Guilty as charged – I’m a lurker. In most of the communities I’m in, I love to sit in the wings and watch conversations flow between people, selfishly hoarding any nugget of advice I may come across without giving anything back. Sometimes I feel bad about my lurker status, but I also get a lot of enjoyment (and value) out of being a fly on the wall.
Of all the communities I’m part of, my favorite, hands down, is the Women and Bicycles private Facebook group created by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and Potomac Pedalers. Fewer than 24 percent of all the cyclists in the region are women and this group creates a supportive, encouraging environment to get more women on bikes. It seems to be working! With over 4,000 women in the group, every time I check (which is multiple times a day) there are always new posts or comments. It is one of the most active groups I’ve ever seen or been part of. Still, my modus operandi is to lurk.
Honestly, I just enjoy watching the news feed. For the most part, it’s very positive and encouraging (there are community guidelines, and I rarely see them violated and, if they are, it’s mostly just an off topic post). The women in this group post about everything. There are posts about triumphs – anything from biking to work to biking across the country – or challenges, like how to deal with cars and street harassment. Sometimes when someone’s bike is stolen, she’ll post pictures and people actively look for it. A good percentage are recovered! Whenever I need to buy something bike related, I check the postings to see if it’s there. The women and their stories are so interesting and, unbeknownst to them, encourage me to make tangible changes in my life. If it weren’t for the group, I would never have started biking to work everyday.
Recently, a change came over me, catching me by surprise. My fingers began to itch when I’d scan the newsfeed and, for whatever reason, I started commenting and liking posts. What happened?
I’m not certain what happened, but I think it’s connected to the fact that I’ve started putting real faces to names. I met a woman from the group who was selling her bike; I didn’t buy it, but we went on a ride together one weekend. One of my closest friends from college found her new roommate from a posting in the group. I’ve even met women from the group on the road, when I’m commuting to work and waiting at a stoplight, and while participating in group rides. They’re everywhere!
Suddenly, I went from feeling anonymous to recognizing posters as people I know in real life; I felt less like a fly on the wall and more like an actual member of the group. It was a combination of guilt that I was only taking and not giving and of gratitude for the value I’d received that pushed me over the edge.
Besides just the basics, like how to bike across Key Bridge during rush hour or that the smaller U-locks make it harder to steal a bike, I’ve learned some key insights about how communities work.
1. Even lurkers appreciate community. Although I joined over one year ago and only recently started contributing, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the community. Just because many members may be silent doesn’t mean they don’t get incredible value out of it. I’ve also added several people to the group – many of them are also lurkers, but we enjoy talking about recent, memorable posts when we’re together.
2. It’s possible to turn a lurker into a poster. The first time I posted, it was scary – thousands of people were watching! But with positive reinforcements from likes and comments, I became emboldened. The next post was easier. I’m still not a frequent poster, but I no longer have the same worries and anxiety before publishing.
Also I’ve realized how important the “introduce yourself” thread is for new community members. If you can get a new member to post right off the bat – something as easy as, “Hi! My name is ____” – then the next post will be easier. In this group’s community guidelines, new members are supposed to introduce themselves, but it isn’t reinforced (and I ignored the rule). That’s why, on other platforms, automation rules can be integral for reaching out to new members and nudging them into participation immediately.
3. Meeting people offline strengthens relationships within community, and vice versa. My feelings about the community really changed when I met people offline. Now I had stories and personalities to connect to the posts. I also realized how much I instantly trusted the community members I met, especially frequent posters, whose digital voices I’d come to recognize. It got me thinking about the power of online communities. Sure, the conversations and comradery online are great, but translating that to the real world is empowering.
So, don’t discount the lurkers – sure, they’re annoying and sometimes may seem like dead weight, but you may underestimate the power of their support and advocacy. And you never know when a lurker may suddenly become inspired to begin posting.
What are your favorite communities? (It’s ok if you’re also a lurker!)