Jim Lebans in defense of lurking

Original photo by Geoffrey van Dijk

This guest audio post comes from our colleague, Quirks and Quarks producer Jim Lebans.

[audio:http://podcast.cbc.ca/spark/spark_20090430_lebanslurking.mp3]

Hi, my name is Jim, and I'm a lurker.

Everyone say "Hi Jim"

So here's the thing.  I'm a geek, but I'm that not much into networking.  I don't mean the hardware - I've wired my house with ethernet, and I can crimp an RJ45 connector with the best of them. It's the social networking I'm talking about. It's not that I'm a bad communicator.  I mean, I work in broadcasting.  I've written a book.  By the standard of many sciencey types I know, I'm quite outgoing: In casual conversations I often look at the other person's shoes.

But when it comes to the Internet version of socializing - participatory media, interactive communication, social networking - all that stuff that's supposed to allow people of like interests to find each other and develop their own communities...  well, at that stuff I suck.  And its not because I hate it.  I like it.  I really like it.  I just can't do it.

I try, really I do.  I read lots of blogs and comments, and subscribe to mailing lists and visit web forums. I just never post anything myself.  I even have a Facebook page.  Of course I last visited it about two months ago and I think I have a dozen friend requests looming out there, glowering at me -- bathing me in digital guilt.  I even have my own blog.  But I never made it public.  After two years, only one unique visitor - me.  It's my invisible presence on the web.

So there's no escaping it.  Like many people on the Net I'm a lurker.  A digital wallflower.  An internet introvert.  And I'm not alone.  Entirely unscientific statistics back me up.  Best guess is that for the average website with user generated content, at absolute best maybe 20% of the regular visitors are contributors.  At most sites it's probably low single digits.  So I'm part of the vast silent majority.

So why aren't we contributing?  Well I can't speak for anyone else.  Heck, I can't speak to anyone else.  But for me the reasons for maintaining my online anonymity are a little complicated

It's not that I have nothing to say.  Good lord, that can't be a disqualification.  Read the comments on most websites.  Practically nobody has anything to say. When I'm trying to flatter myself I think that my silence is because of my admirable humility.  I'm not so in love with the sound of my own voice that contributing a ringing "me too" is something the world needs to read.

But when I put aside that false modesty, I see the truth:  The Internet, for me, is just like real life.  I'm paralyzed with performance anxiety.  I'm tongue-tied while typing.  When I think of weighing in on an online debate, or contributing my two cents to a conversation, the amount of effort it would require seems overwhelming.

I'm sure many people aren't like this.  For them the Net is where they can free themselves from their social anxieties. After all, there are no worries about people sneering at you for your bad skin and bad hair, or your impenetrable accent.  You should be able, with ease and grace, to converse, hold forth, and rain upon the online community your considerable wit and wisdom.  It should be liberating and energizing.

But for me it isn't.  I'm still on the edge of the crowd, thinking just a little too late about what to say, and then not saying it.  I'm not LOL-ing.  For me it's LOS - Laughing, Only Silently.

So if you're a lurker, like me, maybe we should all get together.  Maybe we can form our own online community - a portal where we internet introverts can be top dogs, and meet and gather and share interests.  It'll be great - the first totally blank forum on the Internet.  Hundreds - maybe thousands of users logged in.  With zero posts.  Oh well, I guess not.  It's back to lurking on Slashdot and Boing Boing and all those other sites I love.  I'll see you there.  Of course, you won't see me.

Jim's essay will air on Spark 76, but you can download the MP3.

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