(This is not a post about volunteerism. This is my speculation about viewpoints that other people may have, their motives and feelings, i.e. being all sensitive to other people and stuff.)

You’re starting a new club… well, you know how it is. These days, it’s a club in the form of a new group or page on Facebook. You’re looking for people with a common interest, or to rally people for a cause you believe in. You wait for people to join. And then, when you’ve reached a good number of group members or “likes”, you find yourself not wishing for more people, but for your 50 (or 100, 200, 500) members to be more responsive to your posts.

I reflected on this a few weeks ago, during a dialogue I attended. There was a girl in her late teens, who had tried getting her friends and peers from school involved in volunteering for various causes or events. She felt frustrated; they didn’t seem to show interest in volunteerism. And thus followed some discussion about how to encourage local youths to volunteer.

Are teenagers apathetic? The answer was “yes yes, and how do we solve it?”. But I’m not sure I agree. I wouldn’t say her peers are apathetic; perhaps they can’t get involved at that point in their lives.

When I was at school, I didn’t have an urge to join any sort of student council, and had to be forced into positions of authority. (That was fun.) Participation in school competitions was usually initiated after nomination by teachers. School clubs were a sad affair at the time, with many club activities not lasting for more than a few weeks.

A few years later, however, I was in university and I found myself signing up for the “executive committee” for a student society. After avoiding sports for half of my teenage life, I started playing netball in a team. Being a bit older seemed to make all the difference in my confidence and willingness to try to new things. You’re more comfortable with your “identity”, and you have a more solid sense of your aspirations, with a consciousness of the type of person you want to be. You’re also more at ease with interacting with others.

I think one clue is “timing”. I think people should give teenagers a break if there seems to be a lack of volunteerism. They may be at a stage in their lives where they’re still figuring themselves out. What can you do? Give them time to step into it. Encourage the ones who are more enthusiastic, but set their expectations about their peers.

Similarly, for adults, “timing” can affect one’s willingness to participate. I’ve noticed that an individual may avoid participating in an annual event – say, a family day, a competition, or a marathon – for years, but suddenly one year, breaks the cycle and gets involved. Maybe they warmed up to it gradually. Maybe they’re in new circumstances that have made them particularly open to it – examples: new friends or partner, recently started a fitness kick, recently returned from overseas studies.

(Of course, the opposite can happen where, initially, someone is keen and participates on a regular basis, but over time they appear less frequently, and in the end drop out. This can also be due to “timing”. Maybe they’ve got a new job, or found an alternative activity, or maybe they got married and have a new schedule.)

But sometimes, people never do get involved.

With B:READ this year, the committee and regulars had online discussions and gatherings (“Book Meets”). I noticed that B:READ’s online audience grew quickly – more group members, Facebook likes, Twitter followers – but interactions and participation grew at a slower pace.

In this “audience”, I had quite a few friends, who I knew to be readers. I also noticed that, after a few months of activities, they still hadn’t become involved. I didn’t feel hurt. I just wondered why.

I understood that people lurked. Perceiving their reluctance as shyness, or perhaps reluctance due to unfamiliarity, I would assure my friends about the friendly nature of the community, how we are not inaccessible intellectuals (just your regular intellectuals, thank you), and are down-to-earth nerdy types. (I hope this is an accurate description.)

I also understood that our activities will clash with other people’s schedules. But surely, one day, they would have a “free” afternoon or evening, and could come to one of our events?

It was still a mystery to me, until I had a conversation with my boyfriend about the local music scene.

I expressed my lack of interest in attending gigs or concerts. One factor was that I wanted to sincerely like the music, rather than come for the sole sake of “supporting local artistes”. But also, I realised, there was another more important reason: music is something that is private to me.

I listen to my iPod every day, and I enjoy the music for more than just as a background soundtrack to my daily commute to work. (I saw this in a comic. The reference escapes me.) Sometimes, when a certain genre or a musician has captured my heart, I will spend some time reading about them – their background, how the music makes other people feel – and maybe obsessively play their music for a few weeks. But I seldom talk about music with others, and am usually quite cagey about what music I listen to. (Never mind the last.fm profile that clearly states it, ha!) Music is something I consume, enjoy, and obsess over – by myself.

My theory: this is how some people feel about reading.

The activities and discussions that B:READ promotes on Facebook and Twitter are “social”. The very notion of “participation”, for our activities, requires a person to break out of their own space, turn up at a gathering or declare their membership on an online group, and tell another person something that may be personal to them.

Our Teah has told you how B:READ’s events can be great for readers, if they have never before connected with other local readers. We believe this, and we tell people all the time.

But I also feel that participation is a step that is personal to each individual. It’s not that a person doesn’t want to help, or is apathetic and too self-involved.

It may be the idea of “timing”: a teenager may not feel confident enough to get involved in a cause.

Or it may be that you don’t want to share: a long-time reader or a music lover may not feel open enough to start interacting with others about what they love.

Not everyone participates.