There are many modes of participation in a community. You can be the leader, driving action and encouraging others to jump in. You can be one of the many regular people who raise their hand to do things and respond to events within the community. And you can be one of the many more who are members of the community who only actively participate on an infrequent basis.
But even among these big buckets, there are additional distinctions. People who have been leaders fall back into regular participant mode or even idle participant mode. The level of engagement of the entire community changes, and the resulting mix of people in various roles changes. Or the reverse happens: the mix of people changes, creating a change in the sense of the community. Or both. Or a simple change of venue causes the community to operate differently. And for the individual, there are many reasons as to why they "lurk" beyond the first assumptions about time and fear.
Two posts in my feed reader - right next to each other - have me pondering this. First off, Nancy White asks for References on Lurking - or as she calls it "legitimate peripheral participation" - and then there is Lurking, a Personal Story from Andrew Gent. Andrew talks about his personal perspective about why he has gone from active community member to a lurker - an aspect that many of the lurker discussions ignore.
To answer Nancy's question, one of the first things I thought of was a Communications of the ACM article I read and wrote about a while back on Encouraging participation in virtual communities. I liked the notion in that research that the leaders and more active participants have some role in encouraging ongoing participation - beyond the cajoling of people to get their backs up off the wall. And then there is the Ladder of Participation, which delves into the layers of engagement on a different framework. Jakob Nielson generated a lot of excitement in his delving into the 1-9-90 discussion, and I wrote about it too. And finally, one of my favorite comments on the topic of "being a lurker" was in Lurking builds commonality
... broadcast television is (was?) all about building common understanding across the populace. Everyone was a "lurker," but we were being informed, so that next-morning conversations over coffee had a common basis.
[Photo "lurking" by massdistraction]