What do we really mean by "community" when we think about virtualparticipation? We know from many studies that far more people "lurk"than respond . . . are lurkers part of a community?
I ask this because I'm an author and I think I've always been one. Even as a little math geek kid, I was also convinced I was a writer and I think I was probably officially published first when I was eight or maybe nine. That was in a national kids' mag---but even before that I had a little printing press and put out a newspaper where I and the other kids on the block reported on the goings-on in our hood. So the odd "public/private" world of authorship is one that comes almost as second nature to me. A day without writing is barely a lived day for me. For better or worse, authorship is my Cartesian cogito: I write therefore I think. I write therefore I feel. I write therefore I am. Blogging works for me. (Maybe too well---but that's an issue for another column on another day!)
As hard as it is for a write-aholic like me to believe, not everyone feels quite so happy about authorship. In fact, one of the members of the HASTAC team who works indefatigibly for HASTAC has yet to post a single blog entry, appears on social network sites as anonymously as possible, and in other ways maintains her virtual privacy. Meet her in the hall and you'll be bathed in the warmth of a beautiful smile, a sunny personality, and a generous spirit. Online: no way!
I don't want to feel as if this marvelous "lurker"--someone who reads blogs, who spends much of her time on line, and who works so hard on behalf of our HASTAC community--is somehow not participating. In fact, the word "lurker" sounds like some nasty guy in a trenchcoat and with evil designs on his mind. Not so. The person who reads but does not contribute, who surfs but doesn't respond may well be contributing emotional and mental energy in the same way that, sometimes, it is the quiet person in the back row who turns in the most brilliant paper at the end of the semester.
We all contribute in different ways. Participation happens in many forms. Let's hear it for the sympathetic, engaged "lurkers" who simply don't feel comfortable in the blogosphere's transitional mix of private and public, in its new forms of authorship and authenticity. As every author knows, we need readers who are moved, excited, inspired, and involved . . . even if they are not writers themselves. Indeed, as a theorist of reception, I would say that those silent readers also contribute to the communication cycle. There are 273 of you on line right now as I type. WELCOME! And, I promise, I will not denounce you for lurking. If you were not there (however silently), I would not be writing.
[Special thanks to John Suler on Flickr for this visual of a photography-sharing community. Please click on the image for full documentation and for John Suler's Photostream as well as for a very smart online dialogue about precisely this issue of community sharing and participation.]