Lurkers of the world, Unite!

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Oct 24 2004 - 18:33:35 PDT

I guess it happens periodically on xmca, but at long enough intervals that
the active posters of a particular era may not remember the last time ...
namely the recurring mystery of why so few people post to xmca when there
are so many subscribed members.

The first theory is usually that our topics have not been sufficiently
interesting. I think this is rarely true, or at least not over periods of
more than a few weeks (or maybe a month or two in the Northern summer).

In the past, when we have investigated the mystery of the lurkers (a
common, if not perhaps entirely respectful term for those who listen but
don't post to any online group), we have occasionally got some of them to
talk about why they don't post ... and in many cases they have done so
off-list to a few of us privately. We have discovered, I think, two very
different kinds of lurkers: the genuine listeners and the inhibited (some
say intimidated) might-be-posters.

True listeners don't have much desire to post; they enjoy reading the
messages and learning from them. Many are grad students or people new to
the fields and topics we draw on. I've been told that reading xmca can be
quite a good education, if a bit like learning to swim by jumping in the
deep end of the pool!

The inhibited posters, on the other hand, often have things they'd like to
say, or ask, but worry that they might possibly make fools of themselves in
front of a large number of fellow scholars, including potentially many
leaders across several fields. Some have said that they are actually afraid
of getting negative reactions from others on the list. Most difficult I
think is that we have also learned over the years that many potential
posters feel intimidated by some combination of the styles and/or erudition
of many of the frequent posters. This tends to come as a shock to the
frequent posters, who think of ourselves as a very welcoming and
un-intimidating bunch of people!

At one point, a significant number of women left xmca, or at least stopped
actively posting, because they interpreted some of the norms of the list as
gender-biased, or more specifically as less-than-welcoming to women and
kinds of discourse and community they preferred. This, too, came as
something of a shock and was a mystery I think to most of the men who were
posting frequently at the time, though it was triggered by a very few
posters who did seem to have a somewhat adversarial or belligerent style
(the most egregious of these also left the group not long after).

Long, long ago there was actually a separate sub-list for grad students, so
they could discuss with each other without fear of looking stupid in front
of their elders. On the other hand, some grad students have made good
reputations for themselves on xmca and its precursor lists, and have I'm
sure received conference invitations, writing invitations, and maybe even
job offers in part as a result.

 From time to time the conversation here may get, for any given person's
tastes, a little too wrapped up in Marxology, or the near-idolatrous
obsession with the minutiae of what this or that other theorist may have
said or meant. Sometimes we veer further into history and anecdote than
people may like, or get so abstractly philosophical that we forget to "rise
to the concrete". Sometimes we come to resemble a book club more than an
open discussion forum. But with these any many other transient faults, xmca
is still about as good as it gets for scholarly intellectual discussion of
issues of human culture and meaning. Just ask a question here ... any question!

In my experience, the most senior (and academically influential) members of
this list are also the most willing to find something interesting and
discussable in postings by newcomers and those who bring different
perspectives to the group. The only thing we don't like is belligerence.
One reason that xmca exists is to provide an opportunity for people to
learn more about mind/meaning, culture, and activity ... as well as a lot
of different conceptual perspectives on these central issues. We're not
here to judge people, at least not professionally. I tend to just ignore
and forget postings that don't inspire a response. I don't even usually
remember who wrote what ... unless it was really interesting. I pretty much
only remember the good stuff.

So I hope (though in the past this hope has not always panned out) that
more of you who worry about whether to post or not will take the plunge and
hit Send the next time you think of something to say or something to ask!


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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