Online Group Lurkers may not get the most benefit
If you go to an online support group but "lurk" rather than participating, it may be preventing you from getting the most benefit out of the group, according to the recently published results of a Dutch study.
The study, results of which were published in the Journal of medical internet research, followed up on an earlier study that indicated that participation in online support groups had a profound effect on the participants’ feelings of “being empowered.” 
The earlier study, and indeed most previous studies of online patient support groups, focused on active members of these groups, who contribute by posting messages (posters). This new study explored whether people who read the messages, but do not actively contribute by posting themselves, (lurkers) profit to the same extent from use of online patient support groups as posters do.
The researchers noted, although little is known about lurkers in online patient support groups, some studies have been conducted on lurkers in other online communities. Opinions about lurking and lurkers vary considerably, with some poeple considering it negative bahaviour, using the resources of online groups without giving back to them, whilst others consider lurking to be acceptable or even beneficial, encouraging new members and discouraging an overload of posting. Lurking rates on various online groups are highly variable, but with an average of 45.5% of lurkers in health-related online support groups being reported. 
For the latest study, the researchers used Google to identify all Dutch online support groups for patients with breast cancer, Fibromyalgia Syndrome (Fibro), and arthritis. The owners of 19 groups then sent out invitations to complete an online survey, including questions demographic and health characteristics, use of and satisfaction with the online support group, empowering processes, and empowering outcomes. The online questionnaire was completed by 528 individuals, of which 109 (21%) identified themselves as lurkers. 
Lurkers were found to be slightly older than posters, with a shorter disease history and reported lower mental well-being. 
Posters were found to be visiting the online support groups significantly more often for social reasons, such as curiosity about how other members were doing, to enjoy themselves, as a part of their daily routine, and because other members expected them to be there. Lurkers and posters did not differ in their information-related reasons for visiting the online support group. 
Lurkers were significantly less satisfied with the online support group compared to posters. Although the researchers found that lurkers did not differ significantly from posters with regard to most empowering outcomes, such as “being better informed,” “feeling more confident in the relationship with their physician,” “improved acceptance of the disease,” “feeling more confident about the treatment,” “enhanced self-esteem,” and “increased optimism and control”, lurkers scored significantly lower for “enhanced social well-being”.
The researchers concluded that:
"[The] study revealed that participation in an online support group had the same profound effect on lurkers’ self-reported feelings of being empowered in several areas as it had on posters. Apparently, reading in itself is sufficient to profit from participation in an online patient support group."
However, actively contributing to an online support group could enhance lurker's social well-being.
- van Uden-Kraan CF, Drossaert CH, Taal E, Seydel ER, van de Laar MA. Self-reported differences in empowerment between lurkers and posters in online patient support groups. J Med Internet Res. 2008 Jun 30;10(2):e18.
- Nonnecke B, Preece J. Lurker demographics: counting the silent. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 1-6; The Hague, The Netherlands. New York: ACM Press 2000:73-80.