Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 32 seconds

Touch me, or I might lurk… or “like”

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 32 seconds

I’m always interested in the discourse that welcomes/invites/loves “lurkers”, and I am always torn. Always.

First of all, let me be clear on this: I have no illusions. I may be the most active participant in some circles, but I, too, lurk in some contexts. Everyone does (Lou Northern thinks so, too).

Think about it. You cannot possibly comment on every single article or blogpost you read on the web, or even every tweet. You won’t post a blog and ping back to every interesting thing you’ve read this week, you can’t possibly.

Next best thing: you can “share” it with a few words, via email, facebook, or twitter, to explain why you liked it. Sometimes this sharing goes back to the original author; oftentimes it doesn’t, right?

Next best thing: you liked it, couldn’t comment, couldn’t think whom to share it with, but you wanted to express that you “liked” it – and that’s what those like and favorite buttons are for (though the twitter one is confusing coz it can mean “bookmark to read later” or “agree” or “I’ve seen your tweet”. But never mind. The idea is, even though some people hate “like” buttons, they are a way to participate or express oneself (albeit lazily). I noticed that some people’s blogs don’t have that “like” button. This actually forces me to comment if I liked it. I’ve noticed one particular person who has this, and I think she gets more comments than most people because of it!!!

Next best thing: you bookmark it on something social like Diigo, or (which I think pings back) or bookmark it on your computer

And sometimes – you read, you find useful, enjoyable, then you do nothing. Nothing online, anyway.

You may still discuss it with a colleague, for example. I have f2f colleagues who sometimes in a conversation bring up blogposts I wrote weeks earlier. It’s a little eerie, but I got used to it, got used to realizing that some people (who know me) read my blog and don’t regularly give me feedback on it. Some people are just not comfortable interacting online altogether.

Think about it. Before the internet, you wrote something and it got published. In a newspaper, you might get a response on letters to the editor. In an academic publication, you might get feedback years later as others started citing your paper. But all in all… you didn’t really get that much direct feedback from readers. Unless it was a book and it sold really well. And people wrote good book reviews. But a book review in a newspaper is nothing compared to an amazon review. No, seriously 🙂 I’m not talking quality, but the sheer quantity and diversity of people whose feedback you can get online is immensely different.

So if you read Amazon book reviews but never post your own? You’re a lurker, right? And that’s totally alright, right?

If you (like several people I recently met) look at twitter and facebook but never post anything original, that’s OK, right? [I mean, it’s a shame but it’s OK, right?]

Now let me go back to online learning. The reason lurking has this sinister negative connotation, I think, is because in the early days of online learning (turn of the millennium when I was doing my Masters online), people learned in small groups. Our group were somewhere between 3 and 10 people each “module”. If half the people participated and the other half didn’t … was that OK?

Let’s step back a minute. In f2f classes, students complain if their teachers expect them to participate every single class. Depending on the size of the class, the length of the meeting, and the topic as well as how much time there is for discussion, this is usually a reasonable complaint. I don’t expect every single student to participate unless:

  1. The class is relatively small – like 10 students
  2. The time is relatively long – more than an hour
  3. The topic is something every student will have something to say about

I don’t want students to talk just for the hell of talking, right? Participation is not taking up earspace with nonsense. Participation should be substantial, and add value. That value can be new knowledge. But that value can be community-building, supporting colleagues, challenging them, etc. It could also be asking the professor or questioning her. Those are all good ways to participate.

But here’s the catch: some people have really useful and substantive thoughts in their heads, but they don’t share them. Why? Many reasons, including shyness, lack of confidence, lack of ability to express themselves well, fear of the reactions of their colleagues, or they’re just simply quieter people (unlike me who can’t stop talking).

But here’s the other catch: is it fair that some people are talking all the time? The people talking all the time are doing one of three things:

  1. Taking up “space” which prevents others from talking (i.e. they may be the reason others aren’t talking – you know that feeling when someone steals the words right from the tip of your tongue and you’re forced to swallow yours?). That’s not fair to the silent ones
  2. Sharing knowledge – they’re “giving” something to the group in the class, they’re doing an indirect teaching role – and by doing so, the others are learning from them. This means the others who are not participating are “taking” but not giving back. That’s not fair to the talkative ones.
  3. Changing the class dynamic as they lead the discussion in directions that suit their own agendas, whether explicit or implicit – and this isn’t fair to anyone, really, but…???

Look again at all the numbered lists I’ve got above, and think about them for an online class. Previously, online learning “good practice” was to have small groups discussing things. It made sense since they were all credit-seeking students that they all be expected to participate at some minimum substantive amount, even if it were not explicitly required. It’s just courtesy. Online, the “time” and “space” issues blur if we’re talking asynchronous stuff, so asynchronous allows the space and time for more people to participate without taking up the space of others).

But when you’re talking about MOOCs, that’s just a scale that would burst if everyone participated, right? The problem is, the more connected/connectivist a course is, the more of the imbalance of power comes in (the second set of bullets). Sure, space is seemingly infinite, but you also can have someone who’s almost spamming the twitter stream (Ahem, apologies whenever I’ve done that). But points 2 & 3 are important in MOOCs as well.

On one hand, it’s not fair that some people are pouring out their thoughts/feelings on their blogs and sharing all they’ve been learning and so on, while others read, and never respond or do the same. OK. Like I said earlier, though, this is completely normal when we talk about the web in general. Until I started #rhizo14 I rarely got comments on my blog. But I got loads of views (for a new blogger at least). I don’t usually blog about Egypt and politics, but the most read post on my new blog was one written on that subject (I bet mostly read by Egyptians) but most of the comments I got on it from fb and the blog itself were from friends who either know me f2f or online.

It’s just that in a learning situation, I think reciprocity is only fair. But MOOCs are not your typical course. You can’t force commitment. Like I said, I can be really active in one context and really not in another. Usually, I’m not even lurking, I’m just too busy to even look in. But sometimes I do look in but don’t participate. It happens.

If I were an instructor, I’d like to know that there were people benefiting without participating. That’s a great thing. I definitely love it when I know people are benefiting from reading my blog even though I don’t know them, or discover later about it.

But do you know what’s really sad? It’s number 3 and something else. Number 3 in the sense that people who are not participating aren’t getting their “voice” heard. And getting one’s voice heard isn’t necessarily everyone’s life goal. Some people aren’t trying to get their voice heard. Maybe they don’t think they have something substantial to say. Maybe they are scared to share their thoughts with the world (but are comfortable sharing with smaller groups, more privately). Maybe they don’t have confidence, maybe they’re too arrogant. But maybe it’s arrogant to believe you have something to say that’s worth hearing. Blogging is both arrogant and humble, in that you’re arrogant enough to think someone might want to read this stuff you’re writing (for oneself in my case) and yet humble enough to put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable, have your words up for scrutiny by the world and be ready to deal with it.

I’m not a “pure” social constructivist. I’m pretty sure a lot of learning happens right inside our brains as we reflect or interact with objects without actually having to learn socially. I don’t think dialogue is the be-all and end-all (though Sidorkin may convince me yet).

The number 4 that isn’t up there is this one: if you’ve always lurked and never participated/connected, I’m so sorry for what you’re missing out on; I’m not angry AT you, I’m sad FOR you… because the most beautiful part, the most meaningful part of all of my online and social media life is that part when I connect with someone. When it’s someone new, and I’m discovering them, or when it’s something new they’ve written and we’re discussing it. The beauty of that dialogue… that’s what it’s all about. For me.  I realize it’s not the same for everyone, though.

But that’s why I hope, as a pedagogue, that people won’t lurk in every context. That they will sometimes venture out and try to “connect”. It can be invigorating.

Looking forward to connected courses. Will you start, already? 🙂

This post was inspired by @dogtrax on Twitter:


39 thoughts on “Touch me, or I might lurk… or “like”

  1. Wow! Now THAT is an exemplary post. I don’t have deep thoughts to share at the moment, but you do remind me of what Ross Mayfield calls “the power law of participation.” I’ve used his illustration in my books and classes to demonstrate that online participation isn’t binary — you are either a lurker or an active participant — but there is a smooth curve of participation. Sometimes, “liking” or commenting is a step toward deeper participation for a particular individual.

    1. Hi Howard, thanks for commenting here. I’m partway thru reading your book, actually (non-linearly) so I jumped in now to read the part about “the power law of participation” and realized that’s exactly what i was trying to express: that participation, even though it gives power and can be self-interested, still contributes to others. I agree that having more of Turner calls “network entrepreneurs” people would be good for everyone… Do you think it’s a matter of supporting literacies, helping people move through the curve of participation, or do you think some people have attitudes/personalities that are much deeper and difficult to change? Are younger generations leaning towards more networking/openness, or is this still a literacy and attitude they need to learn from us? Are literacies attitudinal, not just skills?

      1. You ask a question with no easy answer, Maha. It goes to the issue of schooling. As Ivan Illich, John Taylor Gatto, Neil Postman, Paulo Freire and many others have pointed out, public schooling in most places is about teaching students to comply to the kind of discipline, acceptance of hierarchy, passive absorption of what they are told — the kind of qualities that were useful when agricultural societies were in transition to industrial, assembly-line societies. I’m often accused of being an optimist for this, but I do believe we can improve the vitality, creativity, and usefulness of online media for both individuals and the public sphere by increasing the number of people who know how to distinguish good from bad information, who understand the payoff in participation, who can learn actively and co-learn with peers. So in that regard, my answer is yes, the attitudes of thinking for oneself, contributing to cooperative knowledge enterprises, questioning authority — all of which are politically risky in most of today’s public schools — are essential, along with teaching the skills.

        1. You know, Howard (and I am familiar with your crap detection kit which I will email you about soon),your comment here made me think of two things that were on my mind. The first is, we don’t need to deschool society completely (a radical move) as long as people have some internet freedom. My Phd research was about critical thinking, and in the 7 years I was doing it, the advent of social media and satellite TV(to a lesser extent) helped Egyptians question authority and see diverse worldviews, despite the oppressive state media and very oppressive uncritical schooling (though not always parenting). The second thing I thought of, though, is whether some (not all) people who are careful not to be active on social media are like that because of that society that discouraged it. This statement kind of contradicts with my first one… So it might be a generational thing. Maybe young people brought up on social media have fewer reservations, and need the crap detection support to wade through it all, and a building of their literacies, while the older people need to build some trust. It’s a big tension online, between skepticism and trust. I am a big fan of feminine approaches to critical thinking (and Edward Said’s philological hermeneutics, and Martha Nussbaum’s narrative imagination) all of which encourage trusting, believing, before doubting, critiquing (also i think Peter Elbow calls these the believing game and the doubting game). Oops, this is turning into its own article (need to think about it some more, though)

    2. I wonder if giving a “like” is fleeting, though. How many of us hit “like” and then come back later to go deeper with the text or media or thinking? I often think, I’ll come back, and then often don’t. I suspect young people are even less apt, as the “like” is more about social status than content understanding and engagement in ideas. Or am I being grumpy?

  2. Great post! I have changed my languaging around “lurking” I now call it “sampling”. I fully agree that there are many instances where because of time, interest, or lack of any strong opinion or expertise, I choose to sample. I am also in agreement that it is a pity if you are “always the bridesmaid and never the bride” i.e. you only sample and never contribute.

    So much learning comes from watching what others model and I think it wise if newbies choose to sample until they feel comfortable and feel they have something to offer! I love @dogtrax post which reminds me of Milton’s last line in his poem, On His Blindness – They also serve who only stand and wait.

    1. Thanks, Maureen. I love the language of “sampling” and the metaphor of bridesmaid, though (hehe) the difference between bride/bridesmaid may be much larger than between “sampler” and “participant”, and it’s a binary rather a “curve” – so maybe we can develop names for the different types of online participation, with “observer”, “sampler” (they might be slightly different) moving towards the stage where ppl “like” or “retweet” then ppl who “comment”, then ppl who post more substantially… Maybe those are already in Howard’s book. Haven’t gotten there yet

    2. Sampling …. not bad. Better than lurking, for sure.
      I cannot believe that you used Milton and Dogtrax in the same sentence. What is wrong with you, Maureen? Or did you mean Milton-Bradley (the board game maker)? That would make more sense. (thanks, though)

  3. What a great post! I will say to would-be lurkers: you truly are missing out on opportunities to connect with amazing, intriguing people who will take the time to interact with you. I think some fear that they will put themselves out there and no one will respond, or read their work, or comment, or care. Connected MOOCs aren’t like that. Take the plunge and connect. I was afraid to my first year, and only now (after my second year) do I realize what I missed out on. Although, lurking is better than not participating at all. 🙂 I am a big proponent of reciprocity, though. If you post, please comment on others’ work.

  4. I’m not a fan of the “L” word- it’s a loaded term. First of all, nearly every time it is used, it is self applied as an individual, wrapped in some sort of apology that was not really asked for- how often do course organizers say, or those you suggest take up the space complain about all “lurkers” out there.

    I frankly think we’d be better off not throwing the word around, especially in an open course where there are not given/enforced/required levels of participation. Open participants choose their level of participation, and using the “l” word puts out a message of not meeting an unstated participation level. And on idea of power laws of participation, I bet there are almost zero pure lurkers, there are people who choose a low amount of public participation. And you suggest, not only with “likes”/”favorites” there are other channels of participation people do/can do. It’s common, and i use it, to express someone as a direct/private message. That’s not lurking. Or just reading and pondering the ideas going on, to me that is more than lurking. Given what I have known and experienced about Kevin in other open courses, I cannot even take serious his framing himself a lurker. He un-lurked as soon as a he posted a blog post, and then whammo un-lurked via his comic.

    Yeah, I do not believe total lurkers exist, so let’s just stop putting that label on ourselves.

    Yes I know people feel apprehensive about being more active. Yes, they worry about criticism. But to me, open courses offer the perfect place to make small steps to take on challenging your normal modes. If you always do what is comfortable, or your preferred mode of being, if you do not take on some amount of tiny risk, chance, it leaves little room for growth. I always want to see my students try things they think they cannot do, in a way where the failing trying does not hurt. It’s the phrase I reach for always from UMW Prof Jeff McClurken who said “I want my students to be uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”– the learning happens most significantly when students break through that barrier of discomfort.

    Yes the ecosystem is better with more participation by more people- but every little thing is a positive, and the “L” word flips that over with an un-necessary self applied expectation that there is judgement of what you are not doing. Let’s just stop using it.

    1. You make a lot of good points, Alan. It’s such a loaded term and has many implications…
      Can I take you up on something here. The part where you quote the “I want my students to be uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” and I love it, it’s just that what that means for each person is totally different, right? (I am not saying you’re not saying that, I am just saying it more explicitly). So for me, Maha, risk is blogging my deepest thoughts and feelings about certain things; but I am usually willing to take it and it becomes less uncomfortable with time; for others, even sending a tweet makes them uncomfortable to the point of paralysis….

    2. Alan
      Great points, and as I mention below, I agree that the term is loaded, in all the wrong ways. Probably, I could have come at it from another angle, with another word. I’m going to agree with your call not to use the word from here on out, as best as I can.
      I love this line of yours, as you explain the importance of a path forward for everyone: “… the learning happens most significantly when students break through that barrier of discomfort.”

      1. but you do realize what you’re both doing here, right (Kevin and Alan)? You’re against using the word, but you’re looking at “path forward” (mostly) understood as eventually learning to engage more and more. In Kevin’s post on his blog, he talks about ppl who did not engage actively in #clmooc first run but came back the second time and did. That’s the story I’m seeing. I’m thinking about some people who are unlikely to ever participate, not because of a digital literacy issue, but personality or attitude. Is that something we, as pedagogues, accept as their preference, respect, and move on (and do they want us to be talking about them here? I hate that we can’t hear their views here, though we can talk to them f2f, if we know them of course).
        Speaking of which, I read both ur blogposts but was on my phone and my kid was running around so didn’t get a chance to comment or even tweet it out – u’ve been much more generous here responding to comments 😉 I’d only seen your comic when I wrote this, and Maureen is the one who pointed me to your blogpost(s)

    3. CogDog – yes to this “If you always do what is comfortable, or your preferred mode of being, if you do not take on some amount of tiny risk, chance, it leaves little room for growth..”

  5. Well, the quote and my use of it is aimed more at a designed course experience for registered students, where we structure the experience more.

    Yes, what it means varies, but to me, it’s a continuum we’d like to see people move across, whatever their starting point is. But frankly, for an open course, there is much more on the learner to make those moves rather than the course providing the motivation. We can try and help others, model behavior, but there is a different set of responsibilities in play there.

    The flip side is the risk is and should be low. In many open connected course, people are there on their own interest, not necessarily to earn a grade credit (well they may really really want that shiny badge)- there is no failure (although we tend to fill that space with equally meaningless terms in open courses like “dropout”)

    1. Agree that open courses are totally different. That’s why i make the comparison. I think the history of the term lurker (in an edu context, not general web context) explains the negative connotation a bit. Open courses are closer to the “open web” than they are to formal education, in many ways. But the power/privilege of participation still applies, right? And of course the commitments and responsibilities are different. Agree there is no failure in open courses (though “failure” is not a bad thing; we learn from it, but yeah you can’t fail at open courses, you can only gain, I think, unless you don’t have judgment and spend too much time on a course that’s not useful or good for you).
      But I am always torn about taking up too much space. That it might make it harder for others to participate, rather than be a model. Not pedagogically ideal

  6. I’m glad Alan talked about the terminology because every time I used that word this week, I cringed at myself. The term “lurker” IS loaded and that rhetoric is mostly negative to me, and here I have gone and extended that negativity with my own posts, mostly as a way to spark conversations. We need a new language. And Alan is right … you can’t take me seriously in that role as passive participant — I am unable to resist a conversation about learning — still, I was trying to get some ideas down about the folks who watch and learn outside our field of vision, and thinking about how to value their participation.
    Your point about “likes” reminds of a very deep discussion at CLMOOC about this issue, as Terry ranted (a bit) about the narrow nature of the “like” button, and how it impeded deeper connections. It’s so easy to click the “like” that we lose track of the connection and content itself. Or something along those lines.
    Great conversation here …..
    As always, your friend in the wires.

  7. Ah that blog post made me happy, thank you Maha for delving more deeply into the ‘L’ word…really appreciate the comments too and will think more. Where I’m at right now is, is encouraging those who ‘lurk’ around our Community of Praxis (I get you CogDog), to at least say ‘hello’ 🙂 Have a happy day.

  8. This almost intangible issue of Lurking strongly minds me of the famous ‘If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one hears it….’ quotestion.
    I’m using the premise that blogging, rather like teaching, is a performance, and therefore contains an element of ego. You’ve delivered, with passion, the world premiere of your 10-act monolgue. We’ll attended, by all accounts, and you rush out to survey the review section of the next mornings papers. Nothing! How strange – you’d posted notices in all the right places, and pressed all the correct buttons. How exasperating.
    I’m no longer sure where I’m going with this reply, but at least I’m not lurking. and a response is a construction, as long as it’s not a destruction, an assassinative bullet fired with malice from behind the curtain of a premiere theatre’s private box – the bad review, the negative comment that could stop a blogger in one’s tracks.
    And does the fact that the chosen label – ‘Lurker’, offers up negative connotations (like a dangerous on-the-run concealed stalker – ugh!) reflect our disapproving pre-judgement? ‘Lurker’ sounds a bit Psycho Norman Bates, to me. How about the friendlier slapstick Laurel & Hardy comedy potential ‘Loiterer’?. It’s not for me to say.
    Should I post this reply? Or simply ‘Loit’ in the background? Heads, ego wins, I post. And tails…well, you may never know. X

    1. Hey Steve, thanks for taking the time to comment. I love the way your comment flows and changes direction… You’re right about the element of ego and the negative connotation of the term “lurker”.
      I’m always wondering what the best thing to do with negative terms is. Some ppl (like Alan) prefer to stop using the word. Others like to get used to spinning the word more positively. Another such word is ‘failure’ when used as a positive outcome of learning… If you know where i am going with this…

      1. Hi, Maha. Yes, connotations do connotate. How about ‘Peeper’ instead of Lurker? As in someone hesitatingly peeping to see if the environment is safe for them. We definitely need a way of saying ‘come on in, the water’s fine’. Perhaps mandatory commenting as part of a course, or pairs or small groups giving peer assessment of each others work. I don’t like the failure word either. (although i don’t think i get it’s use as a positive outcome of learning) I would rather say ‘joint second’, even in a large group. I am not keen on the way competitive sport is pushed and promoted worldwide, giving us an accepted norm of a few glorious winners, and the majority rest losers..
        Perhaps we could ask GCHQ for stats on who is lurking. Am I getting carried away?

        1. hi again Steve, thanks for coming back 🙂 Can I just say first that I sense this comment is coming at me with a totally different tone than your first one… not sure why (and btw I apologize that my wordpress did not automatically approve it – for some reason it got put in spam; happens sometimes – maybe the word “peep”). I dunno if I like the word “peep” coz it sounds like “peeping tom” and that has not-so-good connotations, either, right? I think maybe the reason people keep saying lurker (despite the connotation) is that it’s at least understood in the field. I like “explorer” which I think someone mentioned, although in the general sense of the term, explorers (like Columbus and Cook) usually took action, rather than just looked on. Browser? These are beginning to sound like names of the apps with which we view the internet 😉 hehe
          So hey, someone wrote on twitter earlier that people mistake the internet as a source of info, whereas the advantage of internet is in connecting.
          I think that’s the point maybe that people who don’t participate are at. They’re using the internet for info rather than connection. It’s a valid way of using it, it’s just not maximizing its potential, and it’s a consumption but not production. I know this is still not a positive spin on things (and just this week I had a few lurkers in my f2f life “come out” to me – it was hilarious! Their comments on this post, I mean)

          RE: failure as a positive outcome – by that I mean that we learn by taking risks, and taking risks means we often fail, and we learn from that failure, rather than consider it something terminal and bad. Failure is good, it is progress, it is better than doing nothing at all, and sometimes we learn better by what does not work than by what does work. I have an article coming out on Hybrid Pedagogy soon on that topic 😉 with real stories of my teaching problems!!!

          RE: sports – agree completely. I have huge issues with competitive sports and have issues with gaming in education that also encourage competition even more than already exists in education. I teach a module where my students design educational games and I wanted to play a twitter game with them that was not one with winners/losers but could still engage them. Will see how that goes…

          Meanwhile – what is GCHQ???

  9. Hmm… For some reason, I feel obligated to reply. 🙂

    Openly invite people to participate, at any level. Demonstrate participation. The longer they hang around, reading posts and becoming familiar with people and platforms, the more likely they are to have something to say and feel comfortable saying it.

    This course is already groovy.

  10. One issue with respect to participation that I don’t see mentioned in this piece is that few online spaces are designed to facilitate different ways of participation. A simple acknowledgement that someone read something is a valuable bit of information but is not collected by many systems. In an online class environment, we could do more to facilitate short and long form comments and contributions.

    One of the reasons that I’m planning to participate in the Connected Courses program is to explore how structure might impact active participation and ways to get wider active participation.

    1. Good point, Ward. Agree that pedagogically, there should be different modes and levels of participation on platforms, and appreciated by teachers.

    2. Not sure I understand what you mean by structure and now it impacts active participation – in the context of #ccourses, I mean 🙂

      1. I wasn’t very clear: here I am thinking of the structure of the platforms used for discussion and dialogue. Also, different styles of facilitation might help to draw out “lurkers” into the conversations.

        1. Hey Ward, thanks for coming back – that makes sense 🙂 I know definitely that some styles of facilitation and some structures of platforms can help/hinder/encourage/discourage – dunno if anyone has written something extensive about that 🙂 worth a shot!

          1. Here is an older paper (1998): “Collaborative Discourse Structures in Computer Mediated Group Communications” I envision a system where a moderator could change the structure of the response area in ways to bring in those who were in read-only or -mostly mode and engage them in the conversation. Instead of the typical text entry box, their might be a short questionnaire or something else to encourage participation. The system might even be set up so that a response would be required to move forward. Lots of interesting possibilities.

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