Silence as Listening

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Listening" in many CMC genres has most frequently been labelled "lurking," especially by more active participants. It is a word which seems to carry sinister undertones, adding one more layer of negativity to the idea of silence. Yet, the origins of the term were "facetious," according to Fred Kemp (founder of MBU listserv), "a sort of teasing reference from the ten or so heavy messagers" when the listserv was still fairly new, "to the ten or so who preferred to read only." Yet periodically, when "lurkers" are questioned or disparaged in these virtual discourse spaces by the more active participants, they usually emerge from silence to defend and define themselves against that label. They are silent, most say, because they are listening and learning. In business situations also, as Sproull and Kiesler (1991) note, "lurking" in electronic discussions provides a way for the less rhetorically active "to learn from other employees but also to discover similarities they share with people who have different jobs and are located in different places" (81).

Listening, then, is a silent rhetorical activity, but a learned response. In Terry's case, listening to online silences precipitated a "dialogue" with her own past experiences. Many students in Terry's class, however, felt "dislocated" by the experience of listening to online silences because they had no prior experiences--no bodies of knowledge--to consult for answers. Charles Moran (1991) writing about this phenomenon, says that "when we write on-line we are moving from conversation to something else... and the transition itself, the change from the old to the new, is accompanied by feelings of dislocation and discomfort" (55). CMC discourse situations are not like physical settings "where, when one person speaks, all listen" (53), Moran says, and so advocates that instructors develop ways to teach students about the conventions of CMC, including the skill of "turn-taking" (57). The lack of skill in "turn-taking" and listening is a widespread problem, according to researchers such as literacy ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath (1990), who sees the problem as originating in an overall lack of experience in conventional (face-to-face) dialogue situations. Heath argues that younger generations of American students are, in general, unskilled in the practice of conversation. This results, she says, in a lack of ability to listen to others, and just as importantly, a lack of ability to listen to oneself. The irony, Heath says, is that computers are increasingly being used for interactive purposes. Perhaps, as Heath suggests, "humans must now [learn to] follow this pattern" (301).


Fred Kemp is the founder of "Megabyte University" (MBU-L), a listserv devoted to discussing issues associated with computers and the teaching of composition and literature. His remark about the origins of the word "lurker" were made in a post to MBU-L on 13 November 1992, during a periodic outbreak of discussion about the word "lurker." The address of MBU-L is: RETURN

I am referencing, in particular, two of the "periodic outbreaks of discussion about the word 'lurker' " referenced in the previous footnote. These discussions occurred on MBU-L in November 1992 and June and July of 1993. RETURN

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