Lurking and what leaders know about their invisible audience

Let’s talk about something obvious: Leaders (for instance community councillors) share information online but the paradox is, that they often don’t get a visible response. Why do they do it then? What are their expectations of how the information they present will be used (eg a news item or a blog post)? In particular, why would a community councillor go to the bother of posting material online when there is demonstrably little chance anyone will comment on it?

A Party of Participants

Lurking is good

Lurking as been discussed since the beginning of internet forums at the start of the millennium, when “lurking” was defined as “…reading discussions on a board, newsgroup,… social networking site, listening to people in …[an] interactive system, but rarely or never participating actively” [8]

The leader to lurker framework: but what about other on- and off-line channels?

It has always been the case that the number in the audience is bigger than the number on stage. In fact, it is arguable that any community would not function for very long if everyone was trying to permanently take a leadership role.

“The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us” [7]

This partly goes back to the pyramid of participation (also known as the 1% rule). The relationship be content creators and lurkers is often depicted as a pyramid, but concentric circles can also be used as in the diagram above.

Quite a lot is known about lurking, actually…

The word “lurker” seems to have stuck as a term for this audience. However, lurking is a positive choice to pay attention to this community or this conversation [2,3]. There are levels of lurking too [9]:

  • The most basic is the passive lurker, who signs up but does nothing – which might happen if the lurker realises they joined the wrong community.
  • The rest are in some way active lurking. The participant joins a group and:
    • uses the information gained solely for their private use,
    • or they may use and share the information with the community(ies) through other channels,
    • or using it as a route to establishing personal contact.

This brings in the idea of multiple channels of communication (see also [1,5] ). One challenge is that the apparent non-response may because the channel of communication is invisible because it is offline, or in a closed online group [10] – the rise of closed groups in WhatsApp and Facebook means that this is increasingly the case.

Overlaping communities

Lurkers on online public forums may be contributors or leaders elsewhere

Local communities are different

This is particularly relevant when looking at (geographical) community level engagement, where people are physically close to each other: you are as likely to bump into someone in the shop or see something on a noticeboard as are you are to respond online, or maybe even find out information online. (A lot of writing on online communities ignores the role of space).

From a community member’s point of view, there may also be the desire to only communicate to people who are known to be local. One of the contradictions in the use of internet platforms for local politics is that you are using a worldwide platform for a local conversation – with the risks of unknown and possibly unfriendly (and well resourced) outsiders joining in or pushing their agenda. This may be a motivation for community councillors to lurk in their own online community…

How do community leaders understand their lurkers?

This comes down to the community councillor’s perceptions & expectations of lurkers. We’ve looked at similar issues before – for instance how signing an e-petition can be seen as a transition from lurking to participation[2], and how useful the community of practice model is for explaining movements in and out of engagement with using the internet for political participation in community councils [3]: lurking has been seen as close to the idea of (legitimate) peripheral participation [6].

So: why not look at look at what the leaders think of their lurkers. Why do community councillors post information to a blog or website (or Facebook) even when they do not expect a (significant) response: what are their expectations of the lurkers and how (and where) the information they share will be used? Or is posting online seen as an activity (and social good) in its own right?

There are some indications that social media analytics provide one route to understanding the lurker (after all, it is another word for audience [4])– so in a way, social media platforms like Facebook are providing a tool for understanding lurkers, even if they can’t be communicated with.

Information literacy, information behaviour and information practice give oher perspectives. They allow us to focus on what is actually happening, explicitly avoiding psychological or organisational perspectives (though they do of course provide a context). We have gathered some data as part of the wider IL-DEM project which is looking how far information literacy can help community councillors do their job.


Thanks to  Noella Edelmann  for her notes and insights into the knowledge management and organisational learning approaches to lurking (including as the implications of the Takehashi and Nonnecke & Preece papers). Thanks as ever to Bruce Ryan for keeping the project moving. Some of this work was carried out in parallel with the IL-DEM project, which was funded by CILIP’s Information Literacy Group.


  1. Aichholzer, G., & Strauß, S. (2016). Collaborative Forms of Citizen (e-)Participation. In G. Aichholzer, H. Kubicek, & L. Torres (Eds.), Evaluating e-Participation (pp. 109–122). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  2. Cruickshank, P., Edelmann, N., & Smith, C. F. (2010). Signing an e-petition as a transition from lurking to participation. In J. Chappellet, O. Glassey, M. Janssen, A. Macintosh, J. Scholl, E. Tambouris, & M. Wimmer (Eds.), Electronic Government and Electronic Participation (pp. 275–282). Linz, Austria: Trauner Verlag.
  3. Cruickshank, P., & Ryan, B. M. (2015). The Communities of Practice model for understanding digital engagement by hyperlocal elected representatives. In E. Tambouris, H. J. Scholl, M. Janssen, M. A. Wimmer, K. Tarabanis, M. Gascó, … Ø. Sæbø (Eds.), Electronic Government and Electronic Participation (pp. 11–18). IOS Press.
  4. Edelmann, N. (2012). Lurkers as Actors in Online Political Communication. In XXVI Convegno SISP Rome. Rome. Retrieved from
  5. Kubicek, H. (2016). What Difference Does the “E” Make? Comparing Communication Channels in Public Consultation and Collaboration Processes. In G. Aichholzer, H. Kubicek, & L. Torres (Eds.), Evaluating e-Participation (pp. 307–331). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  6. Lave (2008) “Situated learning and changing practice,” in Community, economic creativity, and organization (pp. 283–296), Oxford: Oxford University Press
  7. Neilson, J. (2006) The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities. Retrieved from
  8. Nonnecke, B., & Preece, J. (2000). Lurker demographics: Counting the silent. In Proceedings of CHI 2000. Presented at the CHI 2000. The Hague, The Netherlands: ACM
  9. Takahashi, M., Fujimoto, M., & Yamasaki, N. (2007). Active Lurking: Enhancing the Value of In-house Online Communities Through the Related Practices Around the Online Communities (No. 4646–7). CCI Working paper. Cambridge MA. Retrieved from
  10. Taylor-Smith, E., & Smith, C. (2016). Non-public eParticipation in Social Media Spaces. In A. Gruzd, J. Jacobson, P. Mai, E. Ruppert, & D. Murthy (Eds.), Proceedings of SMSociety ’16. ACM.

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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5 Responses to Lurking and what leaders know about their invisible audience

  1. Pingback: Being in isolation #4 Man’s greediness, slackness, internet, friends and social contacts – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  2. Reblogged this on Community, Knowledge, Connections and commented:

    I’m thinking about how community leaders who post online can think about their audience – are the “just” lurkers? Is that a bad thing? (Of course, it turns out they can be seen as a good thing – find out why)

  3. Pingback: Community representatives and online communication | Spartakan

  4. Pingback: My current and near-future work plans | Bruce's IT-ish world

  5. Pingback: Talking to imagined citizens: Why share information when no-one talks back? | Spartakan

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