I lurk therefore I am?

Jakob Nielsen has written this on user inequality. He says the problem of the lurker is that they truly represent your users – not the tiny proportion who get active. Effectively the silent ones are the ones you should care most about. In a moment I’ll explain why this is a distraction for non-profits, but first Jakob’s explanation:

The problem is that the overall system is not representative of Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from. This can cause trouble for several reasons:

  • Customer feedback. If your company looks to Web postings for customer feedback on its products and services, you’re getting an unrepresentative sample.
  • Reviews. Similarly, if you’re a consumer trying to find out which restaurant to patronize or what books to buy, online reviews represent only a tiny minority of the people who have experiences with those products and services.

  • Politics. If a party nominates a candidate supported by the “netroots,” it will almost certainly lose because such candidates’ positions will be too extreme to appeal to mainstream voters. Postings on political blogs come from less than 0.1% of voters, most of whom are hardcore leftists (for Democrats) or rightists (for Republicans).
  • Search. Search engine results pages (SERP) are mainly sorted based on how many other sites link to each destination. When 0.1% of users do most of the linking, we risk having search relevance get ever more out of whack with what’s useful for the remaining 99.9% of users. Search engines need to rely more on behavioral data gathered across samples that better represent users, which is why they are building Internet access services.
  • Signal-to-noise ratio. Discussion groups drown in flames and low-quality postings, making it hard to identify the gems. Many users stop reading comments because they don’t have time to wade through the swamp of postings from people with little to say.

How do you overcome this? “You can’t”, he says – but goes on to add some useful ideas on helping lurkers emerge from the shadows.

From my point of view worrying about what the lurkers think or are doing is a recipe for madness. It’s also rude . It is is really non of you business because the lurker has chosen to make it non of your business. Steve Gillmor helped launch the Attention Trust which is based on the principal that the information we create by what we pay attention to and what we ignore is our business and that means we should control it.

I don’t want the owner of my local second hand bookstore to constantly interrupt me browsing by asking why I didn’t buy that particullar book. I don’t even want to think that that is what they are thinking. They’d have a much better chance of understanding why I come in, look around and leave if they find a relaxed way to simply have a chat with me. The places (communities) where I do more than lurk have three things in common – I care about what’s going on there, I think I have something to contribute and I trust I will be treated with respect.

Steve is also working on the gesturebank – which (if I understand it correctly) is a way of anonymously sharing your ‘attention information’ – or where you lurk. It is intended to aggregate the information into a usable public ‘good’ – a means of listening to the lurkers.

In the mean time though I think that for voluntary organisations the issues are different again. They need people to be active, so perhaps the problem of the habitual lurker is a simply a distraction.

After all those who are willing to overcome any sensible boundaries to participate are probably the ones you are most likley to want to spend time working with. Of course this does not take away the problem of what do the rest think – and are we in tune with them or not. But the key is to be in tune with those who can help you accomplish your aims.

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