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.
Arthur, C. (2006). What is the 1% rule? The Guardian. Retrieved 5 April 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2006/jul/20/guardianweeklytechnologysection2
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Krasnova, H., Wenninger, H., Widjaja, T., & Buxmann, P. (2013). Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?. In 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik (WI), Leipzig, Germany’
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Preece, J., Nonnecke, B. & Andrews, D. (2004). “The top five reasons for lurking: Improving community experiences for everyone,” Computers in Human Behavior, volume 20, number 2, pp. 201–223.
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Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Boase, J., Chen, W., Hampton, K., Diaz, I & Miyata, K., (2006). The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, doi: https://doi-org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2003.tb00216.x.
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15 replies on “Lurkers are us: when nothing signifies something”
That’s a great paper. I really like your analysis of ‘the lurker’ and I agree with your argument that “lurking is a strategy we all participate in.”
While many of the reasons you list as catalysts for lurkers are valid, I also like to think that sometimes it’s just about being ‘polite’. I think many of us love to ‘lurk’ to have a little chuckle to ourselves at sarcastic memes or (in our own egocentric opinion) clueless posters with whom we may not wish to engage or go out of our way to offend – but at whose expense we like to grab a laugh.
I really liked the article you included from Starbird (2019) because it was very related to my own paper on the value of social networks during an epidemic. There is no doubt that misinformation plays a big part in crisis “infodemics” however SNS are also a great source of varied information (and yes, even opinion) that help us form our own decisions as to what course of action we wish to take. I found personal narratives from health professionals very interesting in the early stages of COVID-19 because a pandemic was such a foreign term in Australia, it was comforting (and scary at the same time) to get information from people with knowledge. Once again, in that situation I was a ‘lurker’ I wasn’t responding to (or commenting on) the narratives – just seeking information and opinion from people in the medical profession.
I have found myself thinking just this week though – imagine if we were in the midst, not of a pandemic, but of World War 3 – can you imagine social media then? It blows the mind really to think of what may be the outcome – imagine the “emotional contagion and context collapse” that you mention early in your paper – that could result from such a situation?
Starbird, K. (2019). How a crisis researcher makes sense of COVID-19 misinformation.
Thank you so much for your comments. I think it is COVID-19 that really made me think about lurking as a reaction to “too much” – too much anxiety in some cases, too much social expectation or social disappointment in others. I wanted to portray it as an active choice rather than something passive. I completely agree with your comments about World War 3. I think Australians have been through so much over the last nine months with the bushfires and now this and if you read social media posts closely you can start to see the fraying at the edges and I think that emotional edge spilt over into my paper and I saw lurking as a way of being there, as you say, and of taking in information but at the same time taking a necessary step back. Thanks again Nicola.
LOVED THE TITLE. You write so well! Great choice of argument too.
I liked how you explored the common negative connotations of a lurker, as well as providing evidence to back up what you were saying. It was interesting to see all the research that has been done on passive participation, and really made me think about lurkers from a marketing perspective.
I also enjoyed your writing about how social media impacts us mentally.
You have a great number of sources that work in harmony with each other, with Kushner, Boyd, and Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Buxmann. I liked being able to easily identify how well they worked together.
From a personal point of view, sometimes when I “lurk” in comment sections I see comments that I really want to argue with as I believe them to be wrong. But I do pick my battles, and sometimes have to step away to get rid of the negative energy it brings. I definitely like how you have referenced this lurker concept from an everyday view to a business view.
What would you personally define a lurker as?
Thank you so much for your comments. I really enjoyed your paper too. It seems as though now the word “lurker” has been defined, it is almost impossible to wrestle it away from the connotations of Web 2.0. If I could redefine it, I would redefine it has a verb rather than a noun. A verb is something we can chose to do, whereas a noun is something we are defined as being. The word lurking should be defined as an active choice which we make. Too often we are portrayed as powerless against the waves of positive and negative emotions which sweep social media. I would like to see lurking as an active position which takes back some of that power. Thanks again. Nicola
Nice piece, an angle which I hadn’t fully considered in my own paper which gently overlaps with yours. Well synthesised information from your sources and well written.
I agree that the lurker in all of us needs to be reconsidered for the reasons you discuss. I’d love mention another for consideration though. Personally I disengage or ‘lurk’ because I make a concerted effort to reduce how much data I give to social platforms. So for me it’s primarily about privacy. I’m even apprehensive about posting here in a public forum – how ironic.
I think the crucial point which has had both positive and wild negative impacts on society was the breakthrough that social networking platforms were able to profit off lurkers. If this hadn’t have happened I wonder where we’d be in 2020..
Thank you for your comments and I really enjoyed your paper. I think the manipulation of user’s emotions for profit is really where we see the veil come off capitalism more broadly and social media in particular. A lot of focus has been brought to bear on prosumers, copyright infringement and the monetisation of content by platforms. I wanted to call out the other side of this – that you don’t need to create content – platforms monetise views, likes and other forms of “non-participation”. As noted in your discussion of your paper, the removal of likes from Facebook / Instagram is cynical in the sense that each like is still monetised whether it is displayed or not. In a sense it is business as usual for the platforms. Thank you again for your comments. Nicola
Fascinating read. I had quite a few thoughts on your paper. Do you think Lurkers exist because as a society, voyeurism has become so prominent in online behaviours? I agree that in some way, we are all lurkers and this definition needs to evolve as well.
I love your argument, as quoted ‘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’.
Just brilliant. I feel this represents me!
Id be very interested in reading a paper on your topic but in the context of Instagram. Maybe that is an idea you can explore as well.
Thank you so much for your review and for quoting part of my paper. I particularly liked your suggestion about Instagram as it made me think about the difference between images and text, particularly in the context of emotional contagion and context collapse. I wonder if images are a form of stepping back from commitment as a response to emotional contagion when compared to texts. That it is somehow easier to respond by posting an emoji, a meme or image than to textually describe your feelings.
Thank you again for your response which really made me think about my paper.
Allow me to answer that question while I digress just a little (: From a few readings on the subject I have a theory that the way people interact on Instagram is an evolution of communication. And there is some complexity involved with using the affordances of the platform. I think this demographic Of users differs to that of Facebook. I haven’t used fb in a long time. I am finding many people I know who use fb heavily don’t use insta at all. They’re still posting 300 character status updates and memes that are 5 years old! This is just a generalisation based on what I see happening around me with social and professional circles. I think insta is a little more sophisticated and really harnesses the attention economy perfectly. I post a 3min vid on YouTube of a drumming cover I’ve played and it’s gets 100 views over a month but I post a snippet on insta in my story with customised graphics and it gets 1000 views in a few days. So instagram, it’s users and the affordances of the platform which sort of define its audience. Definitely a topic worth exploring and your paper and comments have inspired that line of enquire for me 😊
Great paper! As a lurker, I found your argument to be highly compelling. You have effectively debunked the dichotomy of ‘poster’ versus ‘lurker’ by describing the complexity that sits behind the decisions and reasonings behind being a luker.
That idea of lurking being a dynamic choice really resonated with me. I make the choice to ‘lurk’ on Facebook – mainly to keep myself up-to-date with what’s going on in the communities around me. I agree that lurking acts as a control mechanism which helps us to moderate the impact of social media and, in turn, provides us with the breathing space required to continue to be part of the online communities we have formed.
The idea of emotional contagion is something that I did not touch on, but that is also relevant to my paper. I will have a look at the Flick article. Thanks!
Great job 😊
Thank you so much for your comments. I really like your comment about a control mechanism – the way you have phrased that is really helpful and has made me think again about what I wrote. Nicola
Hi Nicola, really great and thought-provoking paper. Looker is such a negative term so it’s really good to see someone shine a positive light on it, especially when I consider myself a lurker. There are such negative connotations, and yet I don’t think of myself as detrimental to the communities I lurk in, I’m just shy, and is consuming content not a form of engaging with it? Your paper made me think I’m not always a lurker; I think it’s different for different communities, sometimes I create or engaging meaningfully with content, sometimes I don’t, or in some communities I feel I am a static lurker and some I feel I am a static contributor. Then I suppose there are some when I am more dynamic. The only difference between lurking and not lurking is how visible the footprint of my engagement is. Your continuum chart is amazing, did you come up with that? It seems both positive and negative emotions can be used to force people to engage, does that mean neutral emotion creates “true lurkers”? Which is more effective? Or does each emotion have an appropriate time and place to be used? – James
Thank you so much for your thoughts on my paper. I really liked the thought of how visible a footprint is – that is exactly what I was thinking when I thought of lurking as a continuum. I really wanted to show it as a decision made every moment rather than something which was fixed and static.
I really liked your question about neutral emotion as I think it ties back to the original concept of lurkers and the suspicion that lurkers do not engage because they are somehow outside the discussion, neutrally observing but not emotionally engaged or attached to the community enough to comment – true lurkers. I think that is the counter argument to my paper which saw lurking as a strategy for managing emotional engagement. In terms of positive and negative emotion, the emotional contagion study undertaken by Facebook certainly pointed towards positive content creating more content and negative content creating “lurkers”.
Thank you so much for your comments. They were really thought provoking.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your paper, like the others above have mentioned, its not an angle that would have ever crossed my mind but is SO important to consider. Like most, I identify with being a bit of a lurker, I rarely interact with anything online but I spend so much time on social media. Partly being lazy in participating, partly knowing when is my time to speak and partly on the fear of being judged by what I say (social anxiety), thanks for showing “lurking” in a positive light.
I also really liked the part where you mentioned that lurking is also a resistance against the capitalist culture prevalent on the Internet through your quote, “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”.
It seems as though lurking benefits the lurker rather than the creators of content who rely on likes and comments to circulate their content. I do wonder how social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Facebook would operate if the only function was to lurk rather than to depend on likes and comments to circulate their content. You do raise excellent points throughout justifying the position of the lurker online and how they too play a part in how content is received and circulated. Could you imagine if everyone commented, liked and shared things all the time?
A very through provoking paper I really enjoyed reading.
As soon as I saw your title I had to read your paper. It was very well written and engaging.
I only came across the term “lurker” in this unit and was dismayed to realised that I was one. It seems to have such negative connotations – at best a bit creepy and at the worst sinister. My Facebook lurking is perhaps a reflection of my real life personality and traits. Offline I tend to observe interactions before deciding to (or not) to intervene. Likewise I consider the online situation and the implications of committing to participation. I suppose I like to consider the “cost” that posting and sharing online may bring. As you wrote “lurking allows a member of an online community to distance themselves from the anguish of context collapse”.
I wonder however whether lurker is just a derogatory name for an audience. After all we can’t all be “performers” otherwise they would have not audience,which surely is the point of their performance in the first place. In a real life community there are always a few that do the work, the organisation, to bring an event to life – for an audience to enjoy, those other individuals who have “lurked” to observe and enjoy the result of the labours of a few.
I feel your understanding of the place of the lurker online and its positive place in online communities will help to dismiss some of the negative associations with the name.
All the best,