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...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Twenty-Five Years of Poetry

It is hard to believe, but I've been writing poetry for over thirty years now. During that time, I have been fortunate enough to have a number of poems published in magazines (for which I am very grateful).

I have also assembled several book-length manuscripts. Unfortunately, my efforts to get a book published have not met with success... Until recently.

My most recent manuscript has been accepted and will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in the Spring of 2016.  I want to thank the staff at the Press and Billy Collins — the series editor who selected the book — for their faith and interest in my manuscript.

In the meantime, I've decided to make some of my earlier work available online:

  • A collaboration with friend and fellow poet, Bill Evans: Rilke's Elegies (1985)
  • A short chapbook of poems:  Catalog (2007) 

There is no definition that can encompass all that poetry is or can be. But if my work can instill in you, as reader, even a fraction of what poetry has meant to me over the years, I will feel that I have succeeded.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

What Happened to Postcards?

I spent much of yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a singularly exhausting experience -- as most museum visits are. (Being a combination of exhilaration and stultification at the same time.)

But what particularly struck me was when we visited the gift store before leaving (I can't resist tacky souvenirs) and there were no postcards for sale.

Yes, they had one small rack of postcards of Egyptian paraphernalia, capitalizing on their current special exhibit of an Egyptian tomb and children's fascination with mummies. (Egypt is to art museums what dinosaurs are to science museums.) There was also a book of postcards depicting paintings by Monet. But there were no small mementos for sale of the individual works that may have struck a chord during your visit.

At first I was confused. But then it occurred to me that there may be a very practical reason why postcards are missing: no one sends physical mail anymore.

Now, this is just supposition. There are a number of different reasons why they may no longer sell postcards: too expensive to produce, take up too much space, need to constantly change stock to keep up with what is on display at any given time... But these conditions are either identical to what they were 20 years ago or easily offset by inflating prices (as they do with the trivets, posters, T-shirts, and other items that are on display).

So I can only assume the market for postcards has itself diminished because people do not send physical mail anymore. Statistics from the US postal service verify this, indicating that personal correspondence via USPS decreased 14% between 2002 and 2008. And the drop off is expected to continue.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that postcards play a role beyond just souvenirs and something to write "wish you were here" on. Postcards, especially postcards from places like museums and zoos that have many different exhibits, serve as mnemonic devices. These mnemonics remind us of the strong emotional experience of seeing the painting, sculpture or whatever. They also act as a surrogate of that experience that we share with those we send the postcards to.

People do not send as much mail because email and other electronic media have replaced the need for physical letters and cards. (As well as being easier, cheaper, and more convenient.) In place of postcards, I could have taken pictures of the paintings I wanted to remember -- which I did in a few instances. But the lighting in museums is hardly conducive to photography. (In some cases, it doesn't even seem very conducive to viewing!)

So what should be done? As much as I enjoy postcards, I recognize it is not practical to argue a return to a form of gifting that never was very practical and is now downright archaic. But it would be a loss to the patrons -- and to the museum -- if there were no form of mnemonic to help visitors retain and relive the pleasure of seeing the art in first person.

If it is not financially viable to stock physical postcards, perhaps they can make it possible to send electronic postcards or custom "picture books" of one's favorite works, whether to yourself or to your friends?

But, surprise surprise. They almost do...

The museum has an searchable online catalog of many of its holdings. The catalog has an expansive advanced search capability. It even lets you send e-cards once you find a specific item. (Yes!)

However, the catalog is only available if you are on the internet, not in the museum itself. (No!) Add to that, the catalog is really designed for those who understand how the catalog works, not the casual user. (For example, the search interface has 12 fields. Enter "Egypt" under culture and search for items on display and nothing shows up. Search for "Egypt" as a keyword and 58 pages of results are returned.)

What would be great would be if there were monitors in each room that let you browse the items available in that room. (No painful searching.) You could select an item and send an e-card in seconds when it strikes you, rather than spending minutes (or more) searching for it later.

Better still, for those with smart phones you could provide a simplified interface that only asks for the asset or accession number. (The accession number appears on the bottom of the placard describing each work of art.)

(Example placard with the accession # 72.2617)

The visitor could quickly call up an item they liked and send e-cards to others or a reminder to themselves on the spot. They could even create an e-book of their favorite works as they proceed through the collection.

In an ideal world, the MFA could put 2D barcodes on the placards so the information could be scanned and retrieved automatically by cellphone. This would be the easiest method technically. However, it would require changes to museum itself (the placards) and a common interface on cell phones -- something available in Japan but still not standard in the US yet.

So sticking with the first two suggestions -- and especially the suggestion for a simplified search available on smart phones -- it would be possible for the MFA to provide a thoroughly innovative and satisfying way for visitors to remember and share their experience with very little change to the existing infrastructure.

Why should the MFA bother? Although this sort of addition would have a cost associated with it, much of the technology already exists in the electronic catalog. Simply by creating a targeted interface -- and promoting the new capability - the museum can deepen the experience for the patron as well as advertise its best qualities through the messages the patrons send.

The word "souvenir" comes from the French for the act of remembering. Postcards are both a souvenir in the sense of a mnemonic device and a vehicle of communication. Their loss may seem minor from a commercial perspective, but they served as a valuable thread connecting the museum experience (quiet, austere, contemplative) with the visitor's regular life (loud, jumbled, exciting and excitable). A thread by which we carry the experience of art from previous generations back into our lives.

Without it, the day at the museum is just that: a day at the museum. But museums have the opportunity to create an even stronger link, electronically. It will be interesting to see if they pick up the challenge.