When we talk about participation in media we often look to the web to find the footprint of activity, but in doing so we can miss the activity of those who tread lightly online, and sometimes they have an interesting story to tell.
Lurking is the activity of being present in an online space but not contributing to it. Sometimes lurkers are anonymous and invisible to those who are active (think web forums that allow guest viewers, or even those who read the comments on blogs but do not leave a comment). In other cases they participate to the point of signing up for a service, and so are visible, but do not contribute new material to the online activity. Lurkers can shift mode at any point, and often reveal themselves as “delurking” (as though calling a radio phone-in “long time listener, first time caller”).
At last week’s workshop one of the breakout groups sought to stratify participation into various levels of engagement, and we spoke up for the lurkers as being participants in this model.
The suggested levels of participation are:
- lurkers – those we can’t see
- distributors – those who share and amplify the content of others through e.g. retweets, link sharing, pinning, bookmarking
- commenters – those who comment on other’s material or organise it through tagging, adding meaning to it
- producers – those who produce original content
- coders – those who build the platforms that allow and put limits upon participation
- analysts – those who reflect upon all of these activities and might feedback into future models of participation (journalists, academics)
So what do these lurkers do, and how can it be considered participation?
We should see lurking as something other than reading, otherwise we should just call the activity reading and see the lurkers as an audience. The word itself sounds slightly sinister – we are encouraged to imagine the lurker skulking in the shadows watching something unfolding. It is the unfolding nature of the media which lurkers engage with that defines their action; lurkers are readers, true, but readers of particular types of media. They are readers of the media around participatory culture.
Lurking is learning is doing
Where do lurkers lurk? They are often found lurking within communities of practice, and these are often spaces of informal learning. As this is David’s project, let’s use a knitting example: online knitting communities are not where knitting happens, they are places where knitting is discussed. The thing that knitters value, the social object that brings them to that space to talk, is not the website, it is the knitting. Lurkers can contribute to the culture of knitting without revealing themselves online through simply doing more knitting, but their engagement with the online activity will inform the knitting that they produce.
A real example now: in my study of Help me Investigate (a participatory platform for investigation) I found that learning from the community was a key benefit to participants. Members described lurking through one investigation and then becoming empowered to delurk and start their own new investigations.
Lurking is advocacy
At the event we heard from one delegate about a woman who had never commented or liked anything on her participatory group’s Facebook page. In offline fora, the same woman was the strongest and loudest advocate for their work. Her practice as a lurker meant she was immersed in the detail of the group’s work and was able to speak for it in offline spaces.
Lurking enables further participation
Another finding from my work with ‘Help me Investigate’ (HMI) was that the lurkers in my case study actually took part in other participatory activities: they were in a sense activated through lurking but deployed deeper participation elsewhere.
My case study was of an investigation which asked ‘When can we expect a new birmingham.gov website?’. Over an eleven-month period to 28th May 2010, thirty-two people joined the investigation’s page at HMI. During that time, the investigators uncovered delays (by more than three years), budget over-spends (the cost of the project increased from £580,000 to £2.8 million) and technical issues at the heart of the project to deliver a new website for Birmingham City Council.
BCC DIY was a spin off from the investigation. It offered a direct challenge to the Council through the production of a citizens’ version of their website. Developed over a few days with free labour, it offered a far more radical challenge to the City Council than the investigation did. Lurkers from the HMI investigation were prominent and active in the BCC DIY intervention, but their activity was not recorded on the HMI website.
Seeking out hidden actions
I have taken to calling participations by lurkers “hidden actions”. The extent of participation by lurkers shouldn’t be underestimated, and as academics we need to be mindful that the thing that happens online is just part of a story. Lurking is not passive; it shows engagement, it hints that something else is happening somewhere. The lurkers are watching us right now. Who knows what they’ll create next?
Some reading on lurking:
Chen, F.-C. (2004) Passive forum behaviors (lurking): a community perspective. Proceedings of the 6th international conference on Learning sciences. Series Passive forum behaviors (lurking): a community perspective; City: International Society of the Learning Sciences. pp. 128-135.
Nielsen, J. (2006) Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute [Online]. Available: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html.
Nonnecke, B. & Preece, J. (2000) Lurker demographics: Counting the silent. CHI 2000. Series Lurker demographics: Counting the silent.; City: ACM.