Understanding lurkers

There have been some great points made in the discussion that some have engaged in about ‘lurking’. One of the big problems with this discussion is that it is not representative of the group which is being discussed. How can we hear the voice of people who prefer to ‘observe/read’ rather than ‘talk/interact’? As Carmen asked in a comment on my blog post –

Does the very notion and language implications of “lurking” contain such enormous presuppositions that any research or commentary about it (including my own) is problematic, misleading or moot?

Stephen Downes entered the fray at one point, with a fascinating observation –

And don’t think it isn’t participation – think of it as being akin to the role of scrutineer. My very act of watching has an impact (the desired impact) on the outcome of the proceedings.

This is in line with the Gulati research that Rita writes about on her site:

‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 51).

Rita also points to further work by Gulati which suggests that – self-directed learners will fall into the lurking category, and Carmen’s views are along similar lines –

I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (comment on blog post)

but Eva Birger (comment on blog post) suggests that lurking leads to a lesser learning experience

An active participant is creating history, a lurker may only nibble at it. More over a lurker has unresolved questions, whereas the active participant can be proud, knowing what a PLE or a PLM is – and in the best case found a PLN. (Here she is talking about learning in PLENK2010)

Another point that has really struck me is this one made by Jakob Nielsen in his blogpost Participation Inequality: Encouraging more users to contribute – where he writes that:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action

but for me more significantly he makes the point:

The problem is that the overall system is not representative of average Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from.

So what are the issues and why might it be worthwhile to find out more about lurkers? Here are some thoughts –

1.       If open courses – particularly open courses with no associated assessment or accreditation – are to become a route by which increasing numbers of people choose to learn, then course designers and facilitators will need to have clear in their own minds their expectations of participation and be able to justify their stance, which means knowing more about ‘lurkers’ and understanding why 90% of course members might choose to lurk.

2.       But what do we mean by participation? I notice that Rita talks about active participation. Is this different to just participation – and when does participation become non-participation?

3.       Stephen Downes has claimed that the very act of watching has an impact on the course. I have heard this argument before – but how does this happen and how does it affect the active participants?

4.       Perhaps the main issue lies around Jakob Nielsen’s comment about representation. For me it’s quite a thought that the ideas and learning of 90% of course members will not – from their own choosing – be represented. Perhaps this is one way in which they have an impact on a course. What effect does their ‘lurking’ have on the value of what is being learned in open courses by those who do actively post and interact?

5.       How will we ever be able to find out more about how the 90% of people who choose to ‘lurk’ learn, when they are the very people who are unlikely to step forward and tell us what they think?

I’ll be really interested to read the research findings from Rita and Helene’s surveys – but also feel like Carmen that there is scope for a more in depth ethnographic study on the lines of the one carried out by Keith Lyons on participation in sport (thanks to Carmen for pointing me to Keith’s blog post and to Keith for his post).

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