Lurkers are like stars; not always seen, but always there.
I’ve been interested in lurking for several years now, and have written conference presentations and journal articles about it with my fellow lurker-researchers AK, Aras and Len. It started when we looked at online behaviour in CLMOOC in the summer of 2016 (this is the same community that I used for my PhD research) and our first output was a presentation to the Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference in December 2016 called understanding lurkers in online learning communities.
In this presentation we set out the preliminary findings from our research about the various motivations that learners might have for lurking in online events. Some of the literature sees lurking as a negative behaviour, for example as free-loaders. We have a different perspective that we are keen to defend. We view lurking as a positive action and suggest that one way of understanding it is as a type of cognitive apprenticeship where newer learners watch and learn the norms of a community before visibly participating. This type of lurking, we suggest, can be conceptualised as vicarious learning. In order to explain this, we used Lave and Wenger’s model of Community of Practice (CoP) (Lave and Wenger, 1991). In a CoP experts practice at the middle of the community while novices watch from the sidelines (the periphery). This looked to us to be a model worth extending into online situations.
In 2017 we had a journal article published which took this research further: Learners on the Periphery: Lurkers as Invisible Learners. In this paper we attempt to answer 6 research questions:
1. How is lurking perceived by lurkers?
2. How is contribution defined from the perspective of a lurker?
3. Why do people lurk (rather than joining in)?
4. Do lurkers feel part of the community?
5. What might persuade lurkers to join in?
6. Is lurking a lesser experience than participating, or just a different one?
As before, we use CoP as a model to understand lurkers. We concluded that lurking was a complex set of behaviours, and that there is no one single reason that learners lurk, though (lack of) time is often cited as being a major reason.
At this stage in our writings, we were appreciative of the negative connotations of the word lurker, and we attempted to address this by referring to them as Legitimate Peripheral Participants (LPPs), a phrase that we borrowed from Lave and Wenger. However, the phrase was unwieldy and it never gained traction.
In 2019 we returned to the topic of lurking with a short paper: Rethinking Lurking. In this article we dive into some assumptions made about lurkers, and suggest that lurking can be a valuable approach to learning. We make a distinction between being active and being visible, and argue that learners who are time-poor can reinforce their connections with a community by participating invisibly – that is, by lurking. We also suggest that tiny actions (such as liking and upvoting) are of value to the community as a whole and should be recognised as positive actions. We also note that much of the literature focusses on lurkers from the point of view of the educator, and we suggest that future research could study it from the point of view of the lurkers themselves (an emic perspective).
In 2020 we returned again to the topic of lurking with a paper called: On lurking: Multiple perspectives on lurking within an educational community. Here we use three different lenses – the lenses of Transactional Distance, Interaction Types, and Self-Determination Theory – in order to try to understand lurker behaviours and motivations. We looked at 4 different types of distance, which we labelled psychological, emotional, cognitive, and cultural, and found that learner perceptions of each of these determined how close to the core of a community they felt. We also found that learner-learner interaction played an important role in online communities. We might summarise this as noting that connections are important for online learners, whether these learners are active, visible or lurking.
As our research has progressed, we have come to realise that lurking is an important part of online learning and that it is a behaviour that many of us use effectively in our own communities. A question that remained unanswered in our second paper was whether lurking is a lesser experience than participating, or just a different one. Nowadays we’d frame this slightly differently to talk in terms of visible participation, but we are still interested in finding how others would answer this question.