Invisible members of online communities; those who access, but do not post material, have traditionally been conceived of as being inactive, peripheral, non-productive participants. The term lurker connotes a poorly understood, low-value and marginal role, characterised by a reluctance, or lack of readiness, to contribute. This paper argues that in today's complex, multimodal online communities, the lurker concept is too simplistic. Combining the concept of polycontextuality with boundary spanning theory, it proposes an alternative way of conceptualising invisible online roles. It reports on a study investigating knowledge transfer in online communities, where a subset of influential and active, yet „invisible‟ online participants was discovered. These participants, follower-feeders, spanned the online-offline community boundary, acting as online followers and offline leaders. They communicated with online leaders, using low-visibility online means, and played a key brokering role in transferring knowledge from online to offline contexts. It is argued that the online community is best seen as part of a larger, polycontextual community ecosystem, comprising diverse online and offline contexts – community engagement spaces – and that the nature of value of roles in this ecosystem is best understood by focusing on understanding cross-boundary social activity and knowledge transfer, rather than by investigating online interactions only.


online community ecosystem, lurker, boundary-spanner, polycontextuality, knowledge transfer, follower


ISBN: [978-1-86435-644-1]; Full paper