Ever been discombobulated by a lurker? You know the kind of thing: you post something on Twitter and get an aggressive reply from someone you’ve never heard of, never seen before, but it is obvious from what they say that they regularly read what you Tweet. Robb Sutherland mentioned this phenomenon in a recent post.
Lurking isn’t a new thing and certainly not confined to Twitter. It’s more obvious though in a broadcast medium like Twitter or for people who become well known in other media, such as radio or TV. Take the example of an actor who is well known on TV who has appeared on a programme which reveals personal family information about them – something like Who Do You Think You Are? Chances are they have since been approached in the street by people who now obviously know some quite personal things about their family. I can’t help thinking that I would find those conversations weird and slightly threatening if it were me. It can feel as though someone has been lurking out there, watching you, unseen and this gives them some kind of power over you.
Lurking in the Bible
There’s quite a bit of lurking goes on in the Bible. In Judges, due to an oath, nobody in Israel would give their daughters in marriage to the Benjaminites. A cunning plan was forged whereby the Benjaminite men lurked in the shrubbery, then each grabbed a woman from Shiloh as they danced and took them as their wife. Hmmm… lurking doesn’t sound like great behaviour so far, does it? Even though the motivation was to save one tribe of Israel from extinction. Oh, but then there’s David, lurking in a cave while Saul has a wee. On that occasion, lurking was first a defence against Saul trying to hunt David down to kill him, but the situation was turned round by David sparing Saul’s life when he was vulnerable. Arguably, at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, Jesus was lurking – simply blending into the crowd with his mum until she prodded him into action over the lack of wine. So we have three types of lurking just there – lurking to abduct a wife, lurking to hide in fear of your life, and Jesus lurking because his time had not yet come. In all three cases, there was a different outcome: a tribe’s future was assured / some women were treated like stolen goods in a socially acceptable way at the time; David and Saul came to a temporary moment of peace; Jesus began his public ministry. Lurking, including online lurking, is another behaviour which can happen for many reasons, can have positive as well as negative outcomes and is not always a bad thing.
Let’s put the situation the other way round. Rather than thinking about when other people lurk and we’re unsure of their motivations, I believe most people lurk to some extent online. If you are a Twitter user, there are probably a lot of people whose Tweets you have read but never replied to. The same, to a lesser extent, may be true of your Facebook friends. I know that I don’t comment on everything that appears in my news feed and there are some people whose postings simply never inspire me to interact, but I keep them as FB friends partly from habit but also because it’s a handy way to vaguely keep in touch.
This feels a little like lurking too – I’m reading some things they are up to, possibly even seeing what they are eating daily, yet not being drawn into conversation with them at all. The term ‘lurking’ in an online context started to be used in the days of bulletin boards or forums (yes, I am old enough to have had my earliest forms of online conversations on these things – do shout if you need an explanation of what a bulletin board or forum is). ‘Lurking’ applied to registered users of a board who never replied to threads and were passive members, reading what was going on but never posting themselves. Many bulletin boards took a rather dim view of lurkers as they felt it was missing the point of what they were trying to create in the board – interactivity, conversations, debate etc. I was always far more relaxed about those who lurk, partly because, as a relative introvert, I often was one of them, but also because lurking can be a good thing.
Lurk before you leap
Watching what is going on before leaping in and offering an opinion is often no bad thing. Letting the heat of an angry exchange spend itself before putting a helpful point across is often more effective. Twitter of course is more transient than a bulletin board (though that isn’t to say a conversation or ill-considered Tweet can’t come back to haunt you) so sometimes a discussion has been and gone, and actually sending a reply later on after reflection can be a very positive thing. One way to achieve this is to favourite a Tweet – you’re lurking, don’t have time to interact or converse, but you have a feeling you might want to reply or involve yourself. By favouriting (clicking the star icon), this saves the Tweet so that later, you can look at your favourited Tweets, click on the one in question and hit reply.
And sometimes, lurking can simply be all you feel capable of for a variety of reasons. Many people have periods in their life when they need to step back from engagement online. But that is still valid participation: a concert is not a concert without an audience, and listening to a piece of music is a crucial role in the performance. Being passive on social media is not a crime, is not inherently sinister and is not a moral failing. You are still present online as a witness even if you are not active as one of the voices. And that is fine.