Lurking: finding one’s self while remaining hidden

Richard Volkman


“Lurking” refers to the online behavior of gathering information from interactive resources like forums and social networking sites without participating in the interactivity that generates the online content and without disclosing one’s self as a consumer of that content. I propose to explore the ethical significance of lurking as it specifically relates to social networking sites like Facebook. This focus will reveal the deep relativity of the ethics of lurking to its particular context and motivations. In the context of social networking sites like Facebook, lurking and its compliment in the public disclosure of personal information are expressions of the particular characters of particular social animals situated in a particular social circumstance. Phenomena like lurking indicate the ethical significance of deliberations that cannot be readily undertaken in the language of impersonalist ethics, since lurking takes place at the vague and overlapping boundaries of self and other, friend and stranger, this community and that community. To deliberate effectively about such matters we do better to operate in the personalist language of character, self-discovery, and self-realization than the impersonalist discourse of overall consequences, moral rules, and political rights that characterizes so much of academic philosophy in ethics.

By “personalist” discourse, I mean ethical discourse that admits the relevance of particular persons and circumstances in properly judging what there is most reason to do or want or be. Aristotle’s virtue ethics or the heroic individualism of Emerson and Nietzsche are personalist in this sense. “Impersonalist” accounts of ethics strive for a level of impartiality and universality, whether in the form of some agent-neutral specification of the “overall good” in consequentialism, or in the specification of universal rules to govern conduct for “persons as such” in the deontology of Kant’s moral theory or Locke’s account of natural rights. The point of the essay is not to establish the absolute superiority of one or the other of these modes of discourse but to indicate the extent to which one’s account of the ethical universe will be impoverished if one altogether eschews personalist ethical discourse on the grounds that it is insufficiently impartial or universal in its application.

While there is a considerable literature on the ethics and motivations of lurking, there is relatively little investigation of it in the context of social networking and even less that reflects on the ultimate particularity of good judgement in that domain. There are many articles on the ethics of lurking in the context of formal research such as ethnography, and there are several articles examining the values of lurking versus more active participation in online learning communities. These are appropriate issues for academics to study, since they directly touch the pedagogical and policy concerns that shape our vocation, but we generally do not evaluate our everyday conduct in the terms of policy or professionalism. Meanwhile, treatments of lurking that focus on the free riding it may entail are appropriate to the investigation of the flourishing and success of online collaborative projects like Wikipedia or Slashdot or Reddit, but they do not seem particularly relevant to the motives or the consequences of lurking on social networking sites. In fact, one of the purposes that people bring to such sites is to disclose information about themselves, and this purpose would often be frustrated or at least undermined if there were no lurkers. This indicates a complimentary relation between “lurkers” and “disclosers” that may be present in other venues but which I will argue is an essential feature of social networking. Finally, analysis that focuses on hacking, violating terms of service, or other straightforward breeches of contract or policy is not directly relevant, since these issues are adequately addressed in impersonalist modes of discourse. It will be shown that lurking on social networking sites has obvious and profound privacy implications, but they are not the sort that can be neatly captured by an impersonalist discussion of privacy or the policies and social norms that attend it.

To orient the discussion, it is helpful to describe concrete cases in which lurking on a social networking site has plain ethical significance that cannot be easily captured without explicit reference to the particular person embedded in her particular circumstance and relations. This is a daunting task that cannot be neatly summed in an abstract, since it cannot proceed in the usual manner of “situated action ethics,” such that the story pumps an obvious intuition that is leveraged as evidence for or against some account of the rules or policies appropriate to the case. The point is that the particular facts matter, and this cannot be illustrated by leaving out the particular facts; nor is it possible to tell a story short of a novel that would include all those relevant facts. Instead, the cases will illustrate how many salient details are invariably left out of any such description, while also showing the case is an instance of real ethical significance and not a matter of mere taste or whim. The paper will proceed from a detailed investigation of such particular cases to illustrate that ethics is not simply a matter of evaluating actions or rules. One’s situated character matters.

In the end, it will be revealed that lurking on social networking sites cannot be categorically judged to be good or bad and that crude political tools for balancing privacy and the flow of information shed little light on the phenomena. To engage these matters, we need to engage the concrete realities of our particular lives in their full particularity. Ultimately, if we are to navigate the ethics of real life in the information age, we shall each need to engage our selves.