4 min read

Why participate?

(Or: Why not lurk?)

(See also: Zvi Mowshowitz on You're Good Enough You're Smart Enough and People Would Like You, D. R. MacIver on You should write more and again, plus that guide to writing every day.)

I often find myself lurking, in the sense of observing and sharing thoughts only when asked. This works fine in a lot of settings. It's a more or less reasonable default: I don't expect to stop lurking in every context. It can save face. I've never gotten hurt doing this. I won't die of lurking in the contexts where I do.

But lurking means leaving lots of value on the table on several levels:

  1. Missed connections.
  2. Missed participation skills.
  3. It's a habit.

By missed connections I mean more than friendships. Friendships are great, but in my case I have enough for my own happiness. But lurking means I'm also missing out on weak connections. Those are helpful in a different way: You can afford to have lots of them because each one takes only a little time.

I suspect these personal connections are for many purposes better than public spaces. Even weak connections. One reason to think so is that connections are more personal, so contextualized and selective. This is helpful for professional opportunities, job hunting, vocational opportunities (as distinct from professional ones), and dating. Probably there are others. It's not that public spaces can't do these things, but – you've probably heard or seen for yourself what job boards are like. It seems quite useful to have options so that you don't have to use them (even if you decide to).

But beyond the calculating perspective – connections can just be fun to have. Even weak ones. It can be fun to have that person you trade Slay the Spire memes with. It can be fun to have that person that you write with. It doesn't have to go deep; not every relationship has to serve every purpose.

Another problem is missing out on the skills of participation. Participating in different contexts is its own set of skills. For example:

  1. Telling and eliciting relevant stories as a way of learning. Also other ways of working with stories, as mentioned there for example: Extracting lessons or tactics from a story context, and noticing what is surprising about a story.
  2. Maybe: Finding and developing shared interests.
  3. Public speaking and presenting.
  4. Having good discussions.
  5. Having good discussions about research directions and ideas. Tricky because these are often vague, but that makes it more important to start learning now rather than less.

These skills are all important in their own ways in different contexts. Telling and eliciting stories seems like a good skill to have across many contexts. Developing shared interests is relevant in a research context. Public speaking is useful for a lot of reasons, but to name just one, career ones, considering that many career paths end in (a chain of) leadership roles. Good discussions are good in and of themselves. Good research discussions are useful if you do research, of course. But I want to circle back and say more about telling stories.

Telling and eliciting stories seem critical for learning a skill past the basics. If you have enough background knowledge or skill, searching for and reading things online can easily get you to a basic level, but you will eventually plateau on this. This is where the "personal connections" benefit comes in. At any given time for any given skill, there will be a lot of stuff that you want to know that other people know that nobody has written down (yet). (Or, that nobody has written down in a publicly discoverable, searchable format (yet).) So to find this stuff out, you need to ask people. I suspect stories are one important way this stuff comes out.

I say this from some experience. I've observed this telling-stories and eliciting-stories behavior a lot while lurking in a few different Them's Fightin' Herds Discords. The best players, the people who regularly topped or won tournaments, all tended to ask for stories and to tell each other stories. I also participate in a much smaller-scale professional storytelling group. A few coworkers and I share relevant technical "today I learned" type information, including tips, tutorials, guides, and changelogs and commentary on relevant new features in software we use.

If you don't practice these skills, you don't learn them. Trivial, but true. You can read about these things as much as you want – read about telling stories, or read about public speaking, or read about good discussions. It won't help you unless you actually consistently practice the thing. Until you are doing the thing, the advice you are reading is not grounded in your experience and context and you are probably going to forget about the advice or fail to apply it in the moment. You have to actually do the thing to learn to do it well.

But beyond missed connections and missed skills, I also think it's a bad habit. Because of the missed connections and missed skills, you miss out on more connections and skills. And more than that, I find I have a habit of "talking myself out of it." I will think of something to ask about or something to say, and then decide: No, that's not the smartest thing. I'll just google that. This "talking myself out of it" makes the negative feedback loop worse. Every time I decide not to say something for these reasons, I am reinforcing a habit. I am enacting the kind of person who decides not to say things. I make myself more of a person who lurks. Lurking is not just bad because of the missed things themselves but because it is self-reinforcing in this additional way.

Also, not saying things as a habit is frequently a bad thing of itself. Often you should say something. You should ask that question now, not later, not ask it of google, because you can't do it later or through google – not to the same effect or quality. Especially if you're paying for someone's time: Ask the question.

I needed to write this to remind myself why participate. But I suspect these points generalize some: If you have a habit of lurking like I've described, and you've already read this far, I think you would benefit from lurking less. Knowing more people and knowing how to participate – which you can only learn by doing it – those are both really helpful things on their own. Kicking the habit is useful for those reasons – but it can also be its own reward.

Maybe I'll remember this next time I question whether to participate.