Lurking and other behaviors

Community of practice

A tug of war at our 2009 family reunion: note the lurker in the white sunbonnet

I work for an international public company which is engaged in the stimulating task of adopting an Agile process for software envisioning and development.  We have become a community of practice as we share and learn from one another. Together, we are looking at questions such as:  What Agile techniques work for us and which don’t?  How does the Agile process change the way we work together?  What do we know we know? What are our best practices?

This is social learning, or informal learning, and everyone in the community of practice can join in.

However, not everyone participates equally. Jakob Nielson‘s study on participation inequality indicates that on interactive web sites, there is a tendency for most users to participate very little (if at all) and a few members of the community account for a disproportionately large amount of the activity. His research found that user participation generally follows a 90-9-1 Rule:

  • 90% of users are “lurkers”
  • 9% contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time
  • 1% participate very often and account for most of the contributions

Can we apply the 90-9-1 rule to an online environment, such as our company’s wiki, where a community of practice meets every day for social learning? A casual review of who’s contributing to our corporate wiki seems to add credence to the 90-9-1 rule, for it is the same small number of people who are contributing to the wiki, day after day.

But — this begs a couple of questions:

  • Does a person’s participatory role change over time?
  • Is “lurking” a bad thing?

Does a person’s participatory role change over time?

Etienne Wenger describes five trajectories of participatory behavior in his 1999 book, Communities of Practice: Learning, meaing and identity:

  • Legitimate peripheral participation, not fully participating (lurkers)
  • Inbound, headed toward full participation
  • Insider, fully accepted into the community
  • Boundary, sustaining membership in related communities of practice and “brokering” interactions between them
  • Outbound, in the process of leaving a community

The implication of Wenger’s five trajectories of participation is that a person’s participatory role can change over time.  If so, the designer of social learning systems must think, in Wenger’s words:  “…fundamentally in terms of rhythms by which communities and individuals continually renew themselves.”

Is lurking a bad thing?

Wenger describes the concept of  legitimate peripheral participation as the process by which newcomers become experienced members and eventually old timers of a community of practice. They start by engaging in low-risk, basic activities (like reading someone else’s wiki post). This is a way that newcomers become acquainted with the tasks, vocabulary, and organizing principles of the community.

As I examine the patterns of participation in our company’s Agile community of practice, my goal is to uncover the rhythms of participation, to see if those newcomers become inbound, heading toward full participation. I wonder if I can unveil the ways in which this participatory role change can be facilitated by the “insiders”.  I am interested to discover if we have “boundary” members, and how they behave.  And what are the signs that someone is in the process of becoming “outbound”?

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