I have been involved in a number of online projects and certainly lurking is always an issue. Reading about the different kinds of lurkers as part of my online course assignment I realised that people usually tend to see lurking from a negative point of view. However, I truly believe that it all depends on the sort of online environment and the sort of interaction we are talking about and I’d like to focus on two different kinds of online interaction which I have some experience with.
Online courses – in online courses where participants have a very specific objective and will be awarded a certificate for their participation and performance, I think lurking as a freeloader or a sponge is something totally unacceptable. It may sound a bit strict and I understand that people may feel a bit shy and can hesitate to contribute because they feel insecure; however, each participant knew beforehand what he/she was getting into and I think you have to bring up your own resources and contribute to the group and the discussion instead of just expecting others to feed you up.
Open forums and discussion lists – in this situation I think hesitation and a sense of insecurity is really understandable, because you never know who is going to read your message and how these unknown people will react to it. Fear of criticism is highly justifiable in such a situation. Besides that, our objective in such online environments is to make as many people as possible, read and reflect about an issue. It’s alright if people lurk for a time, because they are learning and getting acquainted with the subject. We know that in open forums and discussion lists only about 5% of the members actually post, but it does not mean that we are not reaching the other 95%. Eventually, some of them will make a contribution – perhaps saying how much they have learnt from the discussion.