Listener or Lurker? #edchat

Lurker or ListenerI have always felt a little uncomfortable with the term ‘lurker’ when talking about users who are in the background on online discussions or social networks.

My first thought when someone is described as a ‘lurker’ is:

“someone that would hide in concealment, often for an evil purpose.” Wikipedia

which is what some people used to do in Internet chat rooms when the Internet was in it’s infancy. The term has taken on a less ‘evil’ undertone in recent years, and now ‘to lurk’ is:

“to learn the conventions of an online community before they actively participate, improving their socialization when they eventually de-lurk.” Wikipedia

But I can’t help think of it’s previous definition and use, where someone hides in the shadows for unscrupulous activity (you could argue the same is still going on today). This above new definition is also based on the premise that the ‘lurker’ will eventually be an active participant.

What if they don’t want to? What if the ‘lurker’ is happy being in the background and only offering something when the need arises? Nothing wrong with that.

This is why I would rather use the term ‘listener’ as it seems closer to the truth – they are online and in the online environment with their peers, but they choose to ‘listen’ rather then participate (for many different reasons). They are thinking about and taking notes about what is being said, adding their own voice when they feel the need, but for the most part they stay quiet.

Think about it – when you meet your friends and chat over coffee or a beer – do you ‘lurk’ in the conversation when you say nothing, or do you ‘listen’?

Image: Lurktastic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

PS. I resisted using a cat image for this post, it was too predictable (just search ‘pounce‘ and you’ll see what I mean!).

  • Shalini Talluri

    Interaction among learners is increasing through online chat rooms and discussion forums. Nice post!

  • Hello David @mhawksey pointed me over here. I’ve had to think about using the term ‘lurker’ recently when writing up some research we conducted in the Change11 (connectivist) MOOC. While I agree with you that the term has negative connotations, and that ‘lurking’ covers a range of entirely appropriate (and rewarding) ways of participating in a cMOOC, we chose to use that term rather than come up with any other for a couple of key reasons. First, although you refer to a dictionary/encyclopaedia definition, the term has currency within the online learning research literature: Rovai (2000) for instance describes lurkers as “… learners who are bystanders to course discussions, lack commitment to the community, and receive benefits without giving anything back”. This is exactly what we observed, so while I thought about whether to adopt a different term, I eventually concluded that Rovai’s definition described what we were observing. The second reason was that many of our ‘lurkers’ self-identified as lurkers (though this didn’t form the basis of our classification). again, this reflects the currency of the term in the literature.

    A final observation which came out of our study was that while we saw ‘lurking’ as a behaviour compatible with participation in the course, more active participants adopted a different perspective, and were critical of other”s lurking (again, they used the term).

    You can read a little more on my blog at, which links to other posts, and a comment exchange on another blog.

    Rovai, A. P. (2000). Building and sustaining community in asynchronous learning networks. The Internet and Higher Education, 3(4), 285-297.

    • Hi Colin, thanks for this.

      ‘Lurker’ is a term that is well used and ingrained into common language, and I admit that I still use it and probably still will for a while. The definitions you cite for ‘lurkers’ are equally negative in outlook (and more appropriate) as the ones I used, and I am trying to question the fact that not everyone who is silent in an online community is ‘lurking’.

      I disagree that ‘listeners’ have a lack of commitment to the community, or that they will take benefits without giving anything back. What I am trying to do here is highlight that there are others who are equally as quiet but for different reasons; that they will contribute, they are not bystanders, that they have the commitment, but maybe not at this moment or haven’t found their way of expression.

      A ‘listener’ can have many reasons for not participating, and this may have nothing to do with commitment or participation – it could be a lack of confidence in their own voice or opinion, that there are others involved in the discussion who are louder and more aggressive in their approach, or that the unfamiliarity of the technology is a contributory factor. They are not ‘lurking’ but rather scared (?) or just unwilling to participate at this time and are simply ‘listening’ to the exchanges and will engage if or when the moment presents itself, or they have the compunction to do so?

      This is why I wanted to question the term … there are those who (including myself on occasion) ‘listen’ to the community without taking part, where they take information and knowledge and augment it to their own experiences, where they learn from others. I am not ‘lurking’, and I will return my knowledge and experiences to the community, but it may not be in the same time frame or network/location where I received it.

      I am a participant but not always active – so what is this then?


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  • Nice and informative post.