I assume that most people who stay subscribed to a community discussion board are usually paying attention to what is being discussed. They can benefit from doing so, even if they post infrequently (or never).
Part of what Stan is positing is true. People who are not actively participating can -- and often do -- benefit from the discussions within the community. That is the aspect of lurking that makes it a constructive activity.
But it is dangerous to generalize this belief, particularly if you are managing communities. Which I suspect is why Stan qualified his statement with "most". The distinction is whether people are actually lurking or have turned off completely.
Membership, or subscriptions, are often used to measure the size of a community, using the premise that, if they are still members, they are at least "actively lurking".
However, going back to my own experience, I currently belong to at least ten online communities where I receive email:
- Two I actively follow, reading each email as it comes in and -- occasionally -- responding.
- One I read thoroughly but never respond to. I consider it "keeping up" with a specific technology area.
- One I read if I have time, but at least half the time I skip.
- Two I browse the subjects lines but almost never actually open the email before deleting.
- Of the remaining four, at least two I delete without even considering the subject line. One I delete angrily after seeing that their infrequent messages are wasting my time, and the last falls somewhere in between those last two categories.
So which communities am I actively "lurking" in? If you asked me, I'd claim to be a "member" of three of the ten. Four at most. Less than 50%.
In truth the situation is much worse than what I describe, since I am a registered user of 10 or 20 more communities which I do not receive email subscription notices from. Of these I actively visit the forums of, perhaps, 5; occasionally visit another 2; and probably can't remember my password for at least half of what remains.
If that's the case, why don't I unsubscribe? Laziness, probably. About once a year I go through and remove myself from the most egregiously bad lists. But over the next 12 months I probably sign up for more new ones than I jettison. Some communities I signed up with for a specific purpose, which has since been satisfied. Some I joined as an experiment. And for many, there is a sense of not wanting to miss something that I might otherwise not hear about. (Although time proves that supposition wrong.)
Whatever the cause, I am technically a member of far more communities than I am actually "involved" with, whether active or lurking. Which brings us back to the dilemma for community leaders: how do you measure the size of an online community?
You can say for certain that people actively participating (posting, responding, or otherwise contributing) are members. But as has been said time and again, this is usually a very small percentage of the actual community size.
On the high end (assuming your community supports or requires some form of registration) you can count all registered users. However, as I have just explained, that number is unlikely to have any true meaning. So reality falls somewhere in between.
Second Life was roundly criticized four years ago for not being clear how they counted their "residents". (To be fair, the company improved both their methods of counting and reporting membership in response to the complaints.) But part of the confusion is not just how they were counting, but disagreements about what methods are appropriate.
The situation is no better for internal communities within corporations. Ultimately, there is no true answer. The interest level of individual members of the community will ebb and flow constantly, often with no external indications. So there is no way to provide an precise measurement of "engagement", even as a snapshot.
If you have subscriptions, you can report a combination of senders (unique posters) and receivers (subscribers) to give a range of possible activity. However, this leaves out anyone who reads the message online or (as is increasingly common) through an RSS feed. If you have access to web logs, you can report the number of unique visitors to the site/forum. But merging this data with email subscriptions can be difficult.
But no matter how you count, there are a variety of actions community facilitators can take to "take the pulse" of the community, beyond just numbers.
- Talk to your members. Contact people directly to ask if the community is meeting their needs or not. and if not, how it could be improved. Ask them how its going.
- When questions are asked, forward the question to people you know are knowledgeable on the subject and suggest they post an answer. This not only keeps the conversation going, it helps gets more experienced members involved and can spur interaction between members who do not know each other yet.
- If there aren't any questions, ask some. Not trivial questions, but questions that will get the community thinking -- and talking.
- Thank people, either publicly or privately through email, when they contribute significantly to the community. Make them feel appreciated for their efforts.
If this sounds more like hosting a high society soiree than facilitating a community, there's a good reason for that. They are very similar tasks. It is not enough to schedule a party, hire a caterer, and send out invitations. Once the event begins, you must play host: introduce people so no one feels left out, make sure they circulate, suggest activities... even plan party games! The exact same sort of activities that are needed to keep a community going once it has begun. What's more, being actively involved yourself gives you an intimate and immediate sense of the health and well-being of the community.
Measurements are fine and often necessary to convince management that positive momentum is occurring. But more important is knowing for yourself, as community leader, that your members are involved and benefiting from their participation. And this is not a number, it is a state of being you can contribute to yourself.
P.S. Stan himself has articulated many of these and other good ideas for how to actively facilitate communities in his own writing. Most recently, in his community manifesto. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the topic.