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

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.

References

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. https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v24.29927

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