Why I love lurkers, or Can we divide social media’s two purposes?

I announced last night that I was taking a break from social media, then realized this morning that social media has two aspects, sharing and commenting, and I only wanted a break from commenting. So I’m going to be a lurker who shares for the next week.

I first noticed lurkers in the early days of the internet when I got into an argument with several people who are powerful in publishing. I was arguing alone, but I was getting email from people who said they were glad I was speaking out because they were afraid of the consequences. When someone on the other side noted that I was outnumbered, I said something that was immediately mocked: Lurkers support me in email. Follow the link and you’ll see Jo Walton having fun with that.

That moment has stuck with me for more reasons than Jo’s response. The powerful often fail to recognize their power, so they can’t see that power is abused even when the powerful don’t think they’re abusing it. Many and maybe most of the people targetted by the #MeToo movement believed they were merely making friendly passes that could be easily turned down. They failed to grasp that where there’s an imbalance of power, the less powerful can never disagree easily.

For years after that, I thought of lurkers as weak people who should be protected. But lately, I’ve been thinking there’s a second set of lurkers that I failed to appreciate, the people who know their opinions will not affect the world so they’re putting their time into other things. They are wise. I fear I’m not wise enough to join them forever, but I will join them for a few days like a weekend visitor to a monastery.

Becoming a lurker will be as hard as taking a vow of silence. I know what my room in hell looks like: Information that is in some way wrong streams constantly on a huge monitor, and I sit in front of a keyboard with my hands strapped to the chair.