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


Graeme said...

Hi Sarah,
I don't personally favour using assessments (assessments that make up a course mark - pass/fail) as a method of discouraging lurking or making people contribute because people will ultimetly decide fore themselves.

My first method to overcome this problem is to set a course up so that it encourages people to be active. Then provide an open communication system which is prompt and two way. Then make some activities which people are encouraged to do and are meaningfully linked with course objectives and content.
I have always found that participation in any course is generally more to do with the way that a course is structured and delivered rather than a fault of individual learners. If it is aimed at the wrong level then people choose to dropout.If it is dictatorial and non-responsive - you guessed it!
I often also use an option assessment which I mark but does not contribute to the final mark but gives course participants an opportunity to see where they are.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks for your comments, Graeme. I absolutely agree with everything you have said. As I said before, how do you measure participation? The other thing I have found is that every group is different-what works for one group will not necessarily work for another group. Certainly keeps us on our toes! But I must admit, since my reading about lurking, I am a lot more tolerant of lurkers - after all, I am one too!

Rixa said...

Part of the lurking phenomenon is time and effort--I follow a lot of blogs & communities that I don't comment on frequently. They are quite important to me, but I don't always have the time or mental energy to say something. And perhaps that "something" has been said better by someone else already.

Ton said...

Hi Sarah,
Glad to see my old posting from 2004 being useful for your thinking. I am always amazed how these mycelium like networks of conversations spread :)


Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you for your comment, Rixa. I have started to find that myself, just how time consuming all these online activities are. I think I will have to be very strategic about I read, watch and comment on.

Nancy White said...

Here is another older piece about lurking in communities of practice

And I'm thrilled you have connected with my friend Ton. Small world, eh?

Carolyn McIntosh said...

My feeling would be that, if participation is part of the course requirement, then it is perfectly Ok to require evidence that students have been reading and thinking about each others postings. for example if we do require midwifery students to blog is some sort of closed group then, I feel, participation in each others blogs should be a requirement.