The Ancient and Honourable Pursuit of Lurking


…or, as we call it in education, ‘listening’.A photograph of white plimsolls on a beach

Since developing an unanticipated identity as a social media maven,  I’ve become increasingly interested in the role of the ‘lurker’ and how it is perceived by more ‘active’ others.

Lurking, in a social media sense, is defined by Google as the fairly neutral ‘reading the posts in an internet forum without contributing’, but that’s the third entry on a list of definitions which also includes ‘be or remain hidden so as to wait in ambush for someone or something’, (synonymous with ‘skulk’, ‘loiter’ and ‘hide’), and ‘be present in a latent or barely discernible state, although still presenting a threat’.  The latter is described as ‘(of an unpleasant quality)’, though all seem so to me.  Even that sense of deficit in ‘without contributing’ is beginning to jar.

Where did this vaguely sinister interpretation of ‘listening’ come from?  The assumption that you’re only doing anything useful if you’re contributing your own words to the space in which you’re lurking?  Even the word ‘lurker’ sounds metaphorically unpleasant.  Another quick Google search identifies the authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba as thinkers who extended the Pareto Principle to online community engagement in 2010, first coining the term, although my possibly unreliable personal memory takes it back further.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter.  What feels more important is the sense of negativity which hangs around those 90% of social media users who access, but don’t challenge, edit or create, content (supported by numerous studies during the noughties. I’d certainly welcome critical challenges to this evidence base).

The rules of engagement may be different, but how would we feel as educators if only 10% of the students we encounter in the classroom were up for challenging or co-creating knowledge with us?  Hello?  Do you want me to repeat that?  In actual fact, isn’t the balance of equality in many schools, colleges and learning environments as passive as this implies, or even worse?  Doesn’t the ‘banking education’ identified by Paolo Freire still hold true in many places, including at higher levels of education, where the ‘script’ is known to both teacher and student through spoon-feeding approaches to the transmission of knowledge?  In a week when even the literature that young people study in school is being subjected to ideological determinism, I think it does.

This is one of education’s hypocrisies:  the assumption that, if we make students contribute to classroom activities (mindful, possibly, of Ofsted’s perceived insistence that if they’re not speaking, they are not learning), they are somehow part of the 10%:  contributing to the discovery (or uncovering) of something new (or newly contextualised).  Learning is certainly possible via small-group activities, but I don’t believe it’s assured.  Less certain or less engaged students learn to be passive in groups where they can allow the louder voices to dominate, as long as something gets written down on paper (possibly to be repeated via a feedback round or, even worse, the teacher’s almost certainly contaminated ‘summary’ on the whiteboard or flipchart).  What new learning really happens, when the unspoken contract is that the teacher already knows what the students need to learn?  At its worst, this type of activity results in a tussle between the unseen ‘answer sheet’ rolling Golem-like through the teacher’s head, and the students’ increasingly frustrated attempts to guess at the right words.

So, in a sense, we are all ‘lurkers’ when we don’t actively participate in the challenging, editing or co-creation of knowledge, whether in real or virtual spaces, even when we say the words that are expected of us.  Online lurkers actually have more freedom to synchronously do something useful with the words they read online; in all but the most forward-thinking classrooms we are discouraged from doing anything other than taking notes which may later prove to be indecipherable (anyone other than me do that special sliding off the page writing whilst slightly bored and semi-conscious?)

There is a persistent assumption that online lurkers are in fact screwing up the courage to do the right thing and participate, that their current lurking status signifies non-participation (and a slight sense of ‘letting the side down’).  For some people, this is of course true – one of the joys of the #TDReflex14 uncourse has been the way in which blogging group membership has grown each week, as people figure out what they want to say and grow in confidence to say it.  But for others – and, if I’m honest, often for me – the chains of thought triggered by reading online discourse is almost always enough to generate genuinely fresh thinking without me saying any words back to the space.  Beyond a courteous ‘thank you’ I’m busy putting my energies into creating and co-creating knowledge elsewhere.  And that thinking injection is what I’m in it for!

The act of lurking fundamentally challenges another great hegemony of Western culture – that leadership (in any sense, including knowledge leadership) is the domain of the extrovert.  In fact, how real is the false dichotomy of introvert vs extrovert?  I’d certainly present as extrovert in most work situations, though in my private life I think of myself as largely the other.  Lurking enables the introvert to find their own voice (whether in or away from the online space), as long as it is welcomed.  The diversity challenge for online spaces is this:  how can everyone who signs up be encouraged to be present as themselves, silent or spoken?

The opening up of some conferences, if not classrooms, to in-the-moment online engagement via event hashtags has brought a new interpretation of lurking to the fore.  It is now more than possible – exciting, even! – to be quiet in ‘class’ but active on a Twitter backchannel, drawing the perspectives of absent identities at the same time.  This experience brings an additional benefit – ‘notes’ which are live to the world and open to different opinions, to pore over later.  Recently, I’ve taken to using Yammer working groups to record my thinking during conference presentations – wonderful to get back home and check out colleagues’ thoughts.

I’m not denying there is a sinister side to what might be hidden, in internet communication.  Not everyone shares a positive motivation for silence.  Though surely when lurking morphs into trolldom (a significant hazard faced by diversity campaigners and others on Twitter every day) it by definition is no longer lurking, as the bullying voice has spoken out loud.  Same with the voice that jumps in only to refute or criticise, having prioritised their opportunity to disagree.  I try very hard to mitigate that voice in myself, to reply to stuff that challenges me with questions rather than blunt mono-perspective answers, to extend my personal learning network, to see all sides.  Often, I succeed.

I like you, lurkers, and I like me when I’m lurking too.  I like to know that you are there and increasingly I have confidence that you are.  Because of you, I think better.  Your attention, as Nancy Kline says, helps generate my own thinking.  I don’t imagine for one moment as I write this, that there is no-one out there ready to listen.  (If I thought that, I couldn’t even begin to write).  If I really need a perspective from YOU and you personally, I will tag you in or contact you directly.

If you ever feel ready, let me know who you are. If you don’t, and don’t ever, please know that I appreciate your presence, just as warmly as if you’d said your words ‘out loud’.  There have been lurkers forever, long before the internet:  as long as there have been people who listen.  Long may you continue to lurk.


Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

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