Monday, August 1, 2011

Social Readers and Social Reading -- rehabilitating the concepts of "lurkers" and "lurking"

This blog will take up several topics in the area of social software and social media.  One of the principal topics is Social Reading by Social Readers, aka "lurkers." 

In the older internet literature, "lurkers" have often been considered a problem:  They are "loafers" or "freeloaders."  More recently Preece and colleagues, and Takahashi and colleagues, have begun to rehabilitate the concept.  Preece et al. revised the description from "lurkers" to "non-public participants."  They suggested that lurkers are quiet at first, until they understand a social space, and then they begin to contribute (this approach is based in part on the concept of "legitimate peripheral participation" from the influential work of Lave and Wenger).  Preece et al. also showed that lurkers lurk for various pro-social reasons -- a phenomenon that they termed "altruistic lurking."  Takahashi and colleagues showed that lurkers often transport information from a social space, and communicate what they have learned to other people who are not part of the social space.

Our research has focused on the following topics:
  • "We are all lurkers" (Muller et al., GROUP 2010).  Nearly everyone engages in lurking behaviors.  That is, nearly all of us read before we post.  The factor structure of these reading behaviors is common among three different user-selected roles in a social file-sharing system:  (a) people who create (or upload) primary content; (b) people who contribute metadata about content (e.g., recommendations, comments, or collections), but who do not contribute primary content; and (c) people who read other people's content, but who do not contribute either primary content or metadata.  Importantly, though, the relative emphasis (of the common factors) is different for these three roles.  Thus, "we are all lurkers," and we engage in the same lurking behaviors, no matter what our role turns out to be.  What distinguishes us is the relative emphasis that we place on each of our common lurking behaviors.
  • Using lurker data as a metric of social influence.  We developed a metric called "Return On Contribution" (ROC) that allows to compare different types of shared objects in terms of their social influence (Muller et al., ECSCW 2009).  In summary, ROC is based on the number of people who read or view or "consume" a resource, divided by the number of people who produced the resource.  We showed how ROC could be used to compare, for example, social bookmarks with shared photographs or shared events, and we also showed how ROC could be used to compare entire systems or services.  The ROC metric, and its concept of social influence, depend crucially on "reader" or "lurker" data.
  • Deciding whether to read a file or not.  We focused our analysis on the moment before a user downloads a file in a social file-sharing service -- when the user is "just a click away" from downloading (Shami et al., ICSWM 2011).  We showed that this reading activity (or lurking behavior) could be well-predicted by the topic of the file, and by the social network of the user.
All of these studies depend on the concept of a user who reads a shared object in a shared or social context.  Also, the first and third of these studies focused on the reading activities of users, without regard to whether they were creators of primary content, contributors of metadata, or "pure" readers. 

Therefore, we propose a further rehabilitation of the concepts of "lurker" and "lurking."  One motivation is to expand our understanding of the phenomena, and to provide a richer space for the development of theory.  A second motivation is to remove the negative connotations of the original language. 

Thus, we focus on reading as an activity that all of us do, rather than on the attribute or classification of a person as a reader.  And we think of that activity as being not a solitary, disconnected, unproductive action, but rather as a fundamentally social activity that occurs in a social context, that often involves other people, and that makes contributions to the social worlds of readers, authors, and the organizations in which and through which they find one another:  Social Reading and Social Readers.

Future posts will provide more research summaries as papers do or do not survive through conference reviewing processes.