In defense of lurking

A couple of days ago George Siemens made a post to his Elearnspace blog in which he strongly criticised lurkers as follows:

Creation, collaboration, and sharing are the true value points of a PLN. It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding.

What George has written seems to me to be a complete contradiction of what I perceive open learning networks or courses to be all about. Stephen Downes has outlined the principles of learning in networks as being openness, connectivity, diversity and autonomy. For me, autonomy lies at the heart of how this works, and has been central to the success of the open courses I have so far attended (PLENK, CCKO8 and CritLit). In other words, a key principle is that we have the choice of how connected, open, interactive or participative we want to be. We can therefore choose to lurk. Actually, I dislike that derogatory term ‘lurking’ and prefer to recognise that in any course, online or f2f, we will have active participants, but also those whose learning preference is to ‘read’ or ‘observe’.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state.

My question here would be what is wrong with that? PLN (personal learning network) is by its very name just that – personal. It is not for George Siemens or anyone else to tell me what being connected means in relation to my personal learning.


Not so, or no more so than in collaborative creation and contribution. And just to remember here that Stephen Downes famously said at the ALT conference in 2005 that ‘Collaboration is the joining together of things that do not naturally want to be joined’. So there are two points here. First is that George’s rant against ‘lurking’ is an example of the ‘Tyranny of Participation’, written about by Ferreday and Hodgson and cited by me in a number of posts. Second is that there is no evidence that ‘lurking=taking’. By its very nature we do not know what ‘lurkers’ are doing. They are not present and therefore we have no evidence with which to judge them in this way. The responses to George’s post list many reasons why people might be perceived as ‘lurkers’. From my own experience of working as a tutor on international online courses, I know that participants may not be present for a whole host of reasons including access difficulties, technology difficulties, illness, significant family or work disruptions/distractions and so on. The best they can do in these circumstances is to read or observe. I also know that whilst these people may not be connected and contributing to my course, they are often heavily engaged elsewhere. It is not for me to make judgments about where their priorities lie. They have the autonomy to decide that for themselves.

The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative.

To throw out a comment like this about a well established theory of learning, without any further explanation is not helpful. My interpretation from reading Wenger’s work is that legitimate peripheral participation is about the development of competency and identity within a learning community and the learning trajectories that people follow to achieve this within a social learning situation. It acknowledges that when people join a community (or, I would suggest, even a network), they join at the edge and gradually develop their identity within it. In addition Etienne Wenger’s more recent work has a lot to say about learning on the boundaries of communities. At a recent conference he suggested that this is where there can be the most powerful learning experiences, where people at the edge straddle the boundaries between different communities and can feed information/learning back and forth across these boundaries. This relates also to Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak ties and suggests that far from being negative, legitimate peripheral participation can have positive consequences.

Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. (my bold)

Finally, although I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I do not think ‘should’ is a helpful word in relation to learning. Learning in any environment, network, community, course, classroom, is ideally about negotiation and learner empowerment. This also means allowing people to choose whether and when to interact with other learners, whether to read and observe (lurk) rather than be actively interactive and to decide for themselves what connectivity means to them personally.

10 thoughts on “In defense of lurking

  1. emapey December 4, 2010 / 5:37 pm

    Hi Jenny. I don’t like lurkers myself but I often only lurk and I do learn!! It’s their/our choice = autonomy, one of Stephen Downes Principles of Connectivism.

    But how do you assess their participation in Connectivist Courses??


  2. Rita Kop December 4, 2010 / 7:06 pm

    Hi Jenny, that’s a great post. You are spot on with your assessment of lurking. The PLENK focus group of ‘lurkers’ highlighted their activity in different ways than by producing on the course: they actively aggregated, they actively read, reflected and conceptualized, they actively shared with other people on their network (which might not be the PLENK network). Where they were not so active was by producing so others on the course might have learnt from them.

    Of course there is a plethora of reasons why people din’t do this: lack of confidence in sight of lots of knowledgeable people, being very autonomous learners, who do not need to participate in the activity that George liked them to participate in. To me it seems a little short-sighted not to understand that people are different in this respect. An interesting read would be ‘Social Cognitive Theory in Cultural Context’ that Albert Bandura wrote in 2002, which explains also how the cultural context of people might explain their non-active participation

  3. jennymackness December 5, 2010 / 7:09 am

    Hi Rita – thanks for your visit and comment – and for the reference which I will follow up with a bit more time.


  4. jennymackness December 5, 2010 / 7:10 am

    Hello Eduardo – thanks for your interesting question – the assessment of lurker’s participation in connectivism courses. Rather than respond immediately, I would like to take a day or two to think about this – but I will be back 🙂


  5. Linn December 5, 2010 / 10:11 am

    Hi Jenny. I found your blog right now, long after the PLENK course ended. How is it possible? I will now follow, but as you can see 😉 I am not lurking since I also leave a comment..Take care

  6. chris saeger December 5, 2010 / 2:45 pm

    I agree with you completely. PLENK was supposed to be an open experience. Suddenly there were rules about participating. I participated at the outset but found myself in the minority as a person from an organizational training world. Frankly I gave up participating but continued to read.

    If I go to the library and read a book am I a lurker? Do I have to write a note in the book or underline some text in it to use the library?

  7. Heli Nurmi December 5, 2010 / 3:56 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    you participate very actively now, George must be happy:)
    If I understood his post right, he talked more Pro Networking and not so much against Lurking. And it is only his opinion after facilitating so many courses..

    I am pondering about these all MOOCs, what are we doing there? Only opinions? agree or disagree, like or not like? What is the expertise we are training in MOOCs?

    I liked a link Nicola Avery gave about Kraut: identity-based or bond-based commitment, see my blog
    Why to participate? is the question:
    Of course it must be free, no norms allowed,
    but to find one’s way… is not easy or simple

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