Lurkers are the biggest single disenfranchised group on the Net and the Web. Even though there are far more Lurkers than participants in most websites that permit posting and open discussions, they are invisible, sometimes counted but almost never seen or heard.
E-mail from Lurkers is so jarringly different in tone and content than public topic postings that they seems to exist in a parallel universe. In some ways, they do.
A recent survey by a computer consulting firm in Chicago found that 98 per cent of the visitors to large sites with open forums - from AOL and MSN to sites like Slashdot - never submit ideas or articles and never post opinions or participate in arguments.
In my own case, I get anywhere between 100 and 500 e-mails per column, and I'd guess that 98 per cent of it comes from people who never post in public topics - a stunning statistic in an intensely interactive medium like this one.
As a result, the agenda is often set by the smallest, not the largest, group of Netizens, and so is the tone and style of public discussion. Although the public discussions on Slashdot and other websites are often raucous and hostile, e-mail from Lurkers almost never is. Lurker e-mail can be plenty critical and challenging, but the style and tone of people who communicate one on one is radically different from postings on public forums, often dominated by hostile, frequently anonymous, mostly young, overwhelmingly male messagers. For better or worse, flaming is an adolescent geek rite of passage. It will never go away, and shouldn't. Free sites tolerate even obnoxious speech.
Since writing for Slashdot, I've been counting e-mail. Writing about the difficulties of learning Linux, I got more than 1,000 posts in a single week following two columns about how difficult the process was. The overwhelming majority of these posts - 75 per cent - were from people offering help, advice, experience. During that same week, somewhere between 75 and 100 public posts criticized my writing - length, style and content - suggested I shouldn't be here or should be run off. The difference was jarring.
Many of the Lurkers writing me were people who believed I was under continuous and vicious assault because they read the public postings beneath my columns. When I wrote back to say that the response to my writing on Slashdot was overwhelmingly, and from the first, appreciative and generous, and that reading e-mail here was a treat because it was both nice and smart, many people are incredulous.
"I am amazed to hear that you're not continuously under fire," wrote James, a Dayton, Ohio school teacher and father of two who is trying to prepare a class on the politics of OSS but who is uncomfortable about posting after reading some of the uglier flames. "I would have told my class that they were lynching you there."
The point isn't that my writing is or isn't popular, but that perception is so easily skewed and distorted. Most of the people reading, visiting, coming onto the site are never heard from, while a handful of people who post are seen as presenting a dominant voice that is often quite marginal, if equally valid.
Perhaps the most common introduction to e-mail messages that people like me receive, usually in these exact words is: "I don't always agree with you, and I never post comments publicly?" I see this so often I sometimes think it's a heading. Of course, online columnists, writers and posters don't write for agreement. If everybody agreed with me, nobody would have any reason at all to read me. Online, columnists are conversation-starters, not finishers. They don't need to be right, or even to be convinced that they are, just to believe they are correct at the moment they write, and willing to change their minds if the feedback warrants.
The schism between people who post and those who don't is a significant issue for public websites for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the commercial to free speech.
Obviously people who lurk are less likely to register, join or support sites. If they're not comfortable enough to join in collective discussions, why would they stick around and learn the complexities of Linux?
This enormous disparity between huge numbers of Lurkers and small numbers of public posters skews agendas, distorts arguments, and, worst of all, drives away countless potential contributors. So many Lurkers say in e-mail that they are uncomfortable with the tone and hostility of public forums (this was true on Hotwired from the first) that it increasingly becomes a free speech issue. If government or corporations drove away or silenced as many people as flamers do, Net Libertarians would be rushing to the barricades.
In a culture whose most shared common ideology is the free movement of ideas and information, who exactly fights for or protects the increasingly large numbers of people who are afraid to speak at all?
"I am afraid to post because the incredible arrogance and hostility among some people on sites like this," Julia e-mailed me two weeks ago. "I'd like to learn Linux, but I don't get the feeling that these people would help me. They would jus make me feel stupid." When I told her that I'd received literally hundreds of offers of help from members of Slashdot, including a dozen who invited me to their homes or volunteered to come to mine, she didn't believe me.
Lurkers are often either technologically advanced - "I'm a Webmaster in Austin," wrote Jim, who disagreed with a column I wrote about digital democracy, "and I'm sorry to add to your e-mail, but I just don't have time to trade insults with teenagers," or technologically challenged - "I would never dream of posting this message on Slashdot," "messaged Ann, a Web designer in New York City. "I might say something wrong..."
Newcomers to the Net often e-mail, just to see if anybody's really on the other end, but they wouldn't dream of posting because they feel they don't understand the language or rituals here. Foreigners are reluctant to post publicly, because they don't feel confident enough about their command of English to argue issues. Many women and elderly people often browse sites like this but frequently write that they find much of the content interesting, but have never posted publicly because they don't go online to argue.
Online, Lurkers are a culture all their own. They can cruise from site to site in peaceful anonymity, picking up perspective, information and insight, even though they rarely seem to light permanently.
E-mail from Lurkers is useful and entertaining. It includes personal experience, books and articles read, jokes and recommendations to browse other sites they've lurked. One lurker even guided me a Lurkers anonymous list (he made me promise to keep it a secret) where 200 Lurkers on ICQ chat gather nightly to talk about the sites they've lurked, and the information they've picked up. One of their favorite topics is the verbal violence of online discussions.
It's impossible to generalize about Lurkers, but in the past five years writing for several different websites, I've asked many of them what it would take to get them to come out, stay on a site and publicly post their messages - the lurker posts about digital democracy in the past few weeks were astonishing, and included teachers, academics, voters, public policy geeks, political aides and journalists, most of whom were uncomfortable posting in the open message areas. But their discomfort with public posting is a loss. Their messages shouldn't be stuck in my e-mail queue, but posted publicly so everybody could have read them, talked about them, even argued about them.
About a third of the Lurkers say they just prefer Lurking, that it gives them the best of the Web, which is access to thousands of interesting sites, while by-passing the worst, personal insults and abuse, and what one Web designer called "the raging head-butting of the clueless against the self-righteous. I'll post online when people can disagree without name-calling. Probably not in this life."
One software developer e-mailed last week that "I see that there are many intelligent comments posted on sites like Slashdot, and I feel for the people trying to have rational discussions. But where else in the world would you go out of your way to have anonymous people call you offensive names in public?"
Of the Lurkers who say they would love to post messages on public topics and sites, they almost all say it would take several things to get them to feel comfortable: no anonymous postings, moderated discussions, a ban on personal insults.
"People should take responsibility for their words by putting their name on them," e-mailed Richard H, a graphic designer in Toronto. "If they won't do that, why should I listen to them?"
But efforts to sanitize public discussion areas are complex. Flaming has a tradition and value all it's own. It's a great leveler. Flamers often make thoughtful points even when they don't mean to. They helps prevent a few single voices from dominating sites and discussions as they do in mainstream journalism. If nothing else, public roasting keeps the writer's ego under control. And makes it clear that there are lots of different points of view. If flaming shouldn't be taken too seriously, it shouldn't be dismissed as pointless either.
One of the best things about the Web, as many Lurkers point out, is, in fact, one of the worst - a tolerance for open discussion that makes the Internet the freest culture in the world. For me, this is a fair trade-off.
But that doesn't mean Lurkers can't be lured out.
My own vote? Sites like Slashdot should offer special welcome areas for Lurkers, newcomers and newbies, not to mention immigrants, the elderly, the technically challenged or the shy. I can testify from personal experience that there are hundreds of people on this site who would be happy to help if they were asked, and would warmly greet newcomers.
Established sites like the Well have long provided moderated areas where people can identify themselves, be welcomed, and ask questions about the site, and the different topics and discussion areas. There is no debate or arguments on welcome sites, simply the chance for people to say who they are, why they're here, and what they are interested in, and for the site - usually volunteers -- to help guide them.
The ideal world for truly interactive websites would be for the flamers and head-butters to have at it freely and without restriction, but for the growing numbers of online Lurkers to participate. It's hard to see who would lose in an environment like that.
For Open Source Software sites like this one, this is even more important, since it is in the interest of OSS and free software advocates to spread the message as well as the software that there is a booming new alternative to the greedy and increasingly censorious companies - Microsoft, Disney, AOL - that are seeking to dominate the commercial and cultural life of the Internet. Sooner or later, the Lurkers will light. When they do, it ought to be here, and on places like this, and not on Disney's Go.com.
You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org