Definitions and Meanings of Online Lurkers

Definitions and Meanings of Online Lurkers

Noella Edelmann (Danube University Krems, Austria)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch632
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The verb “to lurk” derives from slang for “method of fraud,” and means to lie in wait (as in ambush), to move furtively or to sneak, to go unnoticed, to exist unobserved or unsuspected (“Lurk”, 2012a). Some synonyms for lurking are hiding, sneaking, crouching, prowling, snooping, lying in wait, slinking, skulking, concealment, moving stealthily or furtively (“Lurk”, 2012b).

Lurking has always been a very popular online activity that leaves no traces (Whittaker, Terveen, Hill, & Cherny, 1998). In the context of the online environment it is often understood as reading but not contributing to the discussion in a newsgroup, electronic network or community. Many agree that lurkers often represent the largest group in the online environment, but there is little agreement on the definition of lurking, even in numerical terms: lurkers are those who “never” post (Nonnecke, Andrews, & Preece, 2006; Preece, Nonnecke, & Andrews, 2004), post infrequently (Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2006), have not posted in recent months (Nonnecke & Preece, 2000), or have not made a contribution in the first 12 months after subscribing to a list (Stegbauer & Rausch, 2002).

It is important to state at the beginning that lurkers are not non-users. Non-users are those people who do not use any information and communication technologies, due to a lack of financial resources (Martin & Robinson, 2007), poor education or lack of skills (Livingstone, 2004), emotional reasons (such technophobia, Van Dijk, 2005), resent using it (Selwyn, 2006) or because they don’t want to use the technologies. Lurkers are neither non-users nor do they represent the unconnected, those who “are out of the loop, socially and otherwise” (Sypher & Collins, 2001, p. 101). Lurkers do use technology, they do log-in and do visit sites.

Lurkers can represent over 90% of the online group, it is known that they access and login into sites, regularly reading the postings and blogs, and so their silence has made them the “silent majority” (author n.n., 2010; Nielsen, 2006; Stegbauer & Rausch, 2002).

By being silent, anonymous and not contributing visibly, lurkers are deemed to be inactive, peripheral or non-productive (Nonnecke et al., 2006; Leshed, 2005; Nonnecke & Preece, 2003, 2001), non-public participants or hard-to-involve participants (Strout, 2011; Andrews, Nonnecke, & Preece, 2003).

Katz (1998) has suggested that lurker may be users that do not participate publicly as they do not understand the language, rituals or norms of the particular community, as harmless, e.g.:

(the) lurker does not participate in normal forum discourse, but he's out there...watching, reading every message. He is usually quite harmless, and more often than not his silence reflects a natural reticence rather than sinister motives. If a fight breaks out he will quietly observe to avoid revealing his position. (Reed, n.d.).

But more often than not, the term is often used to describe participants who hang around, are sinister, annoying or selfish free-loaders who take advantage without contributing or reciprocating (Smith & Kollock, 1999), cyber-tricksters “lurking the Web and luring the gullible” (OECD, 2003 p.145).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Non-Users: Those people who do not use any information and communication technologies.

Lurkers: Online users that are seen as not actively participating in online environments.

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