As one of the founding leaders of PECOP, I’m always exhorting people to “Engage! Get involved! Comment! Rate! Review! Contribute!” But today I willingly confess: I am an online lurker. It’s not as shocking as it sounds. I’m part of the >90% of people who go to online communities to get information but rarely share or contribute. For example, I spent the last half hour at Overstock.com shopping for a cushion for my outdoor chair. I found the product I wanted easily and spent the next 15 minutes reading reviews at both Overstock and Amazon to see whether previous purchasers (e.g., the customer “community”) thought the cushion was worth the money. One lady offered up the history of her patio décor…pretty useless. But most reviews were short, to the point, and valuable. My “lurking” led me to feel confident about the purchase so I bought the cushion. In the last year, I have used online communities to “research” all kinds of purchases from shoes to cars to plumbing services. More importantly, I “lurk” at online communities to learn about services, apps, journals, organizations, and publications.
What’s wrong with being a lurker? Absolutely nothing! It’s one of the five phases of community membership as described by Kim (2006) and Noff:
- Lurkers: those who visit infrequently, read, but never participate (i.e., comment or submit new content)
- Novices: those who are new and are seeking to learn the rules of the community and how to participate
- Insiders: those who participate regularly in the community
- Leaders: those who not only participate, but encourage interaction and engagement by others
- Elders: those who are leaving the community due to changes in personal interests, changes in the community, etc.
Lurkers also are the dominant group in community membership. In 2006, the Nielsen Norman Group found that 90% of online community members are lurkers, 9% of members comment occasionally and only 1% of members actively contribute significant content. More recent data suggests that engagement is increasing and, by 2011, engagement looked more like 70-20-10 for lurkers-commenters-content creators. But the vast majority of members are still primarily lurkers.
Why do so many of us lurk rather than engage in online communities? Blogger Joel Lee suggests that many feel they have nothing worthy to contribute while others fear negative reactions to their comments or questions. Alternatively, as a commenter to Lee’s blog noted, users may simply have better things to do with their time than to engage.
However, for professional networking, online community use is growing. A recent survey by the Society of New Communication Research (SNCR) found that people spend much more of their online time in professional networks than with friends or family. And when asked what online channels they use to share information with colleagues, social networking (25%), microblogging (e.g., Twitter, 28%), and direct email (31%) comprised the top three methods and were surprisingly comparable in frequency.
Why engage, comment, or contribute? The SNCR survey found that the top two reasons people moved from lurker to participant were:
- To help others by sharing information, ideas, and experiences; and
- To participate in a professional community of colleagues and peers.
How do YOU choose? Where do you lurk? Where do you contribute? And where do you lead?
Personally, I lurk at sites where I’m considering buying something, taking a course, going to visit…essentially where I’m a consumer and have limited expertise to offer. I contribute to sites that I use regularly for travel or business. Friends know I’m a frequent TripAdvisor reviewer and share science news on my Facebook page. My APS colleagues know I use Vivino to select and submit reviews of wines for APS committee dinners. I lead at those sites where I fill a specific role (e.g., my church’s Facebook page). Of course, here at the LifeSciTRC, I get to do a lot of leading and contributing!
What do we gain by contributing? Kollock (1999) says active users receive more useful help than do lurkers. He also states that visible and useful contributions lead to a positive reputation in the community and that actively contributing helps users feel that they have a real impact on their communities. For me, it’s all about give and take. I receive a steady stream of helpful information from online communities…I try to return the favor. And I learn how to use social media by contributing. It really demystifies the whole process.
Have you had good or bad experiences through lurking, commenting, or contributing to a community? Please share on the bulletin board below…let’s keep the conversation going. After all, this OUR PECOP community!
In the meantime, I’ll wait for my chair cushion to arrive. I will receive several emails from Overstock.com asking me to review it. If I like the cushion, I will be inclined to ignore the emails, but I really should write a review. Of course, if the cushion is rubbish, I will most certainly, in the words of Captain Picard, ”Engage!”
Kollock, P. The economies of online cooperation: Gifts and public goods in cyberspace. In M. Smith and P. Kollock (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge.
Marsha Matyas is a biologist, educator, and science education researcher. For nearly 30 years, she has worked at scientific professional associations (AAAS and now APS) to promote excellence in science education at all levels and to increase diversity within the scientific community. Marsha’s research focuses on factors that promote science career interest and success, especially among women and underrepresented minorities. At the APS, Marsha directs the Education Office and programs, which span from pre-Kindergarten to professional development and continuing education for Ph.D. and M.D. scientists. Marsha will be speaking more about community engagement, especially for physiology educators, at the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning.