Social Media: In Praise of Lurking

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

April 18, 2013

mouth“I learned to write before I learned how to read,” – Woody Allen

Back in the day, lurking was a dirty word. Now I think it’s cool.

Lurking means participating in a social medium but just reading or listening, not writing or talking. When online communication started with ancient media like CompuServe and The Source (ever heard of them?) people criticized lurkers for not contributing, for not being interactive. They were free riders, who benefited from the collective content without contributing.

Today, I think a great case can be made for lurking. As Jonah Berger points out in his excellent new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, social media is a subcategory of word-of-mouth communication, also called social influence. In fact, he claims that social media, in all of its forms, still makes up only 7 percent of all word of mouth. (p.11)

This being the case, doesn’t it make sense to apply at least some of the principles of interpersonal communication to social media? Consider this old poem:

A wise old owl sat in an oak.
The more he heard, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that bird?

In interpersonal communication, listening seems to be coming back into fashion, with a vengeance. It seems to be in almost every business self-improvement book I pick up. Consider Daniel Pink, whose latest book, To Sell Is Human, topped the New York Times Business Best Seller list last month. He writes, “For all the listening we do each day – by some estimates, it occupies one fourth of our waking hours – it’s remarkable how profoundly we neglect this skill.” (p. 190)

If you subscribe to what I might call the primitive view of social media marketing, however, you may believe that the key to it is publishing remarkable content. Well, for one thing, I’m tempted to welcome you to the new Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, and all the social media posts are remarkable. I mean, if all the social media posts were remarkable, most of them would automatically have to become unremarkable. Remarkable, after all, means unusual.

Beyond that, there are all those people who just dump duplicate content to their different social media sites. Do they ever read them at all?

And there was a beautiful view
But nobody could see.
Cause everybody on the island
Was saying: Look at me! Look at me!

–          Laurie Anderson

Some people have decided to listen. The social media policy of one foundation I’ve worked for is to use social media to monitor conversations in their program areas. They don’t participate. And, of course, an entire industry of social media monitoring tools, starting with HootSuite and Google Alerts but going far beyond, helps people listen. Social media monitoring is a bit selective, however, sort of like walking through a party and only paying attention if somebody mentions your name. The really interesting stuff, I find, often, is the stuff I’m not looking for. But you knew that.

I’d love to hear from you.

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