I’m reading a fascinating new piece by Kate Crawford called “Following you: disciplines of listening in social media.” Crawford, an Associate Professor in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, suggests that we rethink our discourse around lurkers and less active participants in online affinity spaces; actually, she suggests we get away from that term “lurking,” since “this term has hampered our understanding of online spaces, and…the concept of listening offers more open and critically productive ground.”
Crawford points to a glorification of “voice” as the highest form of online participation. She is gently critical of “this privileging of voice, and particularly voice-as-democratic-participation,” which dominates research and writing about online activity. She explains:
In Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn’s Democracy and New Media, the authors argue that the Internet ‘is politically important because it expands the range of voices that can be heard in a national debate, ensuring that no one voice can speak with unquestioned authority.’ This ‘speaking truth to power’ model is a prominent feature of much media and cultural studies analysis, but it has limited the recognition of the variety and reach of the practices of listening online. Listening has not been given sufficient consideration as a significant practice of intimacy, connection, obligation and participation online; instead, it has often been considered as contributing little value to online communities, if not acting as an active drain on their growth.
By my lights, Crawford is both right and a little bit wrong. There is a strange trend among new media researchers to privilege those who speak loudest and carry the biggest sticks; we often hold up “geeking out,” as Mimi Ito and her colleagues describe it in their recent book on youth and new media, as the gold standard of online participation. But geeking out is characterized by single-minded obsession, deep immersion into a hobby or pastime, often at the expense of other pursuits. The archetypal “geek” is often the pasty white man toiling in the dead of night in front of some terminal or circuit board or technology. In a recent post on animals’ use of tools, HASTAC co-founded Cathy Davidson remarks on the recent discovery that certain types of octopus use coconut shells as tools. The post is called “Only Humans Use Tools (O, and Octopi Too),” and Davidson explains that the title is intentionally ironic:
Many, many animals–maybe even all of them, in fact–use tools if only humans could “see” that they do. We see tools very anthrocentrically in the same way that we hear animal “language.” Unless the animals translate it for us, we don’t believe it exists.
I think the same is true when it comes to talking about “geeking out.” Because pasty white men have traditionally dominated geek culture, at least in America, their practices became the standard by which we measure all geeks. If it doesn’t look like a geek, walk like a geek, or quack like a geek, then we argue that it’s not a geek–unless geeks who don’t fit the geek stereotype translate for us, we don’t believe they exist either.
In this sense, Crawford’s effort to re-position the lurker as a listener whose participation in online spaces is essential to the success of those spaces is both important and useful. (And by the way, this paper identifies three categories of listening: background listening, delegated listening, and reciprocal listening; and the work she does to discuss these categories offers nice strategies for reframing different approaches to listening.) But on the other hand…if you spend your entire life listening and never ‘speaking truth to power,’ then what’s the point of listening at all?
The work of making cultural meaning, after all, depends on collaboration. It depends on the power of speech, the power of communication, and the willingness to take a stand when it matters. It may be perfectly legitimate to be a Twitter user who listens in but never tweets, but the hope is that this sort of Twitter user will feel empowered to speak up in another space somewhere else. Henry Jenkins says this about participatory culture:
Not all members must contribute, but all must feel free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.
Lurking–or, if you prefer, listening–is certainly a legitimate form of participation. But if a person never moves beyond listening and begins to ‘speak’ (and keep in mind that ‘speaking’ may take a variety of forms in this strange and wacky era we call The New Media Age), then that person isn’t engaging fully with the affordances of the technologies she is engaged with. Often, of course, the geeks–the ones that we readily recognize, and readily cede the floor to–drown out the voices of other types of participants. This is a problem we need to set about solving. But the solution is not to argue that listening is valid in the same ways and to the same power as is making your ideas heard.
Crawford’s piece, along with others she references in her article, helps us to rethink how we describe listeners as participants in online spaces. The next step, in my opinion, is to find a way to empower them to speak when they feel they have something to say. Alongside this goal is the deep imperative to find ways of recognizing speech acts and other forms of communication that don’t fit the archetypes and stereotypes that too often direct our thinking about these sorts of issues.