Silent majority

When @MartinaEmke kindly retweeted my tweet promoting my last post, she followed it up with this provocation:

Although the people associated with the tweets was beyond the scope of that post, I must confess, it’s a topic to which I’ve already devoted some thought. How might we account for those who remain invisible because they don’t (inter)act? Approaching this with a sociomaterial sensibility, it would be too easy to claim that since there is no action, they cannot be deemed to be actors; they cannot be ‘followed’ and there is therefore little to say about them. Studies of this phenomenon, often called ‘lurking,’ have emerged which frame this behaviour in positive terms (Nonnecke & Preece, 2003; Walker et al, 2013). Crawford (2011) suggests using a metaphor of ‘listening’ as a way to conceptualise lurking. This then redefines the activity from being “vacant and empty figurations to being active and receptive processes.” However, Martina’s question seemed to require a more methodological framing; how does actor-network theory deal with something it can’t ‘see?’

“Iceberg” flickr photo by James E. Petts shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

In summing up his research into online students who lurk and how we might learn about their activity, Beaudoin (2002) offers the analogy of an iceberg to describe online learning communities, where the part above the surface, the visibly active participants, constitute only a small fraction of the whole. The majority are below the surface, so perhaps we need to find ways of peering into that realm? My first thought when casting around for an analogy was unsurprisingly drawn from physics. Our prevailing cosmological theory is one in which the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. This was unanticipated and various models were offered to explain it; they mainly involve dark matter and dark energy. Only around 5% of the universe appears to be the matter we can see and detect; the remainder is invisible, or ‘dark.’ This is similar to online lurking behaviour – we know it’s there, but just like dark matter and energy, it’s devilishly difficult to detect. Or at least that would appear to be the case.

I had a shot a probing this area when I tried a method in which I asked people to describe (and record) what they are doing on Twitter, in real time – essentially a variation on the ‘thinking aloud’ protocol Charters (2003) describes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t overwhelmed with participants so can’t comment on whether it might have begun to reveal activity which is normally hidden. Strike 1.

Initially I was seeking what lurkers were doing, which felt like it placed the emphasis more on the people, rather than the activity. It’s the activity, the practice, the performance that ought to be the focus of a sociomaterial gaze. With that in mind I thought more about lurking, rather than lurkers, and whilst wondering about how I might make that manifest, I recognised the answer might actually be quite literally under my nose. In Martina’s tweet, she referred to the ‘readers’ of a tweet, which then made me think about the act of reading tweets. In reality, that’s what most of us do most of the time; we’re all lurking most of the time. Whether we’re quickly scanning through our twitterstream, or checking results offered up in Tweetdeck search columns, most of the tweets we read or scan invoke no other action from us. Crawford (2011) also notes this shift in states between reading and commenting. Whether a shrew is predator or prey is irrelevant (except perhaps to the shrew!), it’s nevertheless still a shrew. Whether we’re reading or replying, scanning or retweeting, we’re still a Twitter user and as such part of the Twitter, tweet, hashtag, mention assemblage. To other people, we’ll shift into focus and back out, depending on which state we’re occupying. Perhaps we shouldn’t be viewing this at specific moments in time … which reminds me I need to explore whether chronotopes might be able to help me understand and explain this better.

Beaudoin, M. F. (2002). Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student. The internet and higher education, 5(2), 147-155.
Crawford, K. (2011). Listening, not lurking: The neglected form of participation. Cultures of participation, 63-77.
Charters, E. (2003). The use of think-aloud methods in qualitative research an introduction to think-aloud methods. Brock Education Journal, 12(2).
Nonnecke, B., & Preece, J. (2003). Silent participants: Getting to know lurkers better. In From usenet to CoWebs (pp. 110-132). Springer London.
Walker, B., Redmond, J., & Lengyel, A. (2013). Are They All The Same? Lurkers and Posters on The Net. eCULTURE, 3(1), 16.


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