Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Lurking and platforms: old conversations in changing contexts

I have recently participated (after a fashion) in a Twitter conversation about lurking, with a sense of déjà vu. I feel as if I have been in so many of these conversations over the years, and familiar themes play out whilst social and technology contexts shift. So what are the useful ways of investigating lurking, or learning by onlooking,  in the present, and where and how?


Lurk by Betsy & Ian F-R CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I remember a discussion 20 years ago in the context of an online list server called ITForum (now defunct). Fortunately, a summary of the discussion was posted by Steve Draper.  This discussion played out similar themes to those I saw in the Twitter conversation but, of course, in different contexts.

As I recall, there were ca 850 members of the ITForum list server who posted (or not) to the server that sent all, or a digest of messages according to member preference. If all members had posted frequently or a few had posted daily, I would have immediately unsubscribed, this being an example of one of the ways in which sustainability in a virtual community is lost “when the cost of participation exceeds the willingness to participate” (Steinmuller 2002).  Mass participation by frequent posting is not necessarily feasible or sustainable for the group as a whole.

I thought of all of this during my experience on the recent Twitter thread at the #HEdigID #OEP discussion.  I ‘lurked’ on the thread once I realised it had become a snowball thread (partially through my own actions). I then posted a blog post linked to the Twitter thread and carried on a (for me) fruitful conversation there with two people. From a learning perspective, I made a contribution with links on Twitter to published work that may have encouraged reading and reflection by other participants – who knows?

For me, the missing element in the Twitter discussion was the agency and motivations of platforms.  Of course it matters how people engage and encourage others, how they share information but the platform is also shaping who and what is more likely to be seen and it certainly had an impact on my and others’ experiences (even if the impact was not always visible).

The second condition that Steinmueller gave for sustainability to fail was platform failure and that is an interesting consideration in ways that he may not have imagined in 2002. When do we have rich discussions about how platforms may be failing their members even if they are economically viable?

Why would we assume that social media platforms are a given as learning locations? I feel really uncomfortable with any suggestion that the more people contribute visibly, eg via posts and replies, the better; and that minimal/absent visible contributions is necessarily a problem. It’s much more complex than that. In our research (Bell, Mackness & Funes), we found that some experienced digital learners stood back in certain contexts for very good reason.

I’d love to hear other views on this.


Bell, F., Mackness, J., & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology, 24.

Steinmueller, W. E. (2002). Virtual Communities and the New Economy. In R. Mansell (Ed.) (pp. 21–54). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


francesbell • July 21, 2018

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  1. Mary Skinner July 26, 2018 - 12:49 am Reply

    So you lurked on a Twitter conversation and now you are writing a blog to complain that the conversation did not discuss what you thought it should have done.

    What a bizarre attitude.

    • francesbell August 4, 2018 - 9:33 am Reply

      Apologies for the delay in approving your comment. I missed the notification.
      I was trying to make the point that ‘lurking’ has always been a reasonable behaviour. For me, it’s the word that can get in the way of discussion. It’s a pejorative term so why use it – hence my putting it in quotes.
      I am interested that you find my post a complaint. And I am happy with bizarre.

    • Jenny Mackness August 22, 2018 - 8:24 am Reply

      And what a bizarre response Mary 🙂

      Were you in the Twitter conversation? I also lurked there, for two reasons. First because I didn’t see anything new being discussed that I felt I had anything to say about (lurking has been discussed for years, e.g. by Blair Nonnecke and Jenny Preece in 2001) and second because, like Frances, I disliked the way in which Twitter made it into a snowball thread, copying me into every tweet, making it (from my perspective) more difficult to contribute to the discussion.

      I have read Frances’ post a few times and I can’t see a complaint – more she is commenting, which is the form many blog posts take. For me the advantage of blogging over Twitter is that it gives me a chance to stand back, think and reflect before commenting. I think that’s what Frances is doing here – not complaining.

  2. Lizzie Evans August 21, 2018 - 10:31 am Reply

    This is a really interesting line of thought. I have posted my thoughts here:

    • francesbell August 21, 2018 - 7:35 pm Reply

      Thanks for sharing your post – I read it with great interest 🙂
      I am thinking about the intentionality of designers and users. You posted your post at your web site and and alerted me to it by tweeting a link and linking to it in your comment at my post. You probably have very good reasons for not having comments at your web site post, and I have chosen to reply here rather than at the more ephemeral Twitter. And that is fine:) Our human intentions shape our actions but so can the designer’s intentions and the possibly unintended consequences of the convergence of ours and designers’ intentions.
      I note that you are developing a learning platform so a question for your learners and facilitators might be what learning activities might we do where? and another might be how do we do them? They may become intentional about what they use social media for and how they engage. I agree with what you say below about learners using social media to good effect and taking responsibility but I don’t quite agree with what you say about users relying on algorithms or notifications to guide them – the algorithms are also acting.
      “There, I think, is the heart of the matter. Social media can be a location for learning, but it requires that the user take responsibility for that learning. To avoid being caught in an echo chamber or inundated with unwanted content, the user has to take the initiative. By striking out on their own, rather than relying on algorithms or notifications to guide them, learners can and do use social media to good effect.”
      The designers’ intentions on many social media platforms are varied and are primarily driven by the need to generate revenue through advertising services. When Facebook users see only part of the stream or people use Twitter on their phone and their stream is swamped by ICYMI, the algorithm is acting largely beyond the user’s control. The individual can make choices as I have by deleting my Facebook phone app but have not (yet) deleted my Twitter phone app: and about how they communicate – what they say and how.
      But that’s my point – how we act as human beings in a socio-technical context is not completely under our control. And knowing that can inform our communication behaviours, and our choices about what we do on different platforms.

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