In typical contexts, the word “lurk” carries unsavory connotations, of both stalking and voyeurism. But in the online world of social media, lurking, or hanging out and tuning in to a social network without actively participating, is a primary and popular activity that can benefit the lurker, the active contributors and the network itself.No-risk learningMany people lurk on a social network long before they decide to participate. It’s a no-risk way to climb the learning curve, learn the ropes, the features and the special lingo. Lurking allows people to learn more about the individuals who participate actively, and to discover the common threads and interests that animate the conversation.In short, many people use lurking as their primary way to become comfortable with the tools, topics, culture and talkers before joining the conversation. Some lurkers never participate.Other reasons to lurkPeople lurk for many reasons. Depending on the nature of the network, they may lurk to study trends, download resources suggested by active contributors, search for informed opinions or varied perspectives on a topic, or to look for like-minded partners in disciplines outside their own.Lurkers fall into several broad classifications. Long-term lurkers visit the blog, discussion group, wiki, or support network regularly for months or years without joining the conversation. Serial lurkers come and go from time to time on a schedule that fits their needs or curiosity. Transient lurkers drop in once or twice to check out the network, but don’t come back.Lurkers also add value to the network and its active contributorsIn serving their own needs, lurkers can add value to the network itself. For example:They may recommend the network to others, broadening the network’s reach. (A recommendation from a trusted source is more likely to produce a loyal network member or follower than one from an unknown source.)They may follow a link or download a paper and share the information with others, broadening the influence of the linked site or downloaded information.They may learn about, and attend a face-to-face meeting or webinar, or pass the information about the event along to others they think might have an interest in attending.What people learn while lurking may correct misinformation they’ve picked up elsewhere, increase their awareness, expose an unexamined assumption, or make them more generally informed about a particular topic.They may contact one or more of the active participants directly, creating new relationships or partnerships outside the network.They may visit a community support blog and pick up answers to their questions, reducing traffic to the phone support system.Finally, site managers can track traffic to various features of the network to learn about lurkers’ interests and values, then try to reconfigure the conversation and/or features to reach a wider following.Lurking is a logical, perhaps even vital, first step in engaging with an online network. Lurkers will come to understand the social mores and norms of a particular network, enabling them to join in the conversation appropriately when they feel ready. Most of us don’t enter a crowded room and start talking right away; we listen to the conversations going on around us, gravitate to those we find most interesting, and start talking when we feel we have something to contribute. Online networks are no different. Author: Peg Boyles (@ethnobot) (The photo, ‘Lurking in the Zambezi’ by Kristen Laas is made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial license.)This work (excluding the photograph – Lurking in the Zambezi) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.