Is Being a ‘Lurker’ a Good or Bad Thing?

Swoop: Observer Persona

KEEPIA View from the Top – David Thodey Interview - Part 1- Why Enterprise Social Networking- (1)

Lurkers are often painted in a negative context, as those that take but don’t give back. Sometimes however, communities are designed for lurkers/observers e.g. Technical Support Forums. But even in this context one could argue that a lurker benefiting from some expert advice might still add value by acknowledging an expert contribution. So how should lurkers/observers be viewed?

This post continues the series the deeper dives into the specific measures included in the SWOOP Collaboration Framework #swoopframework. The ‘Observer’ behavioural persona; is the fifth and final collaboration persona with the ‘Engager’, ‘Catalyst’ , ‘Responder’ and ‘Broadcaster’ personas.

How Measured?

The ‘Observer’ persona is simply calculated against a minimum activity level. In the current implementation with the Yammer platform, it is not possible to measure ‘views’, so only those that have at some time interacted with the platform e.g. a ‘like’, ‘reply’ etc., can be assessed. Somewhat arbitrarily we have classified anyone who has interacted on the platform less than once every 2 weeks, over a 3 month period, as an ‘Observer’.


The ‘Observer’ persona is the most populous of the personas, accounting on average, close to 80% of all active participants, in the benchmarking studies done to date. We believe this reflects the maturity (or lack thereof) of many of the corporate social networking platforms; as Charlene Li has written about here. An alternative argument is that Enterprise Social Networks can still add value even with lower participation rates i.e. the ‘lurker’ value proposition. Research from IBM indicates that there are a variety of community types that can form within Enterprises (Community of Practice, Team, Technical Support, Idea Lab, Recreation), which demonstrate different patterns of connectivity. One could reasonably argue that a Technical Support community adds value by making experts available to less expert ‘Observers’; and therefore a larger number of observers is expected. The same argument however could not be made for a Team, Idea Lab or Community of Practice, where the fundamental design is for inclusive membership.

As our analytics framework targets collaboration, and as observation is a one-way channel, the ‘Observer’ is seen as negative persona. This is not to say that the platform is not providing value to ‘Observers’; it most probably is. However we believe that the most productive value that can be gained from a social networking platform is when people collaborate. Consistent and frequent collaboration demonstrates continuous knowledge sharing, co-operation, co-ordination and therefore performance. In our view the ‘Observer’, with perhaps the exception of Technical Support users, should always be looking to upgrade their status to one of the more positive personas.

What should this mean to you?

If you are one of the on average 80% of enterprise staff who are classified as ‘Observers’, you may want to reflect on what the impact on your career might be by staying on the sidelines. While currently you may feel comfortable being part of the majority, there is clear evidence that the leaders of the future are those that can pro-actively build their relationship networks. You may think that you can do most of your networking and relationship building off-line, but the digital divide is rapidly disappearing.

Of course there are situations where being an ‘Observer’ is appropriate. If you are new to social media or indeed new to the organisation, it would be prudent to spend some time observing the network interactions, understanding who the network leaders are and what the unwritten protocols might be. However, like the ‘Broadcaster’ persona, it should only ever be a temporary status for you. Once you are confident on the value you could add as one of the positive personas, you should jump in and start interacting.

In summary, the ‘Observer’ persona is passive and from a collaboration perspective, seen as a negative persona. The current status quo however is that the vast majority of participants on social networking platforms are ‘Observers’. The reasons for this are complex and have been explored previously. Some of the issues are related to multi- technology platform channels i.e. collaboration is evidenced say more in email or other messaging platforms. Overall however, we believe that the collaboration persona classifications can stand independent of the technical platforms being used. Ultimately it will/may be necessary to draw data from multiple digital channels to accurately represent an individual’s true collaboration persona.

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