Lurking in Multicultural Online Educational Forums: “I Wasn't Invited to the Party”

Lurking in Multicultural Online Educational Forums: “I Wasn't Invited to the Party”

Stephen Bax (CRELLA, University of Bedfordshire, UK) and Mark Pegrum (University of Western Australia, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch010
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Through an examination of the practice of lurking, or vicarious participation, in online educational environments, this chapter shows that online interaction is affected by practical, social and cultural issues which extend well beyond the technological and educational questions typically addressed in discussions of online tools. It focuses on the first phase of the Third Space in Online Discussion project, a set of asynchronous international online forums in which a multicultural cohort of language teachers took part in 2007. After a discussion of the literature related to lurking, both in non-educational and educational environments, the authors present our own data on lurking in a small-scale but in-depth study. They go on to elucidate some of the practical, social, cultural and linguistic reasons for lurking and show that these operate together, rather than individually, to produce lurking behaviour. They conclude by indicating the strategies they adopted to encourage more active involvement in a later phase of the online educational project.
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Lurking is evil. Monsters, thieves, and muggers lurk. More often than not, lurking requires the cover of shadows or the night. Rarely, if ever, does it have positive associations (Nonnecke & Preece, 1999). When the term is used in reference to an online environment, by extension, it would seem to imply not only observing without actively participating, but doing so with some ulterior motives. Yet online lurkers are numerous, making up the majority of members in many online groups, and constituting up to 99% of all users in discussion lists (Nonnecke & Preece, 2001, citing Katz, 1998, Mason, 1999, and Nonnecke, 2000).

In many relatively informal online discussion forums, such as hobby or lifestyle forums (like the Craigslist forums at, the prevalence of lurking might not be particularly critical, and might even help contribute to an unpressured atmosphere. By contrast, in the case of forums such as those in our Third Space in Online Discussion project, with a set time frame and clear educational goals as outlined below, our initial response when confronted with evidence of lurking was to consider it not as ‘working’ but as ‘shirking’ (Taylor, 2002, p. 7). We therefore took it as a sign of partial failure, both of the lurkers and of our management of the forums, and determined to research the issue in order to solve the ‘problem’ as far as we could.

Negative views of lurking in online forums originate partly in Western social constructivist ideas predicated on the notion that participation – by which is usually meant active and frequent verbal engagement – is not only socially positive but is fundamental for learning (e.g., Duffy & Kirkley, 2004). Other cultures do not always share this view. In Japan, for example, a high value is placed on listening, and silence “can be viewed as a communicative skill, not just a form of emptiness between spoken words” (Davies & Ikeno, 2002, p. 51). This is significant since it was immediately apparent that lurking in our own multinational virtual community was more common among non-Anglophone, non-Western participants, including East Asians. This cultural dimension was of major interest to us since one of our main aims in the project was to generate participation so that intercultural awareness could develop as part of an educational third space, as discussed more fully below. Was the lurking due to culturally different learning styles? Were lurkers in fact working, not shirking, but doing so in their own culturally preferred ways? Or were other factors involved? Such questions, we suggest, will be increasingly significant as more and more international educational forums appear online.

A second focus of our investigation related to the issue of normalisation. This concept concerns the role of technology in language education (Bax, 2003), and refers to the notion that technology can realise its full potential only when its use is as ‘normalised’ in our daily practice as that of a pen or a book, at which stage it has reached ‘normalisation’. We felt one relatively unexplored reason for lurking might be that there are aspects of the technologies involved which are simply not yet fully normalised in participants’ personal practice. In this light, lurking could be seen not as a deficit, but as a natural developmental stage in a progression from ‘hesitant beginner’ to ‘normalised user’. More broadly, this might be linked to how technology and innovations are taken up by users, whether they be ‘early adopters’ or ‘laggards’ (Rogers, 1995, p. 262).

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