Love the Lurkers

A couple days ago I had a BIG conversation with Bill Mills, the Community Manager for Mozilla Science Lab, about open learning, designing for participation, online engagement, collaboration, inspiration and a bunch of other metaphysical ideas that I often create practical implementations for. During our conversation, Bill asked if I had any advice for designing learning experiences that can engage and activate the far ends of the introvert / extrovert spectrum, and I said something along the lines of “The extroverts are easy, and the introverts just need time.”

Later, I was mulling this over and thinking about how hard it is for an outgoing person such as myself to understand people who are shy or don’t participate the way I do. I was thinking about why in our online spaces we have so many people lurking and so few participating. Why don’t more people contribute?

Then I got an email from a blog I follow, and I realized I’m a lurker too. For almost two years, I’ve been lurking around a community that I quite admire. I’ve never said hello, never reached out, never participated in the challenges, or submitted a comment. I’ve not gone to any of their events. But I read what they’re talking about, and I try out their ideas. My life has, without a doubt, changed for the better since I started lurking in this particular community. And no one on Earth knows it, except for me (and you, kind of, though you don’t know what community I’m talking about or the topics they care about).

That website, and the people who participate there, have done a fine job of designing for participation. They have made me feel welcome, I feel like I know people there, I trust those people to a certain extent. I wonder what they’re up to when I haven’t been around in a while. So why don’t I say hello? Why don’t I say “Hey guys, you’re a cool community, thanks for the things you’ve put out in the world. It’s helped me,”?

Simple: I don’t feel like I need to.

I have a global community I like, the Open Community is where I choose to spend my time interacting online. I have the issues that I want to discuss in the open, and the themes of this other place I lurk around aren’t things I feel like I need to discuss. But I’m growing, I’m a better person, I support what they’re doing over there.

We can’t force people to participate, and if we really care about educating people, we shouldn’t try. We should build and design for the people who are participating, and we should be careful to ensure that the lurkers feel welcome. We should create safe spaces of learning and mentorship where even those who don’t complete the call to action still start to develop trust in us, in our products. The fact is you are always a lurker before you participate, so we should be careful not to push people away by implying that they don’t count if they aren’t like us. If we work to love our lurkers, maybe some of them will find their reason to participate.

Love the Lurkers

7 thoughts on “Love the Lurkers

  1. Chris brown says:

    What’s your angle? What is it that’s going down in cyberspace that’s important for me to take hours out of my day to navigate to? Like minded people, ideas? Products I should purchase? That’s my question In a round about way.

    1. Laura Hilliger says:

      I think the web is human knowledge documented. I don’t think it’s about taking hours of your every day to explore, necessarily, but rather caring about what this connection means for us as a species. I think the web enables us to be better versions of ourselves because it can connect us to people and information that expand our perceptions.

  2. Lurkers to me are mythical entities like Sasquatch; I do not believe in their existence. What you described is really to where you are on spectrum of participation level. The thing is we associate participating as doing visibly present things, whereas there are so many ways to participate now that do not involve being the noisy person in the forum (curating content, favoriting, sharing your experience with someone not in the community, just reading and absorbing ideas).

    It’s not a very useful or accurate term and I just wish we let the use it die a gentle and peaceful death. It suggests an expectation of participation level that is not overtly stated.

    Keep on lorking or larking or lerking or….

  3. +1 Laura!, and thanks for chatting the other day!

    All I’ll add is that I think it’s key for people participating in content development to build for every learning style – conversation, experimentation, reading, demonstration, more – to serve that whole space. I for one am secretly a REPL loop (text in, text out) – ‘lurking’ for me just means reading and considering carefully. I think our communities can accommodate this and all learning styles with the mindfulness you describe. A lofty goal, but we like lofty goals :)

  4. Thank you for posting these thoughts. I have been a “lurker” as well, and have come to appreciate the value I find in it. I love how Alan has banned the word – I take it he means that people who read and don’t post are NOT lurkers, they’re also learners. I think I’ll take his advice and stop using it in the future.

    Regarding reading and not visibly engaging, I also have to think about the value of reading but not contributing in my online courses. What business have I to say that people who post comments are “participating” more than people who do not? I position commenting requirements as students’ contributions to group learning, but I’m still “counting” posts when I award points. Hate it. Need to change it. But students seem to want it. And the class really needs for everyone to contribute so that multiple ideas and perspectives enrich the learning experience for all. Sigh. I’m hoping the Connected Courses discussions will give me additional ideas on how to encourage contributions in formal courses.

    I’m glad to have met you. The work you are doing over at Webmakers looks really interesting, and I had not known of it before now. I’ll be lurking – er – quietly learning – in that community in the near future.

    1. Laura Hilliger says:

      I’m going to stop using the word “lurker” too. Looking forward to hearing how you innovate in your online learning initiatives and having you hanging around the Webmaker community :)

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