Lurking-Implications on Social Capital

I have been thinking about the social capital implications of having a huge proportion of lurkers in a community. Lurking is increasingly been seen as legitimate Peripheral Participation.
Some of the arguments in favour of lurking are:

1. Being a part of a “double-knit” structure(described by R.McDermott)of both teams and communities,lurkers tend to take back learnings from the community into their teams.

2.”You can move from the periphery to the center safely asking a question—sometimes more safely virtually than physically, and then back out again. ” –John Seely Brown as reported by Wendy Atkin

3. Weaker ties are stronger and peripherality gives more opportunities for innovation to happen.

However most of the arguments focus predominantly on human capital issues. I agree that allowing different levels of participation is crucial in a community. However,if people at the periphery dont drift in and out of the core periodically and if they choose to remain at the periphery-What are the social capital costs ? If organizations roll out communities with a specific intention of improving social capital(trust+reciprocity+shared understanding) ,would the 10/90(active/lurkers) or 20/80 ratio have serious implications? Irrespective of the “fire” that is built at the core at any given point only 10-20% of the community is active. Will this offset the social capital costs that the community incurs ? Are the social capital dimensions of LPP like weak ties (and associated trust dimensions) more important and predictable compared to the typical social capital dimensions at the core of a community?
While lurking is a norm in many online communities ,it is a key issue that executive sponsors of communities in organizations have to think about.


3 thoughts on “Lurking-Implications on Social Capital

  1. Dinesh, I think trying to pin ROI on communities in terms of participation alone might be a dangerous game. It is indeed those weak ties that bring value and if you “out” them, they will go away. And that actually reduces the social capital. It is like saying to an executive, how will you demonstrate the ROI in terms of social capital of your dinners, lunches and golf games. They’d NEVER want that explicit because it would breach the trust of those more intimate engagements with peers.There has been some good thinking within the CPSquare community ( — membership community with a fee) about how to engage lurkers. A copy of one of their papers can be found here: (you must join to access the file, but it’s free. Join here – sorry it is so complicated. Sigh)What would really interest me is learning more about how people do or don’t drift in an out of the core/periphery. In distributed communities, we try and “count” this by posts or logins into online spaces. But my gut is that there are many backchannel interactions between members that may actually make people who would be percieved as peripheral based on posting, be much more towards the core based on their non-posting interactions with others. Does that make any sense? (I also posted this on my blog.

  2. Nancy,Thanks for the pointers.I agree with your observations. Apart from the reasons why people tend to drift in and out of the core/periphery, I have been wondering about the 10/90 ratio of active to lurking participants.There has been a lot of talk about how proactive community coordinators and the core group can build fire at core to move people from the periphery inward. And this is possible only when the community design follows the fundamental principle that the scope should be narrow enough to interest most members and wide enough to bring in new ideas.My thought is that irrespective of how successful community outcomes are, they tend to follow the 10/90 rule.This makes me wonder if there are inherent structural/design issues that make communities follow this 10/90 pattern? Would a 30/70 or 40/60 ratio lead to more or less social capital? To be more precise,Does more participation necessarily mean its a better community? What do community coordinators focus on to show results?

  3. Argh, the downside of blogger. I don’t see your response to my comment. Sorry. I think there is more to the 90/10 rule that we forget. Ever even 50% contributed, there would be so much noise and volume, no one would hear.The question is, what percent is listening?

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