The Facebook lurker has been given a bad rap. Portrayed as a wannabe, a faker or a shadowy figure with unknown motives, the lurker has become a social media archetype of Web 2.0. But behind the archetype, we are all Facebook lurkers and our use of the lurking posture plays an essential role in sustaining the egocentric Facebook communities we create.
The profile of a reluctant lurker therefore is that of a socially detached actor, fearing consequences of their actions, feeling socially isolated or excluded, trapped in a state of low flow but high involvement (Bishop, 2013).
This paper will engage with lurking both as a form of performative engagement with social media platforms and as a specific strategy for negotiating issues which may act to terminate online communities such as emotional contagion and context collapse. The egocentric nature of Facebook communities, whose sole point of context is the self, provide a unique perspective from which to analyze why individuals lurk within communities of their own making (boyd & Heer, 2006).
The term lurker was coined as part of Web 2.0 and was rooted in the belief that participation in social media communities could forge a new sense of community and provide a basis for social trust, civic engagement and increased political participation (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja & Buxmann, 2013). Social media tools would allow us to become participant creators, rescued from alienation and social dislocation through membership in tight knit communities which supported our creative participation (Hampton & Wellman: 2018). If the protagonist of the Web 2.0 story is the participant creator empowered by technology to use their creativity and influence to build online communities based on shared interests, goals or ideals, it is the lurker who is ultimately their nemesis.
This paper will argue that Web 2.0 created a fundamental dichotomy between the poster as an ideal type and the lurker as an undesirable opposite. This dichotomy has persisted to this day, overshadowing attempts to understand lurking and its role in online communities. The negative connotations of the word “lurker” stand in the way of a more positive analysis. The lurker is portrayed as an actor who, for unknown (and it is implied, shadowy) motives of their own, chooses not to create or participate in an online community. Their role within online communities is seen as passive and, in some cases, as a threat to the ongoing viability of the community (Bishop, 2013).
In this analysis, the lurker is a problem requiring a solution (Preece, Nonnecke, & Andrews, 2004). Much soul searching has taken place in order to distinguish community practices which facilitate lurking (Bishop, 2013). Platforms which market their ability to enable collaboration and participation have changed their technical affordances in order to engage lurkers and to entice them to move from passive to active participation (Bishop, 2013). Online communities struggling to attract or retain members have agonized over changing group dynamics by mentoring new members, reducing group conflict or posing questions which make contributions easier (Preece, Nonnecke & Andrews, 2004).
I would argue that this definition of the “lurker” as a type of participant and “lurking” as behavior engaged in by a particular type of person works within the ideology of Web 2.0 to define the lurker as the “other”, as someone other than ourselves. This is fundamentally misleading. Web 2.0 popular culture famously described the 1% rule as follows:
It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it (Arthur, 2006)
While this statement may be true for each interaction undertaken on a platform, it is misleading when considering user behavior over all interactions undertaken a platform such as Facebook. Participation is now the rule rather than the exception for most of us, with 60% of Australians posting on social media (Yeung, 2020).
If all of us are both lurkers and posters, lurking stops being a static position and becomes a decision made as part of each interaction. By defining lurking as a static position engaged in by certain individuals, we lose our capacity to engage with lurking as a dynamic choice which we each individually make when we chose to participate or not participate in any given interaction within a social media community. By reclaiming the definition of lurking and recasting it in this way, we move past the stigma associated with the term and instead focus on lurking as a strategy of choice which supports sustained engagement by participants in a social media community as they move in and out of dialogue and connection, seeking to negotiate what can be a very complex emotional landscape.
So how do lurkers engage with Facebook? Participation within a social media community is of necessity bounded and defined by the context and technological affordances of the selected platform. Social media platforms such as Facebook deliberately design features in order to monetize lurker behavior (Kushner, 2016). Facebook is highly aware of user participatory behavior and seeks to influence this behavior through technological design:
State-of-the-art research recognizes the importance of studying consequences of passive consumption of information since it represents the dominant activity on SNSs  (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Buxmann, 2013).
Facebook monetizes the activity which occurs on the site by selling data on user behavior to data brokers. To counter the threat that non-participation or lurking represents to their business model, Facebook tracks and monetizes views, plays and click through links (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Buxmann, 2013). Design features such as likes, hashtags and follows are deliberately incorporated within the platform to capture activity from members of online communities who are reluctant to post or upload content (Kushner, 2016). User data from these activities can be tracked and monetized and is also used to drive the algorithms that promote certain content. Facebook uses algorithms to trend types of content to encourage more active participation (Kushner, 2016).
Like trains users to generate likeable content, and, because it acts as the quantifiable guarantor of effective Facebooking, it ensures that users care that the content they generate is likeable. In short, the omnipresence of Like counts ensures that users like Likeable things, that they like Liking them, and that they like it when others Like their stuff (Kushner, 2016).
For Kushner non-participation or lurking on Facebook is a form of rebellion against the capitalist logic of social media platforms:
What, then, are we to make of lurking? It is a bit of human noise that disturbs the ever-expanding effort to rationalize the production and consumption of cultural products. It’s the remainder of human activity that fails to conform — deliberately or otherwise — to the capitalist logics that drive Web 2.0 (Kushner, 2016).
An alternative view of non-participation or lurking on Facebook is to see it as a form of networked individualism where the close bonding of real life communities is replaced by shallow and free floating ties between individuals who scale up and down their participation and transition across a seemingly unlimited number of social media communities (Wellman, Quan-Haase, Boase, Chen, Hampton, Diaz & Miyata, 2006). The participant is not truly committed to the online community of which they are a member. Their movement up and down the participation continuum is evidence of loose ties and an overall lack of commitment to the community (Wellman, Quan-Haase, Boase, Chen, Hampton, Diaz & Miyata, 2006).
Blogs, bulletin boards and other online communities which attract individuals previously unknown to each other through shared interests may allow some non-participants to hover around various groups with minimal intention of developing strong ties. This would appear to fit with the concept of networked individualism and loose ties. By contrast, an individual on Facebook creates a “community” through egocentric connections (boyd, 2006). A lurker or non-participant on Facebook is operating either within a community created through their connections or within a community created by a Friend. An individual’s Facebook community may have taken years to create from connections formed over a lifetime. The option of moving on to a new community is difficult on Facebook as it links a single identity to an account. The decision to defriend may have an impact which goes beyond a single relationship with the defriended individual to impact a whole community.
So why would Facebook users lurk or non-participate within a community of their own making or within a community of a Friend? For boyd and Heer, social media sites create communities without physical boundaries (boyd & Heer, 2006). As I post into my egocentric community, how do I perceive my audience and if I cannot perceive my audience, how can I know how my message will be received and interpreted (boyd & Heer, 2006)? Comments and reposts forward my original message into other egocentric communities and context, increasing the complexity (boyd & Heer, 2006). Just as likes train users to generate likable content, perceived negative reaction or non-reaction have the opposite effect. As Wesch notes in relation to vlogging and YouTube, lurking allows a member of an online community to distance themselves from the anguish of context collapse (Wesch, 2009).
In 2014 a collaborative study between Facebook and Cornell University deliberately manipulated the newsfeeds of Facebook users to trend positive or negative posts in order to measure the extent to which this impacted on the emotional state of users (Flick, 2015). The study found that the expression of emotions on social media sites are contagious and that negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger and outrage are actively passed on from user to user through the site (Flick, 2015).
Facebook’s design features allow participants of online communities to manage emotions while continuing to participate and maintain membership within a community during times when they are not actively posting. More recent changes to the platform such as private chat and customized privacy settings provide a more nuanced environment allowing individuals to set up virtual walls and better manage issues such as context collapse (boyd & Heer, 2006). Likes, hashtags and follows are design features which allow users to negotiate movement along the participation continuum as shown below.
lurking ↔ liking ↔ use of hashtags ↔ sharing ↔ following ↔ posting ↔ uploading content
Movement along the continuum is dynamic and multi-directional. Participants can scale up or down in response to social and emotional changes within the community. One of the most troubling ethical aspects of Facebook’s emotional contagion study was its transparency over the role of algorithms in privileging positive content to drive up platform usage rates:
I don’t want to suggest that the only public good that Facebook should aim to produce is user happiness. If we take implementation of this study to its logical conclusion, what would it mean that you’re more likely to see announcements from your friends when they are celebrating a new child or a fun night on the town, but less likely to see their posts when they’re offering depressive missives or angsting over a relationship in shambles? (boyd, 2015)
If positive content drives up participation rates, lurking becomes an alternative strategy to account termination to manage the emotions created by negative content. It is a strategy which gives the individual agency, can be reversed in response to changes in the emotional landscape and unlike account termination or blocking sustains commitment to the community. I would argue that rather than being interpreted as a sign of low commitment, lurking may well signal a commitment to maintain an individual’s connection to an online community whilst managing complex emotions.
Natural disaster situations such as the recent bushfire crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic provide poignant examples of social media sites rapidly spreading both negative and positive emotions. The popular mood towards non-participation has changed. Experts are recommending that we use non-participation strategies to remain engaged with our ego-centric communities whilst taking a step back from the social anxiety provoked by COVID-19, a strategy described as “hand-washing for the infodemic accompanying the pandemic”, (Starbird, 2019).
The time has come for a re-examination of the role of the “lurker” on social media platforms. The early characterizations of the lurker supplied by Web 2.0 as a social media archetype are no longer useful. Lurking is a strategy we all participate in. It gives us agency and allows us to manage and counter negative emotions. It sustains our continued membership in online communities and our connections to others through difficult times. Never has it been more important.
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