is still being done by a very tiny fraction of the total population.

    Also, what exactly is behind the terms used (Intense, Easy, Passive). The BBC talks about “active in some way.” But is posting a pic on Instagram or checking in on Foursquere the same as expressing an opinion? If we would use verifiable/tangible terms (such as: Create, Reply, Post, Rate, Read, Ignore, whereby Rate could include +1 like or retweet) then would we have the same distribution as the BBC?


    • Harold Jarche

      Agree – ” The stuff that requires thinking and formulating (not for lazy people) is still being done by a very tiny fraction of the total population.”

  7. Scott Johnson

    Be nice if we get off the urge to label lurkers as lazy or non-contributing. Would contributors stop contributing because a portion of the audience were observers only? Doubt it.
    My understanding of the raise in social discussion outlets is they represent a renewal of discourse across the culture. That said, there still persists a sense of proper and improper public voice and it doesn’t help to mock people who are unsure if they may speak and be held to be fools.


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