Just lurking for now

One strand in the sleave of lrnchat topics a few weeks ago was the lurker, who hangs around a discussion but doesn’t take part.

I’ve engaged in online discussions since 1984. “Lurker” as a term often has a negative connotation; highly active participants seem to regard lurkers as unreasonably shy, terminally silent, or possibly parasitic.

Geeze.  Lighten up.

I’ve done more than my share of lurking, although as I said in the #lrnchat discussion, “I don’t lurk so much as lollygag.”

The real topic on #lrnchat was how internal social networks affect the performance of an organization, and what people can do to further that impact. A lot of the conversation centered microblogging, wikis, and other tools that can foster collaboration and cooperation.

Harold Jarche makes a useful distinction between those two terms: you collaborate with others via plans and structures; you cooperate via freely-chosen connections. Especially for people who work in (or with) organizations, both have their role.

Lurking’s actually not a bad way to get to know a new group. Outward-focused chatty early adopters might disagree, but some of us like (or have learned) to look around first. We’re seeing how the locals do things. We’re working out some of the modes of engagement.

(And, yes, we just may be noticing who talks too much about too little–you longtimers have that nailed; we’re just coming up to speed.)

As the #lrnchat discussion flowed, more than one person cited the value of someone showing you what he or she gets out of social networks. If you know a person who seems reasonably sane yet uses Twitter, you’re probably more open to hearing why, and to asking about the benefits that person sees.

Lurking shouldn't jar you.Someone prone to lurking could read the #lrnchat transcript, maybe find a few voices of reason, and start following those people–on Twitter, or through whatever link they have in their Twitter profile (LinkedIn, Facebook, a blog, a website).

If you’re prone to encourage active participation by lurkers, good for you–just don’t turn that encouragement into nagging.  If on the other hand you’re prone to lengthy lurking, I think there’s genuine value to Hellmanism, a philosophy of interpersonal behavior found on jars of mayonnaise:

Keep cool but don’t freeze.

CC-licensed image of mayo jars adapted from a photo by clango.

13 thoughts on “Just lurking for now

  1. One of my pet peeves is the longstanding lurker. I have been to countless meetings where certain individuals sit never to contribute. Week after week they attend, giving nothing. Its one thing to sit and learn the groundrules of a new team. It is quite another to come and take without giving. Its one thing to not want to jump into a group. Its quite another thing to not support your colleagues. Collaboration or cooperation, participation is mandatory. You can take time to get warmed up, but eventually you need to give it a go otherwise simply go.

  2. Katy:

    I’ve also had frustration with people who hold back and never seem to get into the water (or the stream of things). When I was writing this post, though, I had in mind virtual communities like the old TRDEV-L list with its thousands of subscribers but only a hundred or so who contributed as often as once a month.

    I can also think of forums in which I have very little to offer–tech support groups for a specific piece of hardware or set of software, for instance. I can do my part by asking intelligent questions and summarizing what I’ve tried–in part because observation has taught me few things are as frustrating as the newcomer who says, “This thing doesn’t work” without giving a little more context.


    You and I are in agreement on this point. My main caution for the always-on, always-talking types is to remember that not everyone has (or ought to have) the same approach.

  3. I continue to gain from social network interaction at @lrnchat and other sources such as webinars. Since I was downsized earlier this year social media provides a continuing source of expertise as-well-as a benchmark of current opinion and practice. By avoiding lurking I have questions answered and my thoughts/opinions validated or criticized. From this I continue to learn. However, lurking is valuable if one is new to a discussion topic or simply wants to understand the group or topic.

  4. I’m a longstanding lurker. One of the things that surprised me about online communities was that I’m just as shy there as in ‘real life’. (ie too much in the beginning and not enough later on. . .)

    I’m okay with people criticising lurkers – as long as they do their best to welcome people when they do try to contribute. Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice emphasises this. For the community to function, new members need a mentor.

    Too often, communities fail to see the difference between convention and constitution – if a rule is unspoken, it’s convention. You can’t expect people to guess right all the time.

    I suppose there’s also a cultural thing going on here. It’s more ‘British’ to wait to be asked to participate by the ‘people in charge’. And British people are bafflingly reticent when it comes to offering help, lest they appear condescending.

    As an example of this, you see blind people struggling through tube stations in London all the time and few people offer to help. (As you can imagine, the tube is a scary place for of bustle and echo.) Once I saw a North American woman literally grab a blind man and escort him to the exit, but not without first glaring at the useless Brits.

    Next time I saw a blind man, I approached and asked if he’d like a companion. I ended up walking him to his house and he turned out to be a fascinating chap. I asked him if he felt patronised when people offered help – his response would set off your spiced-ham-and-pork filters immediately (summary: NO).

    Anyhoo. Lurkers have a counterpart – the unwelcoming ‘prove that your worthy’ crowd. And us Brits find you North Americans, with your oversharing and all-too-quick friendship, slightly confusing at times.

  5. Simon:

    I like the definition of culture as “the way we do things — especially when we don’t think about the way we do things.” In my experience, “the Brits” and “you North Americans” as concepts are a smidge simplistic, like the notion of beret-wearing, cheese-eating, accordion-listening, Gaulois-smoking French people. I think the reality is that each of us belongs to a tapestry of cultures, and we tend to adopt the coloring of the one we perceive around us at the time.

    Thus all the face-the-door folks in an elevator, and the relative elasticity with which we adopt or slough off regional accents (not the whole thing, but a tendency). Deep down, for example, I know a certain glass container is really a pop bottle, though after 30 years on the east coast I’m resigned to the notion of “soda.” I did spend time in Maine, though, and enjoy knowing that here and there in the Pine Tree state the carbonate drink is “tonic,” even if manufactured by Coca-Cola.

  6. As I read Simon’s post I was reminded of my time in France when someone kindly taught me the necessary table manners. The direction the knife points (blade always IN), how the host tastes his own wine first. All of these conventions are to help pacify individuals that they will not be killed at the dinner table. I was thinking that social communities, on line or in person have not evolved much since then. We enter the foray –some brazenly at the offense. Some more guarded at the defense. It was so much better to be sitting around the edges of the colloseum than engaging in the middle :-) No?

  7. Hey Dave, which online boards were you lurking in during 1984? Just curious since the Web really only opened to public use in the early 90s. Gov’t ? Desktops didn’t hit desks until the early 80’s. Anyway, lurkers are OK, they may pollinate other discussions or projects, etc. I don’t think there needs to be any rules on how one uses their personal computer or the Internet. Let freedom ring!

  8. @Katy: your comment reminded me of a few videos someone with autism has made about why she doesn’t (perhaps CAN’T) participate in meetings. Specifically this post: http://aspergersquare8.blogspot.com/2009/12/important-meeting.html
    Language processing was a hard thing for me to understand, I am from a very big family, my mind multi-processes on several threads at the same time. I didn’t really start understanding that not everyone does this until my daughter (who is on the spectrum) was old and well enough to start explaining it to me.

    I don’t think lurkers don’t give back. They just don’t give back in real time. I see this in online communities alot. People who won’t (for many reasons) do anything but lurk w/i a certain community share information (and the community connection) with their own small world connections outside that community. Others blog or post in other areas after they have had time to process the information, and reformat it in a way that makes sense for them.

    Maybe we can re-define the idea of active participation, and include these outside activities in that definition. It makes it harder for a community manager, but it widens the scope of what a social network really is…it is also a bit more inclusive I think.

  9. Frank, I worked for the division of GE that introduced GEnie, complete with discussion boards, chat rooms, and instant messages. I was in the alpha test before the commercial release in 1985.

    At the risk of sounding like I walked ten miles to school and back, uphill each way, I once connected to GEnie with a TeleVideo 950 and an acoustic coupler modem.

  10. Dave, you are truly a Digital Pioneer then. I thought I was old because I used to code COBOL and keypunch cards and feed them into the hopper on a mainframe. Nobody even remembers MultiPlan, which was the first spreadsheet that I used on a PC, but even then it was a standalone app. It was pretty darn good even in the early 80’s. I guess those of us that got onto the Web in the early 90’s owe a lot to you guys. Cheers.

  11. Frank, not many people owe much to me; I just happened to be in a particular place at a particular time. And I can’t code at all, though Head First HTML has helped me customize the style sheet here at the Whiteboard. I created the first job aids for some of GEIS’s end-user products, including GEnie.

    You want to talk to the guy who used to have a few yards of punched paper tape in his office, a souvenir of the input he used back when GE still made computer equipment.

  12. Dave

    You’re, of course, right about the simplistic nature of national stereotypes. For what it’s worth, I consider myself about 20% Canadian, 10% Japanese, 15% New York and the rest mongrel Brit – I took it as a compliment when I got a Twitter DM expressing surprise that I wasn’t North American.

    And, you’ve seen this map right? http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/308-the-pop-vs-soda-map/

    I love this comment thread, especially the contribution from @gminks – a wonderful comment.

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