Lurking and “Social Capital” in an Enterprise Social Network
As mentioned in previous weeks, Community Design is the practice of creating an enterprise social network within the context of your company’s existing communication and technology infrastructure and culture. It’s part art, part science, and the goal is to successfully launch a social network that provides tremendous value for employees and the organization as a whole. Today, we continue our series on lurking and listening behavior in the enterprise, focusing on the idea of using “social capital” to convert unengaged users and lurkers into more active members of the social network.
“Social capital” is the bridge that closes the gap between inactivity and activity. It can be roughly defined as the value that peoples’ connections and activities bring to both individuals and the community as a whole. In an online network, social capital is “a collection of qualities of the social network created as a result of virtual community activities that lead to development of common social norms and rules that assist cooperation for mutual benefit.” More simply put, it’s the collective reputation, status, and utility that individuals achieve by sharing information and working with each other. Active posters and active lurkers both acquire social capital by being involved in an enterprise social network – posters share knowledge with the network, increasing online social capital, and active lurkers absorb and propagate information outside of the network, enhancing the community’s offline capital. Therefore, if community designers subscribe to the idea that their role is to optimize the overall social capital and value of the community, they will learn to accept active lurking and value it as an acceptable activity for some users, some of the time.
Additionally, lurking in a network allows users to get to know each other, to acquire shared knowledge, and to become familiar with the norms of the community. The more people and knowledge that users have in common, the more social capital is created. For lurkers, this is an important point as it has been found that members’ familiarity with the community and persistent involvement may contribute to their eventual active participation in the virtual community. A community designer can, then, set the stage for valuable lurking by ensuring that what lurkers do find and read is valuable. Finally, community designers should note that lurking can be more optimal than posting for the following reasons:
- A high ratio of posters to lurkers can decrease the value of a network. Too many posters may cause the distribution of so much information that the cost of participation increases: reading, understanding and sorting the data becomes overwhelming for users who log in. Additionally, this information overload causes users to read less, find less utility in the network, and thus acquire less social capital as they have less in common with other users.
- Getting to know the network is valuable. New members to the network, and especially new employees in general, need to learn the social norms and expectations of a network before posting. Listening is the best way for this to happen without risk.
- Active listening/lurking means getting your job done. When employees read and use information from the network in their daily jobs, it means that the network is providing value and helping with the company’s overall mission. Sometimes it’s best to let lurkers just listen so that they can do their daily tasks; community designers should trust that they have created a useful network that allows for this active listening.
Based on our classification of active and passive network users, as well as our conclusion that listening and lurking can provide tangible value to the workplace, community designers should engage in activities that help lurkers find value in listening as well as find it easy to move up the ladder of participation so that social capital is constantly being created. It should not be the goal of a network leader to make every user an active poster. In fact, if one of the purposes of an enterprise social network is to increase its influence on and value within the ecosystem of corporate communications, participants need not be forced to contribute directly to it; instead, they need only to take an interest in the network. It is the job of the Community Designers, then, to focus on two main goals to increase the value and influence of their enterprise social network as a whole:
- Convert inactive members and listener candidates into active listeners/lurkers. We’ve determined that active listening is a valuable corporate activity because the company as a whole benefits from the transfer and use of knowledge somewhere in the communications ecosystem. Employees will determine that there is value in the network as they begin to actively listen, making it a more integral part of their daily workflow. Designers should focus their efforts on converting inactive lurkers and non-members into active lurkers who browse the social network to accomplish work tasks. Even more important is designing the community in a way that minimizes the chance that users will be disengaged from the outset; this is why valuable content is key.
- Make it simple and easy for listeners/lurkers to read and post messages when they are ready. Between the social environment, topics of discussion, and available time in the workday, reading and posting should be an acceptable and meaningful activity for every member if and when they choose to do so. Enterprise social networks should be designed to be open and accessible to any member that chooses to participate actively for the first time or even just browse the topics being discussed. This means that established communication norms of users should be incorporated into the community design; if most employees use mobile devices, the community should be available via a mobile app. If email is the typical form of communication, then users should be encouraged to post via email if the technology allows such capabilities. The barriers to entry must be very low.
Though we have concluded that active lurking in an enterprise social network is a valuable activity, lurking only works when the community is thriving and other members are posting meaningful content. In tomorrow’s post, we will cover specific best practices for and examples of optimizing social capital within your enterprise social network to encourage users to move from listener to poster at the appropriate time.
, ,  Rafaeli, S., Ravid, G. and Soroka, V., De-lurking in virtual communities: A social communication network approach to measuring the effects of social and cultural capital. in Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, (2004).
,  Masamichi Takahashi, Masakazu Fujimoto, and Nobuhiro Yamasaki. 2003. The active lurker: influence of an in-house online community on its outside environment. In Proceedings of the 2003 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work (GROUP ’03). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1-10. DOI=10.1145/958160.958162 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/958160.958162