Let’s hear it for the lurkers!

Lurkers – those people who hang around in forums and other online places, saying nothing but seeing everything – have a pretty poor reputation. They are generally viewed as takers rather than givers. But, as a part-time lurker myself, I think lurking has much to recommend it, and is not all bad for everyone else.

Thinking but not speaking can be good! Photo by Jacob Bøtter http://www.flickr.com/photos/jakecaptive/I have always adhered to the rule, don’t say anything in meetings until you’ve been in your new job at least six weeks. Waiting gives you time to see the lie of the land, what issues have been discussed and recommendations made, and who’s who. In an online forum, waiting gives you time to get the “tone” of the group. It also gives you time to read through recent discussions. So lurking is definitely good for the lurker, at least for a while.

Biding one’s time is also good for the rest of the forum members. It is tedious to have to read through postings by someone who has just joined and decided to plunge in feet first, making some point that someone else made two days ago in the same discussion thread! From this point of view I think it should be a default setting that new forum members can read, but not post, for a few days!

On a purely pragmatic level, why would anyone think most people would not be lurkers? Once you are aware of the 1% rule, the issue changes from noting that there are lurkers, to calculating what proportion of forum members are lurkers. If it is greater than 99%, it ought to be looked into. If it is significantly less then things are looking good.

And still on a pragmatic level, it would be really quite dreadful, I think, if most people felt obliged to contribute to most discussions most of the time. As I said in 10 Obligations of Bloggers, quoting Salvator Rosa, it is better to:

“Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence.”

This has, I think, implications for how we measure students’ contributions to forms and wikis. Quite often this is done in a quantitative way. That makes it easy to automate, but I’d argue that the quality of someone’s contributions is more important than how many times they voice their opinion.

Lurkers also provide the important function of being an audience. A silent audience, maybe, but an audience nonetheless. It is somewhat soul-destroying to write in a vacuum or speak in a void: having a silent audience is not the same as being alone!

Finally, lurkers may not say much at the time, but they may well disseminate ideas, resources and arguments they pick up in the forum.

Ideally, of course, lurkers will become non-lurkers for at least some of the time. Having sat and listened, and formed some opinions or had some insights, I do feel there is a moral obligation to share them with the rest of us.

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