This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

The evil that lurkers do

Okay, an extreme title.  In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the people who are not posting articles and commentary in the online world.

There have been a number of articles referencing Jakob Nielson's recent Alertbox on Participation Inequality: Lurkers vs. Contributors in Internet Communities.  (TalkDigger digs up 50-odd references.)  He sites a familiar ratio of readers to contributors to participants:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

The ratio has a nice stickiness with evidence from the early days of the Usenet and mailing lists to Amazon reviews and the Wikipedia.  He goes on to offer some thoughts around mitigating the "inequality" and acknowledges that it will never go away completely.

Nielson comments on the negative effects of participation inequality, primarily that the voices and opinions of the non-participants do not get heard and therefore skew the dialog to those who raise their voices.

My take on this is that the balance is where it is.  It is not necessarily bad or good.  And I suspect this balance of participation even shows up in Real Life.  I know many couples consisting of "the talkative one" and "the quiet one."  Go to a party or watch the crowd at a conference and notice the balance of people who are doing most of the talking, responding and listening.  It might not be 1-9-90, but there are people who are naturally more participative than others.  Why should the online world be any different than the offline one?

Nielson offers some suggestions around "equalizing participation."  I agree that these suggestions will be helpful, but they don't help without some key characteristics of the person in question:

  • Passion.  The primary aspect is passion - passion, excitement, engagement, anger over the topic and direction of the community.  With a particularly passionate person, issues of writing comfort and time are quickly overcome.
  • Writing comfort.  Not writing skills, but comfort with communicating in the written word.  Do they have the confidence to put their hand up, potentially to get it slapped?  How supportive is the community?  Another reason blogs are so great: the owner gets to control the conversation.  I suspect the availability of audio and video technology enables many others to jump into the community, where the written word may not.
  • Time.  Do they have the time to devote to participating?  I know this heavily impacts my ability to participate in the various email lists I have joined.  And I see it from the other members as well.

In fact, I suspect there is an undercurrent of importance to the people who aren't doing all the talking (writing).  First off, they are the audience.  However much we want to think that everyone now has the ability to contribute content to the common good, this just isn't the case.  Most of us are consumers of the content.  But without the audience, what is the point of all this writing?  If Amazon reviewers didn't think it was going to be helpful to write the reviews, why bother?  If bloggers thought no one was listening, for whom are they writing?

Even more fun: who is to say that lurkers in one community aren't more active in other communities?  Mightn't some people observe and listen and fuse the ideas across many communities to come up with their own great ideas that they discuss elsewhere, be that online or at the next conference?

This idea was discussed in a series of blogs a couple years ago in response to an EEKim article, Are Lurkers Bad?.  I jumped in too with Lurking builds community.

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