David Weinberger
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All Hail The Lurkers

06 December 1999

Lurking is the art of staying silent while conversation happens all around you. Off the Web, lurking is sinister. On the Net, lurking is the best way to enter a conversation..

The Net is throwing us not only into new conversations but into new ways of conversing. This makes life quadruple confusing. We're exposed not only to topics we would never have imagined--some of which actually turn out to be worth our while--but to new rhythms and expectations of conversation itself.

E-mail in general has its own unwritten rules. You can tell when someone's new to the form: the message is too long, too polite, too much like a memo. But each interchange of e-mail also sets its own sub-expectations. How funny is it? How many typos are allowed? What's the permitted level of profanity? How far off topic can you go before it counts as a digression?

And the same is true of mailing lists and discussion groups, except even more so. Inevitably, such discussions quickly generate threads about the unwritten rules of the discussion. For example, last week we started up a discussion of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Almost instantly threads emerged taking people to task for being off topic, only to be told that the off-topic topics were in fact the most on-topic topics. And, a few contributors were chastised for quoting too much of the previous thread, heaven forfend! That, of course, generated discussion about the chastising, etc. This is all part of the coming to agreement about the discussion ethos.

Conversations, no matter what the medium, represent a tacitly negotiated sharing of contexts. Thus, to enter them one must first learn to listen. Otherwise, you run the risk of stomping in wearing big ol' waders and stepping on the feet of people engaged in an improvised tap dance.

This holds for the conversations going on among the employees in a company. The Net has provided the means by which people who don't know one another well can find themselves in conversations of every type. These conversations are the lifeblood of your organization. Thinking you can channel them--nay, thinking you can even *enter* them--without first learning to listen can be fatal.

Not to mention the conversations going on among your customers about you, your products, your people. You run the risk of sounding like a ham-fisted corporate a-hole if you don't learn to listen. It's hard to do because companies generally think that they're the authorities about their own products and thus get to speak in the voice used for regal proclamations. Learn to shut up for awhile until you can hear the murmur of the conversations around you. Then shut up some more while you lurk, listen and learn.