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.
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
Lurking can be a good thing if the lurker is reading/listening/watching, comparing posts, gaining knowledge and confidence before contributing with his/her ideas. Great! However,
lurkers who use the information offered by the course and colleagues and leave the room should buy a book, not join a community.
Thanks for stopping by, Alicia, and I like your suggestion of ‘buying a book’ instead. One of the things about buying a book though, is that it costs money, and is in direct contrast to the fact that so much information is now freely available online. And people expect more and more to have access to this information for free – particularly lurkers. It’s an interesting dilemma. For people such as myself (and many others) who write books based on their ideas, how much do we in fact share freely online. All of it? Some of it? None of it? I don’t have an answer, btw 🙂
I suspect that most people just lack the confidence to contribute, especially online. I blogged for a big publisher and got hardly any online comments but people often commented in person or by email. Thank you, Nicky, and people like you who are generous with your time and ideas. As a teacher, I am used to being taken for granted!
Thanks for your comment Helena, and as a blogger yourself you’ll know how encouraging it is to receive comments :-). Yes, the lack of confidence is one of the factors found in the Gross & Niements’ study referenced in the post, although it would be interesting to know how many lurkers in a specific online space (bog post, online discussion, course or MOOC) don’t post due to that one. Impossible to find out I guess, if lurkers are unlikely to fill in an online questionnaire asking why they lurk!
Hi Nicky, great post. I think there are lurkers and lurkers. If we are talking about those people who lurk in places where learning is going on, I imagine that of lack of confidence, low self-esteem, etc. is one of their biggest reasons for lurking. But then there are always those who don’t like sharing too. The same people who, as real-world university students ‘hide’ books in the library! Then there are the lurkers in more social corners of social media. They freak me out more. You know they are looking at your photos and reading your posts but they never show themselves. I recently spoke to one of these in person when she came to visit me and made it apparent she’d been following my every move on FB. She said she was terrified of having too much of an online presence herself, afraid of Big Brother and all that. I’m not sure what to think about that. It felt a bit like someone spying on me through the window at night when I’m sitting on my sofa watching TV. Eek!
Thanks for dropping by the blog, Katherine. What an interesting anecdote about your FB lurker/stalker, who doesn’t want a FB profile herself but watches others via social media. She leaves a digital footprint just by doing that of course…
As somebody who has taken part in numerous MOOCs, and lurked in most, if not all of them, I’d say it was a) sheer laziness b) being under confident of my ideas, and thus not ready to share them. However, these days I do make the effort , and having done an e-moderation course, now I know that it is always worth spending time commenting,agreeing/ offering an alternative opinion, even though it may be tuppence worth!
Thanks for your comments Tarveen, and I think many people experience the same as you as regards taking part in MOOCs. There’s an interesting 2016 article about the role of motivation and participation in MOOCs summarised here (unfortunately the artilce itself is behind a pay wall).
I think lurking is absolutely fine – it is most likely a reflection of either a person’s personality or, as you mention Nicky, where they are in their learning journey.
There is a big push nowadays on learners (especially young ones) to be interactive, communicative, almost gregarious and that just may not be everyone’s style.
I think the shy learner who enjoys reading and observing has every right to be who and how they are.
Thanks for your comment Keith! I agree that constant gregariousness may not be everyone’s style :-), but there is a possible issue if English language learners are not taking part in (written) conversations online. Firstly, output is an essential part of language learning, and secondly, how does the teacher assess the student if there is no output to assess? It may be useful for us to distinguish between lurking and informal learning (fine), and lurking and formal learning, where the requirements may need to be different. What do you think?
Absolutely, a very good point Nicky, context is all important. If participation, or language output is being evaluated, then lurking would not be enough. Requirements of the course, and also I guess expectations of the teacher, need to be considered.
As Mahatma Ghandi said – Speak only when it improves upon the silence. So yes, I have been a lurker and I’m not ashamed of it. Lurking can be fantastically beneficial as you learn a lot from others and about others. It can be absolutely inspirational. Very often I have these eureka moment with “OMG, so I could do this and that etc. etc.
Is it selfish? It can be, especially when you avoid responsibilities involved in a collaborative task, online studies etc. I do not do that and I deeply disapprove of this type of “dumping” attitude.
Why do people lurk? Maybe they are too shy to speak up? Maybe they do not want to repeat things already said. Maybe they are self-conscious and scared of judgement? Maybe they are not ready to accept comments from others.
I know why I like to lurk and choose not to comment on things every now and then. I’m not sure if I have anything interesting to say. I just don’t like talking. I like action. I have my own blog but my reflections on something are limited to minimum. I just don’t think people would be interested in what I THINK unless it is an opinion contained in two sentences max. Instead, I prefer facts. I choose to demonstrate what I do or what can be done.
Lurking is unethical when you steal other people’s thoughts and use as yours.
Thanks for your thoughtful post, Beate. Love the Ghandi quote :-). Thanks for bringing up the idea of unethical lurking, which takes us into the area (or should I say, can of worms) of copyright and plagiarism. I’d love to read your blog – would you like to share the URL here?