Lurking and Social Networks
While having lunch with Lilia (who gave a great sketch of how our conversation developed) we talked about her new topic of interest, lurking.
Lurking, although the word seems to imply a negative connotation, has usefull aspects nonetheless. It is a way of determining rules of behaviour for new comers to a group.
The most obvious characteristic of a lurker is that he’s at the fringe of a group, listening and observing. Being at the fringe may seem like a bad place from the core, but in fact is a good position to build bridges to other groups, and be aware of other groups in the vicinity. In a face to face setting like a pub or a meeting of some kind, a lurker is visible, often shortly introduced after which the focus of attention shifts to the established group members again.
In on-line settings things are different. In some fora lurkers are encouraged to introduce themselves and then adviced to lurk, i.e. observe and learn for a while. But at all times there is no way of knowing how many lurkers are there that you are unaware of.
As lurkers are possible bridges to other groups, I as a blogger, would like to know:How many lurkers I have, who read my blog but don't comment or post.
Who they are
Serverlogs can give some clues, and I keep a close watch on them. Dave Winer's RSS-tool also brings new info to light.
Weak and Strong Ties
The importance of lurking lies in the fact that they constitute weak ties. Weak ties are where interesting transactions and exchanges can take place. Strong ties imply that all people involved have access to more or less the same information and opportunities so nothing new comes from them.
Looking at social networks, lurkers are probably two or three nodes away (that's how they found my blog presumeably). Most interesting new commenters (de-lurking lurkers) that pop up on my radar screen/blog are coming from that (social) distance.
network with almost only strong ties
Is this mix of strong and weak ties that forms my micro-blogosphere also a major factor of importance if you suffer from the echo-chamber effect? Where strong ties are the source of resonance, and the absence or presence of weak ties determine wether that cluster of strong ties is closed to input from the outside world?
network with strong ties and numerous weak ties, preventing echo chambers
Meshing of Networks
Another angle on this would be looking at the meshing of networks, a well known IT problem; How many meshing do you need to keep up performance of the network when one or more nodes fail.
There are different levels of meshing one can distinguish.
Total meshing: all nodes are connected directly to all other nodes.
Optimal meshing: all nodes are only a few steps away from all other nodes, via multiple possible paths
Sub-optimal meshing: all nodes are only a few steps away from all other nodes, some via only one path (some info might get lost for some nodes, but the network will still perform)
Sparse meshing: not all nodes are connected to all others through a few steps, and a lot only via 1 path. Islands form, connected by a few bridges.
Echo-chambers, my guess is, form most easily in places (groups of blogs) that have total meshing, and have no 'capacity' left to connect to less meshed 'regions' in a network.
Lurkers are in that case nodes in a sub-optimally meshed network. They're there, but you are not necessarily aware of them.
Magic Numbers 12 being the average capacity to track nodes in a totally meshed network
Taking it one step further, maybe the 'magic numbers' we see in networks of humans relate these meshing concepts to our mental capacity to juggle social data.
50 being the average capacity to track nodes in an optimally meshed network
150 being the average capacity to track nodes in a sub-optimally meshed network.
above 150 being the sparsely meshed social network where anonymity and getting lost becomes possible.
If we relate this to blogs and Clay Shirky's power law, teenage diaries blogs are possibly primarily on the 12/total meshing levels, professional content blogs are probably all in the 50 to 150 ranges, with distinct stability levels (my blog went from 0 to 12 inbound blogs then stabilized, then grew to just over fifty inbound blogs and stabilized again.) Above 150 people are more sparsely connected and start looking for beacons or leaders to orient themselves socially. This is the range where the broadcasting type blogs are, the A-listers.
A last and different way to look at Social Networks could be the metaphor of landscapes, with mountains as barriers, and roads and rivers as attractors.
Closely knit groups would be villages, echo-chambers isolated villages with no nearby roads. Larger groups, sub-optimally meshed are towns and cities, where the risk of too little meshing lurks (homeless people, drop outs etc as a consequence). Lurkers might be unnoticed city dwellers, or tourists from other landscapes, that only become visible if they make themselves known as tourists, leave footprints or marks on/in the landscape as it were. (Kilroy was here)
Oh and yeah, we also ate during lunch, not just talked.
The picture below shows my original notes, taken during the lunch :)
UPDATE: Matt starts wondering about tools for lurkers.
Interesting comments about those on the fringe of an online community. I've been spending the last few weeks working on a project of my own design - investigating online communities and how to deepen interaction and improve dialogue. I'm keeping my research in blog format too, if you're interested [Link]. I've only just started this semester, so the ball isn't rolling that fast yet. :)
I've lurked around a few blogs, mostly just unable to offer any sort of comment because of lack of ideas or just being uninspired. I wonder how it's possible to engage those readers though? One thing I've noticed is that a few pictures go a long way toward getting someone to comment.
Oh, and just so that my "lurking" can benefit both of us, here's how I found my way on to your blog --