On the internet, “lurking” isn’t as ominous as it sounds. Here’s what this word means online and why you’re probably a lurker, even if you don’t know it.
What is “Lurking?”
On the internet, “lurking” is the act of being in an interactive community, like a group chat or a forum, but not directly participating or getting involved. Lurking is essentially passive observation of a public conversation. People who do this on the internet are often called “lurkers.”
While the word itself tends to have negative connotations in the English language, “lurking” online isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might just mean that a person isn’t ready to contribute to a forum yet, and prefers to continue browsing other people’s posts.
The History of Lurking
“Lurkers” have existed on the internet for almost as long as internet forums, IRC chat groups, and message boards have existed. This became particularly clear when message boards began implementing live active user lists and “Currently Viewing” features on each forum thread. The first definition of “lurker” on Urban Dictionary dates back to 2003 and reads, “someone that follows the forum but doesn’t post.” Entries for “lurking” and “lurk” appeared at around the same time.
While lurkers are still primarily a thing in traditional internet communities like forums and subreddits, it’s gained usage in other contexts. For example, someone who doesn’t message in a group chat but reads all the texts might be considered a lurker. Similarly, someone who looks at many Instagram stories but never posts could be a lurker.
While many users in a community only lurk, sometimes, a lurker turns into a poster. A common practice among lurkers posting for the first time is to identify themselves as a lurker and start the post by saying “long-time lurker, first-time poster” or something similar. This is done as an “introduction” to the bigger group and possibly a request not to be that harsh or critical of the post’s content.
This phrase comes from a similar saying in talk radio shows where listeners call in with stories, problems, or talking points. Callers would often say “long-time listener, first-time caller” as an introduction. This works as both a way to get the jitters out of the way and signal to the host that they’re fans of the show. This same catchphrase has been adopted into other mediums and groups as well, with variations like “long-time fan,” “long-time viewer,” and now, “long-time lurker.”
However, the term lurking doesn’t only apply to just online communities anymore. It’s been adopted to mean anyone who is inside an online space but isn’t speaking up. For example, if one of your coworkers is actively browsing through the company’s Slack channel but staying quiet, you could say that they’re lurking. The same goes with Discord, Microsoft Teams, or other mass-communication apps.
This is especially true for group chats with read receipts or a “seen” counter. If you and your friends are all in a messaging app, and you’re simply reading their messages without responding, you will likely seem like the “lurker” in a group.
You could even call yourself a lurker on a website that doesn’t have a participation aspect. For example, if you’re browsing through an online store without buying anything, you might say you’re lurking on the website. If you’ve been browsing through social media for hours on end, but you’re not messaging or posting anything, then you could also consider yourself a lurker.
There are a variety of reasons why a user might prefer to lurk instead of participating. First, a lurker might enjoy reading more than posting. It takes a lot more effort to join discussions and be an active member, while lurking is just another type of content consumption.
Another is that the community could potentially be hostile to novices and newcomers. If a lurker doesn’t feel comfortable joining in the conversation, they may need more time to be acclimated to the environment before starting to post. Lastly, they might not just have thought of anything unique to post yet. So the next time you see “First-time poster” on a Reddit post, try to be gentle to the one posting it.
Ultimately, most people are lurkers on most websites. There are more people consuming content than creating content, so lurking is nothing to be ashamed of. Lurk on!