Lurking

I’m a fairly social person. I meet others fairly easily. I speak up in new situations and am pretty good at introducing myself to folks I’ve never before met. I can remember being a teenager and being embarrassed that my father was so eager to talk to strangers. If we went on an airline trip, he tried to speak with the pilots. When we took a ferry, he talked his way onto the bridge to meet the captain. When I became an adult, I became very much like him, eager to meet new people and learn about what they do. I think I even imitated the part about embarrassing our children on occasion.

There are, however, many situations in which I prefer to be quiet and just sit and listen. When I am beginning work with a new committee or group, I’m quite content to just listen to others and learn what I can be observing. I’m not afraid to speak up. I just don’t see a need to dominate conversations.

It has been natural for me, since I first started participating in Internet groups, to read the posts of others without feeling compelled to post myself. I belong to a few Facebook groups in which I read others’ posts fairly regularly, but don’t post myself. I try to withhold my comments unless I feel that I can genuinely contribute to the conversation or process. I’ve tried to use a similar process in meetings. I try to advance the work of the group, but not push my own agenda.

Before Internet browsers were common and message boards and other similar systems were in use, I belonged to several email groups. In the days of slow connection speeds, I would hook my computer up to the phone and download all my messages then disconnect and read them. I would write my responses and then reconnect to upload. The process was slow and cumbersome compared to the way things work today. I started a pattern of trying to be thoughtful and careful about my responses. I didn’t feel compelled to comment on every topic or to respond to every message. I soon learned the term “lurker.” A lurker is a member of an online community who doesn’t post, or who posts very infrequently. I think that the term could be applied to me in some situations.

I don’t like the term, however. The word implies something sinister. Outside of the Internet, lurking implies being intentionally hidden. One who lurks is often waiting in ambush with harmful intent. I don’t think one who listens carefully and is slow to speak displays any intent to do harm.

When joining a group on the Internet, it takes some time to become aware of group norms and the particular etiquette of the group. When I moderate a group, I even encourage lurking as a way to figure out how a group works. I don’t see anything wrong with gaining information without adding to the discussion. When I was teaching lay ministry classes for Cotner and Yankton Colleges, I used Internet teaching and learning software from Eden Theological Seminary to extend class discussions for distance learning. I moderated groups and kept track of my students’ participation. At the time I was also a student at the University of Wyoming and took several online classes. I noticed that there were some students who tended to dominate the conversation, posting a response to nearly every other comment posted. Other students held back, participating on occasion. Those who posted the most were not necessarily the most prepared of students. They weren’t always the ones who were demonstrating that they were learning. They were full of opinions, but opinions alone don’t translate into mastery of the subject material. Like a live, face to face classroom discussion, the ones who speak the most aren’t always the ones who are learning the most.

I would frequently get the impression that those who were posting all the time were much more focused on what they were writing than on what was written by other students. At times it seemed as if they weren’t even carefully reading the comments posted by others.

I don’t apologize for lurking in some conversations and Internet forums. I don’t particularly like the term lurker, but that seems to be the accepted language, so I accept the title.

Justice Clarence Thomas of the United States Supreme Court is known for not asking many questions during hearings. I once read that he went nearly ten years without asking a single question. When pressed about his unusual behavior, he said that he saw it as discourteous to pepper lawyers with questions. He believes that the role of the attorneys is to advocate for their side of the case and that they can best do so if they aren’t interrupted with questions.

I don’t think that I would completely agree with Thomas. After all the judicial system is based on people trying to understand as completely as possible the arguments that are being made. Questions can be very helpful in learning more and increasing understanding. There is almost always more to the story than what is presented in formal arguments. And our adversarial judicial system is predicated on lawyers telling only part of the story and representing only one side of an argument. The role of a judge is to consider both sides of an argument before rendering judgment.

My life is far less public and far less critical than that of a supreme court justice. I get asked my opinion on occasion, but there are far more occasions when people come to me expressing their opinions without necessarily wanting to hear mine. Not long ago a colleague expressed surprise at one of my opinions, stating, “I always thought you agreed with me.” That particular person was so quick to express his opinions and didn’t seem interested in other opinions, so I just listened. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but he took it that way.

So I will continue to lurk without evil intent. If you want to know what i think, you can read my journal.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!