Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Value of Lurkers

A little under a year ago, I went to a workshop on synthetic biology standards sponsored by the NIST Synthetic Biology Standards Consortium (and subsequently became a participant in said consortium myself). One of the things that was said at this workshop, which has stuck with me and been rattling around in my head ever since, is about the value of mailing list lurkers.

Lurkers, for anyone who doesn't know, are the people who are subscribed to a mailing list (or other community) but never (or almost never) post to it themselves.  In pretty much every online community that I have been a part of, scientific or otherwise, the lurkers tend to vastly outnumber the active participants, often by an order of magnitude or more.  If you are an active participant, it can feel quite frustrating sometimes, to have all of these people who are theoretically part of your community but do not seem to be contributing anything.  The bulk of the readily measurable "work" in many communities is typically done by a very small group of core participants, i.e., the ones who draft the standards documents, who update the websites, who organize articles for publication, etc.

That view, however, I have come to understand is actually a dangerous illusion.  The lurkers who only watch and rarely if ever speak have a very important role to play in a community, and especially in a community that is seeking to develop a consensus policies (such as scientific standards).  Those lurkers, you see, are a constituency, a user base, and a conduit to the larger intellectual world.  Here are some of the key functions that "inactive" community members perform that are not so visible, yet clearly critical to the success and survival of a community:
  • Speaking up when their interests are threatened: Many people in a community will not speak as long as they feel their interests are being sufficiently well represented by the people who are speaking.  They don't really care which of several plausible alternatives are being chosen, because they can work with any of them and they trust the de facto decision makers sufficiently. In this way, silence often does in fact represent consent.  It is for this reason that when somebody who does not usually participate speaks up to voice a concern, it is particularly important to pay attention to them, as they are likely to represent an important and largely silent constituency. Moreover, when they speak up, it is likely because something important is starting to go off the rails and the usual "speaking club" is too blinded in some way to notice this fact (else it would not be happening in the first place).  Unfortunately, it is also particularly easy for such voices to be squashed due to the very fact that they are not part of the usual "speaking club" and likely to be rebuffed due to their less facile and polished presentation of concerns.
  • Using the ideas and other products of the community: People generally don't sign up for a community unless they have at least some interest in what's going on in that community.  The people who are not speaking may not be creating much new content for the community, but they are often listening to it.  The thoughts and products of the community are with them still when they go elsewhere, to places in which they are in fact more active.  The silent members of the community, then, are actually most likely to be the conduits by which it actually can affect the outside world, since the more "productive" community members are investing their energy inside the community rather than outside of it.
  • Simply being aware of the community: Even if the more silent members of a community are not finding the community's content to be of use to them, they are at least aware that the community exists.  As such, they are still important representatives of the community to other outsiders who may have interest in it, and can help to connect those people to the community, facilitating community growth and mergers with other likeminded communities, as well as helping to prevent others from accidentally trying to reinvent the wheel.
Thus, not only are the quiet members of a community more than dead weight for the community to drag along, but those quiet members also serve functions that are both extremely important and also in many ways quite distinct from those of the louder members.  If you are an active member of a community, I urge you to embrace your lurkers, to value them, and to make it as safe as possible for them to speak up when they are motivated to: their words are likely to be the most important for you to hear.
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