Thursday, November 02, 2006

Should we frown on lurking?

I understand people’s concern on lurking, “listening” or “browsing”, but I do not think there’s a magic formula to fight this off in a group like VENELT unless we are talking about an online community devoted to education and/or training where participants have to pay a fee, for example. In the former, participation is spontaneous, voluntary. In the latter, it’s kind of compulsory (a closer follow-up of participants can be done by the e-moderator without subjecting them to “police harassment”, to put it some way). But what is this lurking thing that worries people in some virtual communities? Is it really a sort of devil we should get rid of at all coasts or learn to deal with it? Why do some people tend to lurk? Why some people are afraid of it? 

What is it? We can understand lurking as the reluctance to initially participate in an online community or the rare participation in a group, chat, forum, message board, etc. Some refer to lurking as “browsing” and/or “listening” (Salmon, 2005) and even “peripheral participants” (Wenger, 2002). Some people see it as a threat. Some people, on the contrary, see it as a natural part of online communities and should be encouraged while the member gets used to it, feels like participating or overcomes any technical training he may need to actively participate (Salmon, 2005). But why do people lurk? What causes their “silence” in most virtual spaces: chats, message boards, blogs, wikis, Yahoo groups, etc.?  

Why do people lurk? There might be several reasons for lurking:  

1) Let’s start with the sinner. I’m a lurker myself. Well, a type of lurker: a constructive-benign one to call it some way. The reason: I have no time to post messages every day or I think I should know more about issues discussed in the group. I also participate in some other virtual communities. Depending on issues raised I might be an avid participant or a lurker at heart. One of the things that I like from free, virtual communities is that I’m not harassed to participate. Enough with the pressure we have out there: office, home, school, university, etc. 

2) Being a lurker in an e-course is different to being a lurker in a community of practice set up for free, professional discussion. In the former, you paid and expect a score. So you must participate (otherwise you lose your money). The moderator can check the history and contact the lurker when he/she has been somewhat silence. In the latter, the reward is sharing / building up knowledge. The moderator, co-moderators and participants themselves should keep a lively, non-threatening, imposed environment to encourage the active participation of most members. Some will be more active than others. We can not expect total participation from each posting made by members (Some people are quite busy working; others may have no access to Internet easily or are busy writing research papers, you name it).

3) Some other reasons: Lurkers… 
□ may have no time to participate frequently (constructive lurker) 
□ may not find discussion interesting yet and may step in once he/she has something to say. 
□ may have not enough information on the topic (benign lurker) 
□ were recently invited and is exploring the group 
□ have never participated in a group and is getting around 
□ kindly accepted the invitation but have no interest in participating (He or she should unsubscribe, but for some reason they don’t generally do and keep on getting e-mails from the group) 
□ are not used to writing and does not know how to “say” something without hurting someone else’s thoughts (flaming) so he/she rather remains quite. 
□ sometimes have technical problems (That is do not know how to reply, etc) 
□ some browse for some time before participating. 
□ reply only to satirize others’ comments (smart-ass lurker) 
□ reply when he or she feels politically or morally offended to someone’s comment ( malevolent lurker)

For more reasons, check *McDonalds (Let’s get more positive about the term lurker)

Why are people afraid of lurking? I have no idea! If I come across a research on why people feel threatened by this peripheral participation, I’ll let you know. However, I can venture to say that people think lurkers may benefit from getting ideas, info, lesson plans, etc. from posts without contributing at all and even use them without acknowledging the source. This would be quite unethical. Now if they do (acknowledge) I see no problem. If you check **stats on people participation in virtual communities, you’ll see something like: -90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).-9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.-1% of users participates a lot and accounts for most contributions. 

1. Find strategies to encourage people to participate (suggesting activities to do: writing summaries, announcing events, posting interesting quality questions, etc.)  
2. Provide a wide range of topics to discuss that may encourage shy or reluctant members to participate in the group.  
3. The bigger the community, the more lurkers there will be. So tolerance must be the key word. Unless we want to start banishing or harassing people in the community. This, I think, is counterproductive!  
4. Your suggestion.
Reference Salmon, Gilly (2004). E-moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London: 

Taylor & Francis. Wenger,E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practiceA guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press

* “Let's get more positive about the term 'lurker'  

“In face-to-face or team settings, “lurking” or sidebar conversations are discouraged but successful online communities build benches for them. There is an ebb and flow with core members drifting to the sidelines as topics change. Peripheral members drift into the center as their interests are stirred. Successful communities create “fires” in the center to invite involvement.”
McDermott, R. Building Spontaneity Into Strategic Communities
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