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.