Lurkers Gonna Lurk

It’s been a minute since ‘Web 2.0’ (“the second stage of development of the World Wide Web, characterized especially by the change from static web pages to dynamic or user-generated content and the growth of social media” –Oxford) became our standard.  It’s hard to imagine one-way-Web at all, really.  How our online lives thrive (or don’t) is a precarious balance between lurking, contributing value, and damage control.

Howard Rheingold, in Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012) sets an excellent example of how collaborative actions online can contribute to a sense of community and confidence.  He discussed his online communities; how they have contributed not only to a collective knowledge bank, but how they have enriched each other’s lives IRL, too, by building trust over the years.  Trust is the tricky part of the equation, he acknowledges, as is true of our social lives overall: “social dilemmas are the conflicts between self-interest and collective action that all creatures face in daily life-situations in which a lack of trust in the potential cooperation of others prevents individuals from acting together in ways that would benefit everybody” (151). 

The simplest things can help to build trust in a network, be it online or elsewhere.  Rheingold outlines the basic tenets of doing so (p155-6):

  1. Small talk and idle chatter build trust and lubricate collaboration
  2. Move from mutual benefit to common interests by building trust and negotiating goals
  3. Take risks to demonstrate that you are willing to modify your own activity in pursuit of common goals
  4. Be generous
  5. Seek to learn from and teach your collaborators.  Be willing to change your behavior in light of learning, and be willing to help your partners enhance their own position

The common factor in Rheingold’s book is collaboration; contributing to live online rather than ‘lurking.’  You might even call this ongoing role User 2.0 in that the two-way street is dependent upon those at the keyboard.  Scott Kushner doesn’t like lurking, which he says is when “users read, watch, and listen to content, but they do not contribute any of their own.”  In his article Read Only: The Persistence of Lurking in Web 2.0 (2016) Kushner “argues that lurking posts a threat to the prevailing logic of corporate social platforms.”  But there’s a line between contributing value and simply filling space: “the true value of Web 2.0 platforms is derived from knowledge work, not mindless status updates.” This is where I latched onto Kushner: I don’t need to know what conspiracy theory is being perpetuated this week when I spend time online.  I (should) need to know how people healthfully navigate life, what they are learning that adds value, and what I need to change about myself to be a better citizen. Rheingold says to contribute in a healthy way to our online experience, we need to “pay attention to opportunities you might be given to improve the public sphere.  It’s not up to anybody else” (242). He doesn’t mince words that the responsibility is universal.

I’ll admit, I am a lurker on several social media sites (Twitter and Reddit).  I am a contributor on others (Facebook, certain blogs, Instagram).  This is mostly because I’m not pithy, not clever.  I am active and I do have a lot of friends with whom I share experiences, though, and everyone likes pictures.

I should try to do better.  I should ask more questions on sites dedicated to knowledge sharing.  I should look more closely at opportunities to answer questions about which I am knowledgeable.  Rheingold gives us succinct rules for developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN): explore multiple media, search for more after you’ve explored, follow, tune your network, engage and inquire, and respond (229).  I know where people can trust me, and where I am still learning.  I can embrace admitting this when needed.  I know darn well that communities based on fandom, crowdsourcing (I’m a huge fan of Michelle McNamara and her crowd-sleuthing contributions), forums, and open source coding will die on the vine if they’re not tended to.  These are huge parts of my life – am I contributing to their success, or gluttonously lurking?

About Kim Smith mccroryk0613 Grad School: Technical and Professional Communications Madison, WI

Posted on September 24, 2020, in Social Media, Society, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Kim,
    I too am guilty of lurking, so I appreciate your omission of also, at times, partaking in the act. Sometimes, truthfully, I just want to be a fly on the wall. There are a few accounts I follow on Instagram of people I have known at one time or another who I lurk on pretty regularly. One of them is trying desperately to become a social media influencer. She’s gotten so invested in this that she’s had her lips, boobs, and butt done. She barely looks like the girl I once knew and every day there’s a new post of her in some staged pose doing something trendy. I lurk because, frankly, what am I going to say to contribute anything meaningful to what she’s doing? Personally, I’m hoping this trend of plastic surgery and social media influencers, filtered body shapes, and faces dies on the vine. In heeding Rheingold’s advice, which you’ve excellently summarized here, I need to find a community worth contributing to. I have in the past and now found communities that I invest time and resources into. But weeding through the social media fluff to find them can be challenging. I am connected with a wide network of professional photographers and artists through social media. Yet, when I click the search button on Instagram, I see a mixture of Instagram models and d-list celebrities.
    I always tell people social media is what you make of it, you just have to find the communities you want to engage within. Yet, here I am week after week seeing Kylie Jenner or Khloe Kardashian somehow sneaking into my Instagram. I don’t follow them and I don’t have the desire to do so. Sure I fawn over celebrities just like anyone else, but they’re not my thing. Sometimes it feels like these enriched communities and networks I’m seeking out online have been infiltrated by social media algorithms convinced I am in need of keeping up with the Kardashians – I am not. That being said, I feel I lurk at times because I haven’t found something worth my time investment and brainpower.

  2. Kim Smith mccroryk0613

    I hear ya. Though it’s less often now that I am in grad school and don’t have cable, I admittedly read celebrity gossip sometimes. I don’t ever contribute to that. The trick thing is the same for me as it is for you…..” I need to find a community worth contributing to. ” Rheingold is really blunt that we need to contribute. I can be a snotty brat, thinking ‘oh, I’m too this or too that to contribute to vapid entertainment’ but I’m also unable to prove that I’m ‘above it’ because I don’t do anything elsewhere, either. We’re mooches.

  3. Hi Kim,

    I’m sorry for my late response, the week totally got away from me! I really enjoyed this post as I too can lurk sometimes as well. But what is so interesting to me is even the slightest contribution matters. For example, on my instagram photography page. I never really interacted with others, I would just post my work and “lurk” on others for inspiration, knowledge, etc. But, I noticed that even by liking other photographer’s photos (the most passive way to engage I feel like) it generated more traffic on my own page and more followers. Instagram to me isn’t about becoming an influencer or reaching 100k followers, but even engaging the slightest bit helped me in return. It’s just so interesting that even though it wasn’t sharing knowledge or commenting ideas, one simple engagement of a “like” could do anything. Reading Emily’s comment and your response really got me thinking about the people I’m following that I lurk on as well. I too have those people that I “creep” on and it baffles me why I even bother? I’m not contributing anything to their content, I’m not sharing it or talking about it, but yet I still follow and still enjoy knowing whats going on. I wonder why we(I) feel the need to do that?

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