Lurkers are part of a group's latent energy; good things happen when that energy is activated. Lurkers are part of the all-important weak-tie network, and it's important to keep them engaged, even if engagement does not translate to participation. However, having lots of lurkers as a community goes through its nascent "sausage stage" can hurt if it drives lurkers and other potential participants away. Eugene Kim Are Lurkers Bad?
Eugene's post was in response to a pspace comment that "Lurkers don't help us" when starting a new online workspace. I don't think its nearly as balanced an issue as Eugene thinks. To a certain extent, Lurkers are the future of any initiative.
Why? I count four scenarios for lurking.
1) An astonishing surplus of time and lack of creativitity/brainpower. Pretty much useless.
2) People at other parts of the value chain, whether underlying foundation elements or applications closer to the customer. These people will often lurk because they lack indepth knowledge of the product at hand, even if it is essential to their own part. Yet they need to stay informed. Occasionally they will come up with something of astonishing relevance, normally when the group intersects their area by accident. Also, if they are considering adopting a standard or direction from a group, people are just as important as product. Venture capitalists would love to lurk inside a new startup -- why shouldn't product owners do the equivalent inside their future? This group can be essential to long-term success because it controls the interfaces.
3) People deciding whether this is a new area to create expertise or a meaningful forum for change. For those not in the inner circle (who normally make these judgments based on personal relationships), it can be very unclear which of many areas in which expertise can be developed will be the most successful. Lurking defines opportunities and shows pathways.
4) People who work on the edges. They may never have a public post, but may correspond regularly ontopic with a few individuals on the outskirt or the core for a variety of reasons. I've often seen senior executives take this role (since overt action will irreparably shape the technical discussion). Or they may choose to have their ideas/concerns "filtered" through a member closer to the core to borrow credibility.
The counterargument is that lurkers drive people away. The key is to determine who adds present/future value and who doesn't. I think the easiest way is to be open early and then slam the doors shut. People in categories 2,3,4 will jump in and lurk. They will drift away if momentum dies or the dynamics of the group are unacceptable. Once things are popular, 1,2,3 and 4 are banging on the door. So the core should let in new people on a controlled basis to allow 2 and 4 (it is too late for 3 -- they will need to work hard and independently to create a complementary product worth membership). But only admit 2 and 4 at a higher level -- because the low level is represented by your lurker survivors. So I would say that it isn't the lurkers that are bad, its the bum rush of unproductive people to hot topics that spoils it for the rest of us.
Segmenting the population draws out lurkers (since a "good" lurker normally lacks expertise or motivation -- thus always getting beat by a core member when there is a logical next step -- thus remaining a lurker until chance intersection with an area of great insight or knowledge). Occasionally you see this on a site like avsforum, where people will be silent except on some obscure piece of hardware where as one of a small group, and with expertise from extensive use, they contribute greatly. Since they may well be the only one who can answer the question, they do so (though not normally that quickly). I can imagine something like Model UN, where identical topics are debated in small committees and then after prioritization and revision, they are sent to the group as a whole might effectively flush out lurkers. Though I'm unclear how you implement such a thing online without it feeling unproductive (since you are intentionally creating duplication).