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According to this research article about Stack Overflow, users were classified as:

  • Community activists – registered, contribute regularly
  • Shooting stars – a burst of high activity followed by a low activity
  • Low-Profile – registered with intermittent activity, but not highly active
  • Lurkers & Visitors - Not asking or answering, viewing only

There is a small population of community activists and a very large population of the other three categories. I’ve read many questions in this section of SE that discuss unfairness in the community, but my focus is different. Specifically, I’m curious about:

  • Users who have expertise but don’t share that expertise on SE
  • Users who want to ask questions, but don’t ask questions
  • Users who want to answer questions, but don’t answer questions
  • Users who don’t want to contribute, but view only

Given that most of the users in meta care about the success of SE, what do you think is keeping the above users from participating?

[Edited per comment suggestions]

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    Anyone who answers this question is, by definition, is not someone who doesn't contribute. – Servy Oct 9 '14 at 16:26
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    Adding to that - anyone who actually comes to this site, is likely someone who has been contributing already. – Oded Oct 9 '14 at 16:27
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    There's nothing wrong with this question per se -- it's a perfectly reasonable thing to want to investigate -- but asking it here isn't going to get you any results. You've just walked into a town hall meeting in order to find the people in your neighborhood who never leave their houses. Research questions, especially about the site population, are tricky on a Meta site (especially this one) because the people who show up here are not really representative of the populace. – jscs Oct 9 '14 at 18:51
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    Maybe I phrased the question wrong. I'm walking into a townhall meeting of those that care most about the town to ask why people aren't leaving their houses. – Josh Hibschman Oct 9 '14 at 18:53
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    Perhaps so -- your last sentence reads to me as asking if I identify with any of the bullets on your list of users who don't contribute. If I'm here reading this, the answer's all but certainly "No", and I'm not sure what you want from me. – jscs Oct 9 '14 at 18:54
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I'll take a stab at addressing the third category: users who want to answer questions, but don't.

I don't have hard statistics to back this up, just anecdotal observations. I've spent the last three years visiting and reading Meta almost every day and I was a part of the Japanese community for the first two years of beta.

From watching activity especially on the latter site (monthly votes, answers, edits, comments, meta participation, chat, etc.), there very definitely is a group of users that wants to answer questions, but feels they can't, so they try to contribute any other way they can. In discussions with those members, and being one myself, I see three general reasons why these people don't participate more:

There's nothing to answer

Sure, there might be dozens of questions on the front page, but that doesn't mean everybody can answer them. Someone might really want to answer questions, but if the questions being asked are above their skill level or in topics they aren't interested in, they can have a really hard time finding questions to answer.

This is especially apparent on smaller sites that receive less than a dozen questions a day. If I want to be more active on the Board Game Stack Exchange but hate Magic: The Gathering, there are maybe two questions posted each day to choose from.

There's too much competition on answerable questions

Eventually, after a lot of waiting and searching, a question comes along that a user can answer, but five other people may have jumped on it first. On larger sites like Stack Overflow, if you write your own answer, there's a good chance it won't get noticed or get minimal recognition, because there are thousands of questions coming in and most people have moved on. Your answer may eventually come out on top if it's really good, but only if people keep visiting the question, which means answers to obscure or one-off questions can take a lot of investment for potentially no reward.

Even on smaller sites, there's a chance someone has already answered and covered all the main points. If I have nothing major to add, then I won't spend an hour of my time researching and writing up an answer saying essentially the same thing.

The community reaction is negative

This third category only affects a subset of users who think they are being helpful, but then receive a negative response from the community. The response itself may or may not be justified (I personally feel down-voting wrong answers is in the spirit of Stack Exchange), but the way it is carried out isn't always optimal and serves to discourage others from posting.

If your goal is to get these users to participate more, then of the three categories here I think this one is the easiest to address. A rude comment can be worse than no comment at all. Non-hostile constructive criticism usually helps these people contribute better, but only when most of the community feel that is a worthwhile pursuit.

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As a user in that Low Activity category (ok, very low). I'd like to give thoughts here. While I would normally choose to just read and not answer, I felt it was worth noting that some of us are actually reading more things than it may appear.

While I can't speak for others (nor would I want to), I know the reason I tend to do more lurking than actual Q&A is because I feel like I do not have enough expertise in the areas I'm learning to answer questions, and there is a fear that questions may be ridiculed, and answers laughed at. Not that I've seen a lot of evidence of that, but it still makes me a little more weary of answering questions or posing my own.

I imagine everyone has different reasons for why they participate (or don't) in the manner they do. I first come here for the knowledge that is already present and have no need to ask a question, as the questions have already been answered or closely enough that I can figure out a solution of my own. Or as @Troyen mentioned in the previous answer, when I do find a question that I feel I can answer, it's already been answered.

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People can change category from time to time, and go from quite active to pretty much inactive, or the other way around.

I took a break from substantial participation on the SE network for about 2 months this summer. During that time my participation was limited to viewing pages that Google found in searches, some light voting, and perhaps responding to a few comments. In the terms used in the question, I went from "community activist" to "low profile" or "lurker". Or if "shooting stars" include recurring patterns of activity and inactivity then maybe that's the category that applies here.

The reason I took a break was that I was tired of taking out the trash. Or to put it in more technical terms, I was tired of wading through hundreds of terrible posts to vote to close, vote down, or flag. And there were some suggested changes from some moderator(s) that did not sit well with me. I don't remember what it was specifically but generally anything suggested that is going to make it harder for us to take out the trash does not sit well with me.

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I think that this is a valid question to ask, even here. Most people here probably belonged to one of the last three categories for some amount of time, and maybe they can explain why.

Personal Reasons

Just to get it out of the way: For most users, it will be a personal reason that cannot be changed. They don't have the time, energy, knowledge, English skills, confidence, etc. These values can also change over time, which is one of the reason why you have "Shooting stars".

In addition to all the other answers, I would add:

Not finding the right SE site for them

I was a member of stackoverflow for quite some time, but didn't answer a lot of questions, because there where a LOT of questions, it was hard finding the once that I could answer among them, and the feedback was weak. This was quite frustrating.

I still don't answer a lot of stackoverflow questions, but I do answer questions on other sites in the SE network, because I found sites with questions that interest me and that I can answer.

So it would be good to promote all the subsites of the network. The "Hot Network Questions " are a great tool for this, another way to do this is to link to other sites in your answer. For example, on codereview.SE I often link to security.SE answers if they are helpful.

Too controlled environment

I know that this is probably necessary, but the relatively high reputation limits might discourage users. I certainly edit more on sites where my edits do not have to be approved, and if I can see a post in the First Posts queue I'm more likely to improve it, upvote it, answer it, comment on it, etc.

As to your last group of users - Users who don’t want to contribute, but view only - well, if a user just doesn't want to contribute, the probably never will. The answer why they are not more active? They don't want to.

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