I lurk, therefore I am

Blogger John Klossner writes that "lurking" within a social network is the easiest way to actively participate without putting forth any effort.

As someone who once used a rotary phone to dial a four-digit telephone number, I assume that everyone else is way ahead of me in using the latest technologies while I am merely standing on the curb watching that bus drive off into the distance.

Every person I encounter seems to be tweeting links to their blog about the wikis on their Facebook page. Not that I'm a social media luddite: I do have profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. I also recently have  joined GovLoop and Goodreads. I joined Plaxo at a friend's request, but have since only received invitations to become friends with people I have never heard of. ( If I have one complaint with social media—which I don't, as complaining about social media seems to be the equivalent of complaining about coffee shops—it would be the bastardization of the word "friend." ) No, I am more of a social media hermit or, as a phrase I recently encountered put it, a "lurker."

Lurker refers to those who join a social networking service to view what is being written and/or said on that network but never actually post anything. There is a formula for online communities called the 90-9-1 principle, which refers to the estimate that 1 percent of any online community creates or contributes content (or is very active ) in the community, 9 percent respond or show some activity in the community, and the remaining 90 percent just watch without participating. The 90 percent are known as the lurkers, and the 9 percent known as active lurkers.

The 90-9-1 principle runs in slight conflict with my theory that almost everyone on the planet now has a blog—which means that very few people are motivated to contribute to comments sections or online communities and in fact are monitoring these networks for ideas for their own blogs. At least 90-9-1 sounds better than lurking, anyway.

Upon encountering the term "lurker" I felt guilty, like I was hiding behind my chair and sneaking peaks at the online entries of the greater community. Upon further research I found, in an MIT study, a defense of lurking that was better than anything I could make up. The study found that active lurkers in an online community might constitute closer to 40 percent to 50 percent of members and, while these people might not contribute directly to the online forum, they contribute by taking some of the ideas from the specific community and sharing them in the world at large. I propose we call these people "worker bees" instead of lurkers, as they take the pollen from one online community and spread it to others. (I think "worker bee" sounds much better than "lurking" also, but I don't think I want to go too much further with a pollination analogy.)

I've been considering this as I conduct an unscientific survey to find out what people use for their communication technology preferences. "Unscientific" on a couple counts: a) I don't think 11 samples constitutes a defensible result, and b) I'm not sure if asking the person behind the counter at the grocery store "what technologies do you use for communication?" would pass the standards test, either. Despite this, my small sample count has brought me some surprises. Generally, the world that I assumed was spending hours Tweeting and Facebooking among themselves behind my back doesn't exist. Those I spoke with included a couple middle-aged business owners, a PR person for a small non-profit organization, a college student. a magazine editor, and a teenager. One of the surprises I encountered is that the long-rumored demise of e-mail seems to be greatly exaggerated. Everyone I spoke with reported using e-mail as their primary technology for communicating, with Facebook being used for group communication.

A couple responses of note:

  • From a friend who was VP of Operations and Content Development for a how-to content site - " 'Social Media' is no different from the 'Fax Machine.' It is not a strategy; it is only a medium."
  • From our former babysitter, now a college sophomore - "I definitely use my cell phone the most to communicate with my friends, but as far as networking or reaching important people at (school) I definitely use email a ton. Facebook is good for things that you want to plan with people in a passive manner or a good way to reach a group of people all at once. My friends definitely prefer texting. I, on the other hand, really don't like it so I don't use it much unless I can't talk or just need to know the answer to one simple question."
  • Thinking that I might be missing technologies because of generational obliviousness, I asked my nearest teenager, who happens to be my daughter. She said e-mail, sometimes Facebook. When I asked her if she and her friends didn't text more, she reminded me that our cell phone plan only allows her 200 texts a month, and how could she possibly text with her friends with only that many texts, and what is wrong with me how could anyone text only 200 times a month when that includes texts received and why couldn't she get unlimited texting... (I think "lurking" might be the best way to deal with teenaged daughters.)

To keep the unscientific nature of this post going, here are some impressions I've garnered from lurking:

  • I appreciate social networks who do the work for me. GovLoop sends out frequent e-mail notices about new content or discussions. Being reminded without having to go look for the community is very useful for me. If I could find a social network to order lunch for me, I'd be in heaven.
  • My Facebook wall has slowly been taken over by "friends" who a) use it as an advertisement forum for their latest work, b) send trite surveys- e.g., "what are your top five annoying surveys?," and c) confuse Facebook with Twitter and send short one-liners to each other.
  • Twitter reminds me of a school bus - a bunch of short one-liners being shouted over one another in order to get your attention. The Twitter accounts I've followed were places where I was interested in the subject matter beforehand and wanted to follow something. I have yet to encounter a Twitter account that draws me into a subject or world I wasn't aware of.

And now that I've shared these with you I can refer to myself as a worker bee.