Empowering the invisible band to uncloak: allowing lurkers into the conversation

Alan in Belfast has a post over on his blog which he sent us this morning (been haring about London all day) as one of the prep posts for next week’s Picamp. I’ve put it below the fold here for convenience, but it’s worth going to his blog too and scrolling down. Particularly for his reflections on the highly successful Belfast Barcamp from a few weeks back for those of you still struggling with the irritating formlessness of the idea… Below Alan puts out a plea on behalf of giving a voice to the lurker, by finding ways to make internet discourse more civil and welcoming for the less ferocious amongst us…

“Don’t talk about politics or religion.” For a long time, local society seems to have been divided into those who breached this rule, and those who stuck by it. Even on a site like Slugger O’Toole that has done much to lower the entry bar to talk about politics, there are many more lurkers than commenters!

I suspect few people are truly “politically neutral”. I sometimes use that phrase to describe myself, but the reality is that while my views cannot be represented by one single party, I am an avid follower of politics, the political system and individual politicians. I’m politically interested, and keen on the idea of sustaining civil society, but shy of practising that hobby in public.

But it’s pretty rare for me to poke my head above the parapet and get stuck into a comment thread on Slugger. It’s feels like being in P5 and trying to join in the P7’s breaktime football match in the school playground.

It’s a bit rough, my moves aren’t as mature and well though out as the big boys, and being that bit taller they look over my head and don’t really know I’m there. (Note
that it’s a perception, not the whole story, and not peculiar to Slugger … so no ranting about it!)

And while a political event or milestone may occasionally feature in a blog post over on Alan in Belfast, “politics” is one of the lesser used tags, even below “religion”, and I never nail my colours to the mast(s).

But do I really want someone – my employer, a future employer, a neighbour – to google my name and discover that I believe this, that I wonder why that happened, that I’m critical of her saying that, and that I wish the following would happen? Somehow political comment is more raw and dangerous than complaining abouta airlines and the price of tea bags!

So structurally, how can we make the online world more welcoming and accommodating for those who are political, but currently keep it hidden? How can we widen out the conversation to listen to more voices? What can be done to forums and blogs and meetups to allow the wishy washy liberal scaredy cats to feel safe to join in?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty