Lurking (viewing without contributing) has been a controversial topic in social media. Early work denigrated lurking and lurkers with labels such as “loafers” and “freeloaders” (e.g., Curien et al., 2006). More recent accounts have focused on lurking as altruistic; as invisible or “non-public” participation; and as beneficial because lurkers make use of the information they have found, to share the information with colleagues or to improve their own practices (Antin & Cheshire, 2010; Nonnecke et al., 2006; Takahashi et al., 2003).
Nearly all treatments of lurkers attribute the behavior to a trait of the individual. The early work suggested that lurkers did not want to contribute. Later work, such as the “born-vs.-made” argument, showed that early behavior (lurking vs. contributing) predicted later behavior in a particular social setting (i.e., lurkers are “born, not made”, Panciera et al., 2010).
Others have considered lurking a stage of learning, or as changeable trait that can be developed into a more active pattern of participation (Preece & Shneiderman, 2009). Consistent with this view, we have proposed that “we are all lurkers,” at least some of the time, and in some settings, and that there are common factors in the behavior of visible contributors who also lurk, and of people who only lurk (Muller et al., 2010).
This note follows that line of thinking. Unlike nearly all of the previous papers, we had the opportunity to examine the lurking-vs.-contributing dimension among people who were members of multiple online communities — as many as 184 communities per person — in the IBM Connections Communities service. We could compare the behavior of each person across the communities in which s/he was a member.
Personal Trait Theory. The trait-based theories suggest that a lurking is invariant across environments. This theory leads to the hypothesis that a “lurker” should lurk in all of the communities in which s/he is a member, and a “contributor” should contribute in all of the communities in which s/he is a member. There should be few people who lurk in some communities and contribute in other communities. However, we found that 84% of the contributors (in at least one community) were also lurkers (in at least one other community). The theories of lurking as a trait are not supported.
Engagement Theory. A second trait-related theory suggests that both contributing and lurking as reflections of an underlying engagement with communities (implied by Nonnecke et al., 2006). In general, people who contributed to many communities tended to lurk in many communities, as well; and people who contributed in few communities tended to lurk in few communities, as well. Through a significant correlation of lurking and contributing, we found limited but significant support for that theory.
Social Learning Theory. Finally, social learning theory suggests that a person may join a community as a lurker, may learn about the community, and may then begin to make contributions (Preece & Shneiderman, 2009). We examined this theory by dividing each users’ timespan in the community into ten equal periods (deciles), beginning with the date of joining, and ending just before the most recent contribution. We then summed each person’s pattern of contribution across these deciles, to calculate an overall pattern of when that user tended to contribute. Social learning theory suggests that the largest contributions should come toward the end of this timespan — i.e., in decile 9 or decile 10. For the vast majority of users, we found the opposite pattern, with the maximum contributions occurring in the first decile. Our decile analysis provided very little support for social learning theory.
We propose a two-factor theory, engagement + disposition. In this theory, a user has an underlying engagement which is manifested (in different communities) in either of two forms of engagement: contributing or lurking. The form of participation (contributing or lurking) is determined by the user’s disposition toward each community. Future ethnographic research will be needed to understand the factors that contribute to that disposition.
Under this theory, it is important to catch a user early in her/his timespan with a community. Early interventions may increase the likelihood that the user will return to the community to lurk further or to contribute. Community facilitators may benefit from new tools that provide enhanced awareness of new members (lurking or contributing), and that make rapid recommendations of actions to increase their engagement.
Summary and Contributions. We tested hypotheses based on three theories of contributing and lurking. We found little support for lurking as a personal trait, and little support for social learning. We proposed a new theory that combines the user’s engagement and disposition toward a particular community. We developed a new decile analysis to help us understand the timecourse of a user’s engagement with a community. Finally, we proposed new dynamics of intervention, and possible future tools, to help community facilitators apply the lessons from these analyses.