Lurking or Legitimate Peripheral Participation

During the July 7 early #lrnchat about social media and social learning, there was a lot of discussion about lurking.

Can I Play?In response to the question “What are some ways you learn through social media that aren’t collaborative, with other people per-se?”

I replied:

I do a fair amount of lurking (ie “legitimate peripheral participation”)

I also retweeted this message by Colby Fordham:

We all like sharers, but there is a value in lurking. [You] have to [learn] the rules and important topics.

and Jane Bozarth replied

…and then stop lurking

Often, lurking is just a temporary phase, and you do jump in afterwards. But is that always necessary? I have lots of online communities where I sit on the periphery and lurk, long past the initial phase of learning how the community works.

A few examples:

  • YouTube: Most of the time on YouTube, I’m just watching. I’m not creating my own videos, commenting, sharing, or bookmarking. I have a few videos, but I’m lurking at least 90% of the time.
  • Kongregate: Technically, I am not a lurker on this gaming site by the strictest definition, since I do rate games. I read through the forums and chat  sometimes, but rarely jump into the conversation.
  • News: I don’t get a newspaper in “dead tree” format; I get most of my news online. I read several newspapers and blogs, all of which have commenting or community features. Most of the time I don’t even read the user discussions, and I never add my own comments.
  • Slashdot: I skim the RSS feed, but I don’t have an account and have never commented.
  • Wikipedia: At one point, I contributed quite a bit (2500+ edits), but it’s been over a year since I’ve been active.

I learn on all those sites. (Yes, even Kongregate: I learn game strategies on the forums. What I learn is of limited use in the rest of my life, but it’s useful for my goals when I’m on that site.) I’ll be honest; I’m not really interested in getting sucked into the high drama conversations on most of those sites. Wikipedia, for example, can be pretty intense and nasty. It’s the only place online I’ve actually been directly threatened (although there was no actual danger, it was still disconcerting). If I’m going to be part of conversations, I’d rather they be part of the learning community, or at least more productive than many of the conversations at the sites above.

Would I be a better gamer if I was active in the Kongregate forums? Most likely. But I’m not looking for a high level of expertise in gaming. So why should I expend my energy there, when peripheral participation gets me enough expertise to meet my personal goals?

In the #lrnchat conversation, Jane called this behavior “taking,” and she’s right—I’m reading and taking advantage of the resources without giving back. I give back here, but I don’t give back in every community that I use. My giving is very uneven, and sometimes I just lurk.

Is it wrong to lurk, or is it appropriate to have different levels of participation in different online communities? Should we exclude anyone from reading the RSS feeds of our blogs if they aren’t commenting,  bookmarking, +1-ing, etc?

In Digital Habitats, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith call lurking “legitimate peripheral participation”:

From a community of practice perspective, lurking is interpreted as “legitimate peripheral participation,” a crucial process by which communities offer learning opportunities to those on the periphery. Rather than a simple distinction between active and passive members, this perspective draws attention to the richness of the periphery and the learning enabled (or not) by it. (p. 9)

Do the people active in a community learn more than those on the edges? Yes, I do believe that. But if your goal isn’t to be an expert, peripheral participation may give you enough learning to meet your needs. You can learn via social media without it actually being social learning.

What do you think? Are there communities where you are in the center of the action, but others where you’re on the periphery? Is there a place for lurking in learning communities, or should everyone be an active participant? If we’re designing learning with social media, can we focus just on social learning, or can we also support use of social media for peripheral participation?

Image credit:

Can I play? by jaxxon

13 thoughts on “Lurking or Legitimate Peripheral Participation

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  2. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I’ve been silently absorbing information from your blog for a while now and find it useful. In the lecture style “sage on the stage” learning environments participants are expected to stay quiet–and they still learn. I think there is a lot to be said for both modes: active and passive participation.

    1. I do think that people generally learn less, or at least less deeply, in the sage on the stage model. But that level of learning may be enough in some situations, just like passive or minimally active participation online may give us “enough” learning to meet our goals.

  3. @Dean, Digital Habitats discusses how people on the periphery can take content from one group to another. That is one of the roles of people on the edge of the community.

    @Ryan, I’m the same way about product reviews. I rely on them, but I don’t contribute. I wonder if I should make an effort to try to review more, at least for products with only a few reviews. I agree that we don’t contribute much if hundreds of reviews already exist.

    As we discussed offline earlier today, every place you choose to contribute takes time, and that time spent means not spending it somewhere else. If we are contributing, it makes sense to focus on places where we can actually add value.

    But if you’re taking things you read online and sharing those ideas offline, you are contributing. As Dean said, you can be a “boundary agent” dispersing ideas from one group to another.

    @Ardis, that xkcd is one of my favorites, and it’s so true. I certainly got caught up on Wikipedia with “correcting all the people who were wrong.” There is something about maturity to be able to let go of that and not get sucked into the drama, whether it’s letters to the editor or online discussions. We can choose to get involved sometimes, but it’s good to be selective about where we spend that effort. Some of those discussions don’t really add value, and maybe we’re better off just avoiding them.

  4. Tempted as I was just to lurk on this one, I decided to play instead …
    So, +1. Also +1 @Ryan. And furthermore:

    Other people lurking: When I look at the downright foolishness of some comments on YouTube, in the brief spell before the red mist comes down I definitely see a case for other people lurking. (In an earlier day, reading letters to the editor => blood pressure spike.)

    Which leads me to …
    Me lurking: There are some real twits out there in the world. But it is not my personal mission to enlighten them. The job is too big. See also:

    I don’t think it’s age in the sense of not wanting to live my life on the interweb; it’s not any kind of digital native nonsense. It’s more age in the sense of no longer having the passion I once had for setting the world to rights. I can live with misinformation and ambiguity. Some of the time.

  5. I agree lurking is a first step in joining a community and it is a great opportunity to learn more about the group that you might join. This transient phase of lurking before ‘jumping in’ is certainly a form of legitimate peripheral participation.

    However, some of the longer term casual lurking you describe (on YouTube for example) may be something different altogether. I wonder if that’s more like being a broker or a boundary agent; looking at other groups to bring back information and new learning to another community with which you participate strongly.

  6. I am torn on this one. I also do a fair amount of lurking on various forums and blogs that I frequent. I tell myself that I don’t post because I don’t always feel that I have the expertise to add meaningful insights (I frequently have snarky thoughts towards those who add valueless posts). I have one and a half feet in the camp of, “just because you can share your neuronal firings with the world, doesn’t mean you have to…or necessarily should.”

    However, I will admit to being a hypocrite when it comes to online retail forums. I derive great benefit from reading produce reviews (in fact I rarely purchase anything without first reading user generated reviews), but I rarely write reviews myself. Why? I guess I just figure that everything I would say about a product has already been said. I know that because I already read the 386 reviews before mine.

    The strange thing is that these feelings that I am not going to add value completely disappear in the carbon world. In the real world I enjoy sharing my opinions and experiences, and I (of course) feel that I am sharing something worthwhile.

    Maybe it’s my age (early 40’s) that keeps me from feeling that the same type of social contract that exists in the real world exists online as well.

    Regardless…I posted here!


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