Image by jurek d.

Image by jurek d.

Who lurks?  Danger, strangers, criminals, and horrors all lurk (according to one concordance). And, of course, so do people in online groups.  People, that is, who read others’ postings in online discussion groups or other social spaces, but don’t contribute. This, understandably, often drives those who are doing the actual thinking (and contributing) up the wall.

But let’s look at it another way. Who are these lurkers, these people who are happy to just sit back and let others do the work, while they digest others’ thoughts and comments, and make no apparent effort, put nothing in? Well, I’m one of them. I’ve lurked in several online groups for years, even decades. I’ve lurked in several MOOCs and I lurk in professional Facebook groups. I lurk on blogs by reading posts and not adding comments. But I think that’s fine. Why? Because I write my own blog posts, I respond to Facebook posts asking for help on tech and teaching-related matters, I write articles for print and online journals, I give webinars and take part in online conferences, I write books. So I feel I do give something back – just not in all of the online spaces I lurk in.

Why do lurkers lurk?

Some lurkers may feel the urge to contribute through a combination of guilt or a desire to give back, like me, but many lurkers will never contribute anything at all. What are the reasons for this?  There are several negative reasons for lurking, such as fear of publicly publishing one’s ideas – this is obviously compounded when one is posting in a foreign language, and even if we’re posting in our own language. By writing in a public online space, we’re putting ourselves on record, and we may be concerned about how others will view our contributions. Will they think this is an intelligent comment? Or will we just come across as dumb?

Lurking in a low-stakes public space like a Facebook group may be generally accepted, but what about lurking in the more formal environment of an online course? Why would you sign up for an online course, possibly pay for it, and then not participate? Gross & Niemants identify three main sources of anxiety in online courses: anxiety about achievement (which they relate to grades and assignments); anxiety about the channel of communication (i.e. feeling you lack the necessary technology skills); and lower motivation, which they surmise may be due to the asynchronous nature of much online communication in online courses. Unlike in face­-to­-face settings, one can remain silent in asynchronous courses for long periods of time undetected. The lurkers in MOOCs are legion, and far outnumber active participants. Some never contribute at all. A 2016 study by Zhang et al. (described here) found that even in MOOCs that deliberately attempt to encourage participation, interaction can remain extremely low. The rather unengaging educational model followed by many MOOCs (input followed by a quiz) may be one major cause of this sort of lack of engagement though – a factor not explored by the researchers.

Lurkers may suffer from what we might call the ‘selfishness syndrome’ – a general disbelief in the philosophy of sharing. If you see knowledge as a valuable commodity that defines you as better than the next person – and possibly keeps you in a job – then you are unlikely to want to share what you know. In this context, sharing is seen as a loss of power.

Yet another reason for lurking is simply to gain confidence in a new environment. Often lurkers will later become participants in an online group or course, and the lurking stage is a natural and inevitable part of learning. Back in 2000, Gilly Salmon identified three types of lurker: the freeloader, the sponge, and the lurker with skills or access problems, and although tolerant of initial lurking (or “browsing”), she felt that lurkers should and must be encouraged to participate in the long run.

Lurking and learning?

Feeling that lurkers get a rather bad press, some call for terms other than ‘lurker’ to be used. One candidate is ‘boundary member’, where the tendency to lurk is redefined as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave & Wenger 1991). A study by Mazuro and Rao (2011) found that lurkers on a formal online university course showed evidence of learning via lurking. So lurking may not be all bad.

Whatever one’s feelings about lurkers, they have been around since the beginning of online social spaces, and they are here to stay. And even if a lurker seems to be passively absorbing information provided by others in an online discussion group, a social media group or blog, or in a formal online course or MOOC, he or she may well be putting that information to use in some shape or form elsewhere, or further down the road.

What do you think? Have you ever been a lurker, and if so, where and why? Would you agree that lurkers get a bad press? Can lurking be a good thing? Are there times when lurking simply shouldn’t be tolerated? I’d love to hear your views in the Comments below!

– Gross, D. & V. Niemants (1999): A Narrative Analysis of Online Learner Anxiety:  The Emotional Effect is of Online Education. Teaching in the Community Colleges Journal
– Lave, J. & E. Wenger (1991): Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press.
– Mazuro, C. & N. Rao (2011): Online Discussion Forums in Higher Education: Is ‘Lurking’ Working? International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), 2/2
– Salmon, G. (2000): E­Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London: Kogan Page.
– Zhang, D.J. , G. Allon & J. A. Van Mieghem (2016): Does Social Interaction Improve Learning Outcomes? Field Evidence from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Manufacturing & Service Operations Management.

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
September 2016

Past 1-minute guides:
The 1-minute guide to Internet copyright, Creative Commons, and ‘fair use’
The 1-minute guide to plagiarism
The 1-minute guide to the digital divide
The 1-minute guide to good conference presentations
The 1-minute guide to MOOCs
The 1-minute guide to integrating technology into teaching
The 1-minute guide to the mobile classroom
The 1-minute guide to teachers’ concerns about mLearning
The 1-minute mLearning Panel summary