Friday, February 26, 2010

Lurking, a Personal Story

I belong to several professional communities, mostly online email discussion lists. I sometimes participate in the conversations. But mostly, I lurk.

It is not that I am a novice (I've been at my profession -- or professions -- for a number of years). It's not that I don't have anything to say. In fact, quite the opposite.

I was reminded of this recently when a discussion came up about communities and incentives. I've worked in KM for ten years or more. I've also witnessed a number of incentive programs, both successful and not so. So I have no lack of opinions and experiential knowledge I could share.

But I haven't said much. Why? Because these topics, communities and incentives, are areas of contention in the field of KM. What are they? How are they best employed? Do incentives help or hurt? There has already been plenty of space and time spent arguing both sides.

So I try to pick my words carefully. I even started a blog post on the topic to try and organize my thoughts. However, while I picked and edited, others chimed in with their opinions, advice, and war stories and the conversation quickly moved on, diverging into several related threads.

Each time someone else adds to the discussion, there is something new I feel I need to refute, promote, analyze or otherwise respond to.

In the end I don't respond at all.

That, in and of itself, is not interesting. But what may be interesting is what was going on in the background.

I am not just lurking, I am also implicitly deferring to the others who are responding. Note, I don't agree with them all. And there is a certain level of angst at not responding to the comments I disagree with. Because I am emotionally involved in the topic of the conversation. But either because of the number of interrelated concepts being bandied about or the speed of the conversation, I do not feel comfortable joining in.

As a consequence, at least to some small degree, I feel distanced from the community as a whole. And therefore lurk some more.

This is a cyclic event. I've noticed myself do this time and again in more than one environment. I lurk, I sometimes feel better about the community, sometimes worse. Then something will spur me to respond. I'll actively participate for awhile, then go back to lurking.

There are a number of different reasons I don't chime in:

  • I agree with what's being said and don't feel like piling on (or distracting from the points already made)
  • I disagree with what is being said but don't want to get into a pissing contest about it.
  • I disagree with what is being said but can't get my thoughts in order enough to make a cogent argument before the conversation moves on.
  • I disagree with what is being said, but it is such a minor aspect of the overall conversation that I feel arguing it would be an unnecessary quibble.

There are probably others, but those are just some that come to mind. But more importantly, there are times I do chime in. And those times seem to fall into three categories:

  • Someone is asking for assistance and -- before anyone else responds -- I feel I have something unique or clear to offer.
  • Someone is asking for assistance and -- although I may not feel uniquely qualified -- no one else responds in a reasonable time frame (anywhere from a few hours to a day or so), so I feel my response will be of use.
  • Something is said I disgree with so much, my eagerness to correct it overcomes any of my inhibitions about going off-topic or raising an argument.

What really struck me was the last cause. It really goes against the common beliefs about communities.

We (KM consultants and practitioners) tend to discuss lurking as a static state. We talk about communities being made up of 10% core contributors and 90% lurkers, as if these are permanent labels you can apply to individuals. And one of the key goals of incentives is to convince members to "cross over", stop lurking and become active contributors.

To be fair, incentives can help. Just as taking new arrivals at a party around and introducing them to those already there can help get them to join in. Incentives done properly can help new members "break the ice".

However, this concept of lurking as a static state is so widespread, community members themselves often adopt it and feel compelled to confess their status. At least once a month I read a post starting something like "Hi. I'm normally a lurker in this forum, but..."

The fact is, lurking is not a static state, it is highly dynamic. The cast of active participants changes over time as people flip between lurking and leading. At the same time, lurkers are often paying close attention to what is going on, are emotionally responding to events and -- moment to moment -- adjusting their attitude towards the community based on what is said. They agree, they disagree, they get angry, insulted, surprised, or even flattered (when they feel they or their subgroup have been mentioned positively) all without breaking out of their silence.

And, in opposition to common belief, it is not an improved attitude toward the community that is needed to get them to join in. Often it can be displeasure or disagreement that instigates a need to speak. Of course, how their contributions are received (they don't have to be agreed with, but at least considered and respected) impacts their likelihood to contribute again.

The real difficulty for community facilitators is that this dynamic, changeable, but silent lurking makes it hard to measure the actual "health" of the community as a whole. The volume of discourse may remain high. But as with any voluntary endeavour, people can "vote with their feet". But for online communities, you can't "see" lurkers who choose to tune out. And it isn't until the conversation starts to dwindle (because there are no lurkers left to chime in or pinch hit when an active participant drops out) that you realize there is a problem.

I can't say I have much to offer in terms of positive techniques for counteracting this situation. But I believe that having a more realistic understanding of the dynamics of lurking may help us address the needs of communities we watch over in a less back and white fashion.

To start with, it is important not to stigmatize lurking. Everyone does it sometimes and lurking doesn't mean you aren't emotionally involved. Accepting lurking as a normal stage in a cycle may help make the distinction between active and passive particition less daunting to new members.

And, of course, finding a way to gauge the involvement or commitment of lurkers could go a long way to understanding the actual health of the community as a whole. How to do this is still a challenge that has no clear answer...


Nancy White said...

Fabulous post/reflection, Andrew, which highlights the important nuances and power of lurking! Thanks.

Stan Garfield said...

Thanks for your fine post, Andrew. It makes an important point about the value of lurking.

I assume that most people who stay subscribed to a community discussion board are usually paying attention to what is being discussed. They can benefit from doing so, even if they post infrequently (or never).