Honourable Lurkers and Participating Parasites

About three weeks ago I posted a link to Miguel Cornejo Castro’s seminal paper reassessing the way that communities of practice are evolving in terms of participation, use of technology resources, and stakeholder involvement (Communities of Shattered Practice). His paper stirred up substantial debate on the com-prac dicussion list, much of it around his notion of the “honourable lurker”. He’s now followed up with another fascinating paper entitled “Revisiting Communities of Practice (II): The Honourable Lurker and the Institution”.

This paper is a little less polished than the first, but has some gems of insight, especially around the nature of a community as an institution. His consideration of the motivation of participants for their participation is very mechanistic and one dimensional. His transactional approach definitely needs more work, but probably the most important thing about this paper is his discussion distinguishing “honourable” lurking (the activity or lack of visible activity of those who are on a socialisation trajectory, on the way to becoming members) and “parasitic” or “free-riding” lurking where nothing is held in common with the community, and participation is purely exploitative.

I think this is a very important distinction to be able to make, because it has enormous implications for how we maintain the social instituton, share values and goals, and harness community energy. However, it’s not going to be as easy as Miguel’s initial paper suggests. For example, I may not always know myself whether my lurking is parasitic and free-riding, or whether I’m on an “honourable” trajectory towards participation. In my experience, that inward trajectory is often activated by apparently chance events and encounters with active members, and it can happen or not happen at any time. One day I’m a parasite, next I’m a member!

Another key thing I’ve learned is that parasitic participants are often, paradoxically, the ones whose behaviours, questions and claims, generate some of the most interesting participation behaviour from “real” community members. Miguel’s paper accommodates this, because he says that socialisation not alienation is the best strategy to use with free-riders and parasites.

Its gaps aside, this paper is a great start, and has a great deal more insight packed inside.

2 Comments so far

Hi, so why don’t you post this on com-prac- see what the opinions are on this?

Posted on June 15, 2006 at 05:32 AM | Comment permalink


Thanks for the suggestion, this had crossed my mind, but I was posting this at the end of the day practically on my way out of the office, and didn’t get round to it. But you have now spurred me on!

Posted on June 15, 2006 at 01:27 PM | Comment permalink

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