Let’s start with Wikipedia’s definition of “lurker” which comes from “Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior” by Vanessa PazDennen
In Internet culture, a lurker is typically a member of an online community or PLN who observes, but does not participate.
By that definition, there are virtually no lurkers in any corner of the Internet. Excellent, all done here. Time to wrap it up and get some sleep.
But that’s not exactly an honest definition, is it? It would be more helpful to think of lurkers as non creators rather than non participants, because it’s very, very difficult to find people who simply don’t participate in the online communities they belong to. You might say, “but you’re trying to disprove a negative with a guess,” and I guess you’re kind of correct, but the most important word in the definition above is “participate”.
“Lurk” is also a very pejorative word, and studying the origin of the word, its etymology, it’s not difficult to see why:
to hide, lie hidden, to sneak away, to frown, move about secretly, escape observation
Those aren’t very complimentary words (though they’re complementary). You don’t want to be thought of a lurker, online or offline. I would prefer to use a less negative word or phrase for someone who isn’t a creator, and hopefully you’ll think of non-creators more generously by the end of this post.
Taking a step away from the negative, yet not out of negative territory, let’s try “consumer”
one that consumes: such as one that utilizes economic goods
All of us are consumers, and we consume a lot: food, air, water, other people’s time, information, etc. Consumption isn’t a bad thing, or we’re all bad (That’s a unnecessary theological and philosophical discussion that’s too far afield for this post.). When we utilize a resource like a web page, we’re not destroying it, it’s still there for anyone in the world with a Web browser to also “consume” it. Clearly, there are many things we consume which we don’t destroy.
I understand the desire, even the necessity, to create analogies we can understand in physical terms when we have a dim understanding of an abstract idea, let alone an abstract idea about an abstract world like the Internet, but I think we’ve evolved to the point where we can leave some of those analogies behind and use more precise language. “Consuming” and “lurking” both have strong connections to the physical world, (eg consuming food and spying on someone, respectively); they’re mainly things people do with their bodies. What we do digitally, we do mainly with our minds.
Those who are part of a community and don’thelp to create are, most passively, “observers” (“voyeurs” if you’d like to be a bit negative or salacious). However, I don’t think there are a lot of mere observers, especially in PLNs, because if you actually want to get something from that community, you want to learn, so you’re reading, which is more mentally active than observing. Even as an observer, you’re very likely to express your interest or opinion by “upvoting” or “downvoting” content, to use Reddit‘s terms for expressing agreement, appreciation, or approval. This is participation on the most basic level, but it is participation, and I argue that the simple “like” or “upvote” is not insignificant. I’m going to guess that community members who at least meet this threshold fall under the Pareto’s principle, where 80% of the activity is done by 20% of the group. The other 80% may never contribute for any variety of reasons.
Sufficient numbers of votes, positive or negative, serve as very clear signals to the content creator of how people feel about what s/he created. If these votes aren’t important, why do they exist besides helping computers sort by “most liked” or something similar. Twitter users have a similar system (minus the downvotes, no pun intended), and those who post OC or comments certain pay attention to their upvotes. Absence of votes or of positive votes is a pretty clear signal as well, and posts with few if any positive votes fall out of site when it comes to sorting algorithms. Contributors do try to accumulate points, or karma (again, Reddit’s parlance).
The best way to gain karma is to submit posts that other people find valuable and interesting. Also comment. Being on-topic, relevant, funny, interesting, or engaging are great ways to earn comment karma. Being insulting, rude, or abusive is not. Snark can go either way.
Re-posting, re-tweeting, sharing, whatever you’d like to call it, is a step up from hitting the like button, and is something I’m particularly fond of. I’m a news junkie and with my background in journalism, I consider myself a news curator, sharing interesting and informative stories from trustworthy sources (which definitely matters these days), even when those stories conflict with my worldview and the worldview my friends, many of whom are relatively liberal, at least compared to most Americans.
Commenting on other people’s posts is another step up the creation ladder, and in some cases, comments may rise to the level of creation if a comment adds something to the topic or starts a conversation, even if the comment doesn’t add any new content. I would like to think commenting and sharing/re-posting is a way to be a part of the 9% of contributors (as opposed to creators), and that active and positive contributors are a vital to the health and longevity of any community.
Posting original content, whether text or other media is one of the pinnacles of creation. I don’t post OC every day on Facebook, or any other social media site. Sometimes, I wish that I did, but I don’t want to post for the sake of making a daily post unless it’s something worthwhile. It doesn’t need to be something brilliant or beautiful, but it has to be something more than cataloging what I ate, sharing a snarky thought, or thinking out loud. I don’t have much of an audience yet, but even with the small number I do have, I don’t want to waste their time with piffle.
Creating is wonderful, vital, and important. I do think everyone needs to create and contribute in some way at some point, if only for their own sake, but they may not. It’s easy to imagine that only 1% of an online community may actually be creators of OC. In an environment and time when creating is entirely voluntary, posting OC will be at the poster’s pace. It’s different when it’s mandatory, such as when you take a course (ahem) or you have to do it as part of your job. You obviously have to post on some sort of schedule, if not everyday or even several times a day. But it’s very strenuous to continually post and not to consume, you need downtime, you need to fuel your posts with something, and we’re not plants, we don’t create our own energy from the sun. We create new content by consuming and digesting other people’s content. I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite and use a very physical analogy to describe why I think “lurking” is not only okay, but actually critical for us as learners. As the great weightlifting coach Mark Rippetoe wrote in an article titled “Recovery and Growth” (2013):
…you don’t get big and strong from lifting weights – you get big and strong by recovering from lifting weights. And this entails more sleep and more food than the vast majority of you people seem to understand.
Without much twisting or torturing, I think it’s easy to imagine food and sleep in Rippetoe’s example of muscle growth as information consumption and contemplation in our own process. Without them, we can’t grow and we aren’t really ready to exhibit what we’re really capable of.
So creation is an act of performance, design, conjecture, and authorship, but everything that led up to that was critical to the act of creating. Looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy, all of the other steps leading up to creation (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating) involve actively thinking without actually creating anything. Without all of those steps, without the rest Rippetoe insists is important, and the mental rumination over what you’ve consumed, you wouldn’t really be creating, you’d be producing content that would stop short of true creation.
A few of the steps lower in the taxonomy can certainly include posting content, like reviews (analyzing/evaluating), but in the pedagogical sense, creation is original, and it’s something you build up to. It would be inappropriate and possibly irresponsible to skip steps just for the sake of posting something. And with perspective, being a non-creating observer in the myriad of online communities we belong to is not only desirable, but necessary to your ability to create and therefore it’s critical for the community as a whole that every potential creator is also continually observing the community.
One of the things that keeps coming up again and again throughout the reading for the assigned reading for this unit is the idea that lurking allows people to learn the culture and rules of the community. I agree with that, but that’s only the first step, and not the most important reason for consuming once you’ve learned the community’s spoken and unspoken rules. Active observers, who feel they eventually might want to contribute, are wise to also learn what the community wants (via observing what types of comments and content recieves more “upvotes” than other types of content) and what the current trends are in the industry, region, field, etc. Posting about something that’s been discussed and debated in a community quite a bit already without bringing something fresh to the discussion is unlikely to earn much positive recognition. It simply helps to learn from online communities and PLNs without contributing, so instead of labeling those who aren’t currently or continuously contributing content “lurkers,” I’d rather call them (and myself, of course) “vicarious learners.”
I think continuous contribution is not really creating, it’s remembering (“The history of EdTech in the international community”), understanding (“The 5 most popular apps for doing such-and-such.”), application (“How I created an interactive slideshow in 3 easy steps.), analysis (“The difference between Edmodo and Google Classroom”), and evaluation (“The benefits and drawbacks of using Google Classroom as a gradebook.”).
The knowledge it takes to write all of these articles certainly isn’t worthless, in fact, I think they’re all pretty important things to know, and knowing all of them sets up the author to really be able to create something meaningful for themselves and the community in the truest sense, to synthesize all of that knowledge, experience, analysis, and evaluation (not to mention the writing and editing practice) into something interesting.
Because my wife has a master in applied linguistics and has been an English as another language (EAL) teacher for 25 years, I think this video does a good job of succinctly the importance of being a vicarious learner before creating language. Nobody wants to hold a conversation with someone who won’t listen to them, who doesn’t know the rules of the language, who can’t stay on topic, and who won’t respond to people in the group in a respectful and thoughtful manner.
I’m not trying to justify or rationalize lack of contribution or creating in my PLNs, I just want to de-stigmatize lack of contribution. My goal is to become a leader in the field of educational technology and coaching, not only my current school and future schools, but to really be part of the 1% who creates meaningful content for the community of teachers, coaches, and students. I wouldn’t be taking this course otherwise. I’m not a wallflower. I want to be part of the conversation, eventually an important part, and I will be after I’ve done some vicarious learning.