A couple days ago I had a BIG conversation with Bill Mills, the Community Manager for Mozilla Science Lab, about open learning, designing for participation, online engagement, collaboration, inspiration and a bunch of other metaphysical ideas that I often create practical implementations for. During our conversation, Bill asked if I had any advice for designing learning experiences that can engage and activate the far ends of the introvert / extrovert spectrum, and I said something along the lines of “The extroverts are easy, and the introverts just need time.”
Later, I was mulling this over and thinking about how hard it is for an outgoing person such as myself to understand people who are shy or don’t participate the way I do. I was thinking about why in our online spaces we have so many people lurking and so few participating. Why don’t more people contribute?
Then I got an email from a blog I follow, and I realized I’m a lurker too. For almost two years, I’ve been lurking around a community that I quite admire. I’ve never said hello, never reached out, never participated in the challenges, or submitted a comment. I’ve not gone to any of their events. But I read what they’re talking about, and I try out their ideas. My life has, without a doubt, changed for the better since I started lurking in this particular community. And no one on Earth knows it, except for me (and you, kind of, though you don’t know what community I’m talking about or the topics they care about).
That website, and the people who participate there, have done a fine job of designing for participation. They have made me feel welcome, I feel like I know people there, I trust those people to a certain extent. I wonder what they’re up to when I haven’t been around in a while. So why don’t I say hello? Why don’t I say “Hey guys, you’re a cool community, thanks for the things you’ve put out in the world. It’s helped me,”?
Simple: I don’t feel like I need to.
I have a global community I like, the Open Community is where I choose to spend my time interacting online. I have the issues that I want to discuss in the open, and the themes of this other place I lurk around aren’t things I feel like I need to discuss. But I’m growing, I’m a better person, I support what they’re doing over there.
We can’t force people to participate, and if we really care about educating people, we shouldn’t try. We should build and design for the people who are participating, and we should be careful to ensure that the lurkers feel welcome. We should create safe spaces of learning and mentorship where even those who don’t complete the call to action still start to develop trust in us, in our products. The fact is you are always a lurker before you participate, so we should be careful not to push people away by implying that they don’t count if they aren’t like us. If we work to love our lurkers, maybe some of them will find their reason to participate.