In defence of lurking

LurkingSome of you readers out there have been kind of enough to let me know that on occasion you enjoy my missives on this blog – but it seems that I misstepped in last month’s post on ‘Enterprise social networking: Caring, climbing, campaigning’ when, referring to our Yammer experiment here at Reading, I confessed that ‘mostly I lurk’.

If sharing on a personal level (caring), career advancement (climbing), and gathering support for ideas and projects (campaigning) are the main motivations for engaging in a social enterprise network, my admission that I lurk, it has been suggested, amounts to a rejection of the very community that I’m supposed to be a part of – a demonstration that I don’t care, I have no ambition, that I have nothing to say. Well, quite the opposite.

People adopt different participation roles in the workplace. Hierarchies, power dynamics in the room, the number of attendees all play a part in determining whether someone is going to speak up in a meeting or just listen and take notes. This is normal workplace behaviour, and enterprise social networks are no different.

An enterprise social network should be understood as part of our institution’s communication and cultural ecosystem, not an add-on or a standalone entity. The same rules and expectations apply.

Lurking is not the same as inactive membership – it implies presence and absorption, albeit without making that presence felt. It isn’t a behaviour displayed only due to indifference, fear, lack of ambition, or ignorance. Like active listening, lurking is a form of participation in its own right.

The success of any online community hinges on the value that people’s connections and activities bring to those individuals and the community as a whole. Active posters and active lurkers both increase this ‘social capital’. Posters share knowledge on the network, increasing its online social capital, while lurkers absorb and propagate information outside of the network, increasing its offline capital.

Lurking is a successful method of learning the social rules and expectations of a network before posting. Familiarity with the community often leads to eventual active participation in the community.

Lurking, like any kind of research, can help members to do their jobs more effectively, by absorbing useful information from the network – but without investing time and effort in making an active contribution.

Finally, lurking can mitigate the risk of decreasing social capital through information overload. A high ratio of posters to lurkers increases the cost of participation – reading, understanding, sorting through the information can become overwhelming, causing members to derive less value from the network and to engage less as a result.

Lurking only works if a community is thriving and other members are posting meaningful content. We can’t all be lurkers. But lurkers play an invaluable part in helping to optimise a community’s social capital – the currency that attracts new users, increases its value to the community as a whole and the individuals within in, and helps convert unengaged users to active members of the social network.

The best community stewards are those who understand this, and take active steps to set the stage for a meaningful lurking experience. I will say more about this in another blog post. But you can see where I’m going with this: you need us.

Until then, I’ll see you on Yammer. Of course, you won’t see me.

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