Would you rather be called a ‘lurker’ or a ‘wallflower’?
Language is an important factor when creating an online community. Developing specific words or phrases can deepen a sense of community amongst your members, giving them the feeling of being on the “inside” or part of an exclusive group. Language can also influence engagement, depending on how positively -- or negatively -- members feel about your word choices.
Which leads us to this question: should we call lurkers ‘lurkers’?
Are Lurkers Doomed From the Beginning?
Lurkers -- every community has them. And most people have strong opinions about them, either seeing their value and potential, or frustrated by their perceived inaction.
No matter what your opinion is, almost every community is comprised mostly of lurkers -- it’s the old 90-9-1 rule (where 90% of an online community’s members are lurkers). Even with The Community Roundtable’s update to the rule -- 50% are lurkers, 23% are contributors and 27% are creators -- lurkers are too big a population to ignore. And, rather than feel annoyance or frustration with lurkers, it’s better to see them as an untapped resource because, in many ways, they are.
But does the label 'lurker' inherently doom members who prefer to sit on the side and watch the community?
Only recently has the word ‘lurker’ referred to someone who watches online discussions or forums but doesn’t participate. Traditionally, ‘lurker’ means something different, often negative.
For context, here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the word ‘lurk’: to lie in wait in a place of concealment especially for an evil purpose.
So, if language is an important part of creating a sense of community and spurring engagement, is the word ‘lurker’ helpful in describing the vast majority of your members?
Not only does the label have the potential to make lurkers feel unwelcome, but it primes community members and professionals to think negatively about them -- which doesn’t bode well for their future participation. Just because lurkers don't actively participate doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion or promote the community. Plus, you never know when lurkers will become active members -- they have tremendous potential to participate, becoming promoters, ambassadors or micro-influencers.
What’s The New Name For Lurkers?
If we shouldn’t call lurkers ‘lurkers,’ what in the world should we call them?
Jessica Fish, a community aficionado from Leader Networks, has strong opinions regarding lurkers and what we should call them. She prefers to call this group ‘wallflowers,’ which she thinks is more accurate. Here’s her reasoning:
“These are folks on the edge of the party -- wanting to join in, wanting to participate, but they’re waiting for the right moment -- for the right song to come on. Lurker has always connoted something a bit devious to me. Whereas a wallflower is someone who just needs the right impetus, the perfect intro from a community manager or the right thread where they can jump in and help save the day.”
See how different this new frame of reference is? Rather than using a word that inherently paints this group of people in a negative light, the term ‘wallflower’ puts a positive spin on them, acknowledging their potential.
Calling them ‘wallflowers’ meets those members where they are. It’s hard to actively participate in discussions and contribute materials or resources, especially when you’re new or unused to participating in communities or forums. Not everyone has time, and not everyone has that desire. But it doesn’t mean they don’t see value in the community, feel like they belong or have opinions. And, you never know when they’ll strike up the gumption the begin contributing.
Jessica agrees that language and word choices are important, too:
“Plus, I believe the words and labels we use are important. Just think about how differently you respond to these two terms. Would you rather create engagement strategies for a group of lurkers or a group of wallflowers?”
New Frame of Reference
If changing what we call lurkers can impact engagement, it makes one wonder about other words -- how do they affect engagement? For example, what’s the impact of using the word ‘member’ versus ‘customer’ versus ‘user’? If you’re too accustomed to the use to make an informed decision, ask your members what they think. They may have negative, visceral reactions to some words, and you had no idea they felt so negatively about them. Or, you may find that they don’t really think twice -- and there’s opportunity to find words or phrases that do resonate.
Experiment with how changing words or phrases alters your frame of reference. You don’t need to call lurkers ‘wallflowers’ -- what do you think would resonate well with your community?