Firstly, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak today. This is my third time attending this series of conferences, and I am glad to be back.
Delegates may or may not know, but this week is part of Co-operatives Fortnight. If you take a look at this next slide, you’ll see the different types of values that all co-operatives must meet.
Many people think the terms ‘co-operative’ and a’ workers co-operative’ as the same thing. But so long as they meet these criteria any model of company can be a co-operative. So an online community could be a co-operative with only the need for a simple contract between members, providing they follow these principles.
One of these particularly relevant for an online community is ‘concern for community’. In such electronic environments people know as lurkers often don’t feel such concern.
When I say this word, ‘lurker’ to you, of what do you think?
Perhaps a dangerous being that stalks others, like this tiger in a painting by Rosa Bonheur in the 19th century?
Or maybe someone innocent and shy…
who is afraid to post a message because they fear what might happen, like this kitten in this early 20th century painting by Bessie Bamber …
The field of online communities is very interdisciplinary, like these conferences. In economics a lurker may be thought of as a free-rider – that is, people who have the benefits of a market economy but don’t contribute towards it. It may also include those who are economically inactive – that is, someone who is not producing any content.
In sociology they may be seen as peripheral participators – that is someone on the boundaries of the community who is looking for the opportunity to join.
In the political arena they could be those who are considered apathetic – in other words those who feel the system does not represent them so they feel no point in engaging with it.
They may also, in the field of education, be seen as someone who is disengaged with their learning environment. And in religion they could be seen as Agnostic – that is, someone who has not made their mind up and is waiting until the time they have.
But instead of trying to think what they are – let us think why they are.
According to Online Community expert, Jenny Preece, there are five main reasons why lurkers don’t post. These are that they don’t need to post, mainly because they think just reading and browsing is enough – like the free-riders in economics.
Another is that they need to find out more about the group before joining – like the peripheral participators in sociology.
Another is that they think they were being helpful by not posting, like the person disengaged in the classroom because everyone else is jumping in before them.
It may be that like the political ones they are too busy to get to know the system.
Or it could be that like the Agnostics they don’t like the group as it stands, as it may not be compatible with what they believe.
However, there is one group of people who Jenny Preece left out – those who are not online because of the digital divide. Unlike these other causes, which could be based on personal choice, those who are economically inactive may not even be able to get online.
This may be because of the wide gap between the rich and the poor. My co-operative social enterprise, Glamorgan Blended Learning Ltd, is trying to something about it. If you’d like to help I have petition cards from Co-operatives UK as part of Co-operatives Fortnight. They call on the government to narrow the gap between rich and poor through supporting co-operatives like ours.
But as you can see from this slide, in the current time there are a lot of opportunities for lurkers to become posters for good reasons.
Many people have heard of the public sphere. It is places like pubs and newspaper letters where we can say pretty much what we want providing we comply with the policies of the place where we wish to express it. On the Web these consist of comments to others blogs, replies to Tweets, and forum posts.
The term, ‘public square’, was only recently introduced by Internet researcher Don Tapscott. It refers to personal online communities, such as our Facebook profiles or blogs, where we make the rules. It can also mean any printed newsletter we create in the real-world, such as for a local club.
In essence, the public square refers to those websites where ordinary people have the editorial control usually found in mass media like televisions or newspapers. It comparison with the public sphere you can see that it means we not only control the content we provide, but what others do also. So the question is; how do we get lurkers to realise these benefits and become posters?
As you can see from this slide, I have devised a conceptual model called the Participation Continuum. One can use this model to determine where someone is in their participation within an online community.
On the left hand side, is a position called ‘Repression’, which is a person’s defence after experiencing ignorance. This is from where the lurkers start. Whether it is because they don’t want to be reciprocal or have fears about participating, they are preserving their status quo of non-participation.
The next step – suppression – is where the lurker goes when they have decided they want to participate but still have reservations, which is cause by temperance. After this they experience depression as a result of reticence, which means whether they do or don’t participate they feel they have made the wrong decision.
Some of us heard a lot yesterday about Nostalgia. This is something I am exploring in depth on my doctorate as it is a new addition to my psychological framework that I once thought complete.
Our Nostalgias, whether of a lover in our past, or a family member we can no longer be with, can either act as barriers to what we want. Freud called these ‘Phantasies’, spelt with a P-h rather than f.
We often try to deny the negative ones exist. This is done through a process called rationalisation, which takes us into the part of the continuum you can see called ‘Stagnation’. Far from the definition of rational we hear in economics as being something we do before an event, in this framework rationalising is something we do after the event, often to kid ourselves about what has really happened.
At this point we will be bouncing back and for between compression where our ideal doesn’t match the reality we perceive, and compression where it does.
The only way out of this dilemma cycle is to intellectualise a solution, so we return to the main continuum.
Once we are out of this, we can go on to experience rigidepression, so named after our biological ancestors who developed rigid brains for better decision making. It is at this stage that even though we have doubts we still participate. It is only when we experience deference that we participate without doubt. This stage is called empression, named after a female primate, as it was at this stage our ancient ancestors had little control over their actions.
This next model, called the Transitional Flow of Persuasion Model, depicts the stages necessary to transform a lurker into a poster with some precision.
You can see labelled ‘equ1’ that part called equilibrium 1. This is where the lurker is happy not participating with little involvement and high flow.
In order to break them out of this, there needs to be a disruption to this equilibrium. This could come from members who post something so abhorrent that the lurker feels so aggrieved that they want to post.
Depending on the strength of this force, which I call a ‘seduction mechanism’, they may be propelled through the participation continuum to equilibrium 2, or yes still need some persuasion.
If the latter is the case, then they need to firmly severe themselves from their beliefs before going on to the contrience stage. This could be finding those five reasons we identified earlier to be false, or not important enough for participation to be desirable.
This stage of contrience is the stage where they are in no-mans-land, where the only place to go is forward to enhancement or back to preservation.
If they decide to go forward, they jump to the new equilibrium, a process that is so great that it would take a seduction mechanism of the same strength in reverse to return to their original state of non-participation. This might take the form of posting a message in response to the one that made them want to post.
In order that lurkers be encouraged to post for reasons other than a dislike for what was posted there are a number of steps that can be taken.
The online community managers, also called systems operators (or sysops), need to be more proactive in their communities. More often than not, those people who set up forums are against censorship and believe people should be able to say whatever they want. However, all too often this means that lurkers are discouraged from posting because they are afraid they may be a target.
Another way is that there is greater involvement from the elders in an online community – that is, the people who have been there a long time but aren’t as active as they used be.
These people are well respected in the community, and if they were to put right those members known as Snerts, who are the members who post offensive messages, known as ‘flames’, then the lurkers who would otherwise not want to participate may do so.
Also, the regular members, who may be more interested in themselves than the newcomers, need to realise that by not involving the recently converted lurkers, those new members may return to being on the periphery or worse still, not be in the community at all.