Thursday, September 20, 2007
Lurking in online communities
I have recently been privy to a discussion about what makes an online community. There has been an degree of disquiet articulated about the number of lurkers in the community ie people who listen and observe but do not take part either by entering discussion or leaving comments. Lurking has a negative connotation because it is not making a positive or creative contribution to the community. This made me wonder why people lurk and what makes them take the step of joining activities. Lurking in online communities mirrors what happens in the real world - how many groups do you belong to that are driven by a core group of people and how many times do you hear complaints that it is always the same people who do things?
Lurking in a online group/community is probably a good idea initially so you can get an idea of how the group works. The last thing you want to do is put your foot in it, so to speak. One of the groups I belong to is made up of highly respected midwifery scholars and I am very careful about what I write and when I write it, in case I end up with egg on my face. I may not participate because I feel I have nothing to add or what I wanted to say has already been said. I may feel intimidated or lack confidence - I do not want to take a risk or expose myself. I may also be concerned with privacy issues eg I do not want my thoughts or comments to get back to colleagues or my boss. Whilst the Internet seems at times to have infinite capabilities, in many ways online communities are very small worlds. It may be that I do not know how to contribute- what buttons to press or where to put my comment. At the same time, as a blogger I find it really frustrating that people may read my blog and not leave a comment. If they don't, how do I know what they think of it? Does what I am saying ring a bell or do they think its complete rubbish? Feedback may stimulate more thought and knowledge generation.
Lurkers do, however, carry out a useful purpose. In some ways I think of them as honey bees, flying from one flower to another, gathering pollen and cross-pollinating (I hope that's what honey bees do - if it isn't, I hope you get the idea!). Ton Zijlstra writes that lurkers are necessary links, even if they are weak links. If all links were strong, there may be no change or movement in the community.
What about the students who lurk in formal education courses? Well, they may learn in different ways to the people who are at the hub of the group. One strategy for encouraging lurkers in formal online communities is to make it compulsory for them to contribute. But how do you measure that contribution? Do you inhibit their learning when you make participation compulsory? Salmon (2000) talks about carrots and sticks. The carrots are selling the benefits of computer-mediated communication and participating in the course/community; adding value to participation and ensuring that the participants get something from joining in. The sticks are attaching participation to assessments and linking it to group work with other students. Salmon warns against bullying lurkers into participating or excluding them from the community if they do not. It is also imperative that make sure people have the technological capability and knowledge to be able to join it.
I would be really keen to hear people's views and experiences about how effective it is to link online participation with assessments.
Salmon (G). 2000. E-moderating. The key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page