This is the second in our series of articles giving a behind-the-scenes look at how a forum operates.
I will start this installment out by being perfectly honest: A forum moderator’s position is a frustrating, chaotic and thankless job for no pay, no benefits, not even a key to the executive washroom or a one-hour lunch. Staff gets cussed out, blamed for everything under the sun, taken advantage of, played against each other, and abused by private messaging or e-mail. For every time a moderator has to help out a member with a simple issue (like changing their e-mail address, fixing a typo, or assisting with the software), there are probably five or ten incidents having to deal with a membership run amok.
Some forum members feel it is a badge of honor to be asked to eventually join the staff. For a smaller forum, it can be enjoyable since there is so little to do. My oldest forum, in fact, has rarely seen an incident in the nearly 25 years it has been online. But once you have hundreds or thousands of members online during peak hours, all with their hundreds or thousands of different and oftentimes clashing personalities and attitudes, grab your weapon of choice (most often a keyboard, a mouse, and a stiff drink if you need one) and get ready for the onslaught.
New forum moderators quickly find out what their fellow members are really like. They observe the dark underbelly of the membership. They discover our habitual offenders who can’t control themselves, and then have to deal with the offenders directly. They soon learn to anticipate when problems will occur. They also learn, the hard way, what it’s like to have a member go ballistic on them when that member is called out for their behavior. Members they originally considered model forum citizens sometimes have a record about half a page long, full of warnings and reprimands.
A few months into it, they will sometimes wonder why they volunteered for the job, or why they desired that “Moderator” badge under their username. A couple of years into it, some moderators will quit or worse, disappear. They get disgusted. Burned out. Exhausted by it all. Some just want to be removed from the staff, and that is fine—we would rather have them enjoy the forum without having to deal with the craziness of moderation duties. Others just ghost us. They don’t log in. They don’t even respond to e-mails asking how they are.
All of us on the staff really do care how these missing staffers are doing. Working the front lines together, friendships are made. We never know why they left. Were they so distraught that they wanted nothing to do with the forums or anyone from them, including fellow staff? Did they just want a break to decompress? Did they have a serious health issue (or worse) that took them away from us? We never know. And we wonder.
Despite all the insanity, the nuttiness, the frustrations of being a moderator, there is a lot of camaraderie. Lifelong friendships are often made on forums, and some of the strongest of those friendships are with our fellow survivors in the moderation trenches, those who may have put in several years or well over a decade working alongside fellow troopers who volunteer for the cause day after day.
Despite the way a forum staff deals with members, nobody feels as though they are above any of the membership. (For those that approach the job with a “holier than thou” attitude, we find they do not last long in the role.) We’re human, just like the rest of the general public. It helps to keep that in mind when dealing with a forum’s staff when there is an issue we bring to their attention. We get frustrated. We’re busy and have too many things going. We’re forgetful or get distracted. Sometimes our personalities may clash, and there is no shame in handing off a problem to another moderator if we don’t feel a discussion is going well. Some troublesome members build a rapport with a moderator, and they can often work through issues efficiently together.
Just try not take it out on us, even though we may deserve it on rare occasion! I used to find some allegedly problematic members to be open to communication and cooperative, some even coming across completely different in private discussions than their public persona. The truly serious troublemakers (which are a very small percentage of a forum’s active membership) can be an issue but for the most part, members understand where they went wrong, even if they don’t always fully agree with it. When the staff is noncombative and humble about it, members are put at ease and realize that we are just as human as they are.
There are also special situations that arise. Sometimes that errant behavior has much deeper roots than we realize. We’ve had members who blurt out the first things that come into their minds, which often makes no sense in the context of the discussion; we’ve later found out they are on the autism spectrum. We’ve had members in good standing snap suddenly with little provocation—it turns out there are problems at home, like health issues, a breakup or divorce, or loss of a loved one. Some who sign up for multiple accounts may be bad at remembering usernames and passwords, rather than trying to circumvent issues they have had in the past. A good staff is human enough to realize that life sometimes happens, and members need a pass when they are having a rough spot in life. There are even a handful that will report themselves when they’ve stepped out of line. We wish we had more like them.
One comment we’ve heard over the years is that our members rarely see any problems and wonder why we sometimes have to make “corrective” posts either within a thread, or in a separate thread dealing with that behavior, or that we’ve had issues with a particular discussion they have been following. They usually don’t realize that we’ve already had to do quite a cleanup to a thread and have expended a lot of effort on it. Forum members do thank us for keeping the forums clean and likewise, it’s rewarding to know that our efforts have made a difference.
We do ask for a little tolerance. We sometimes get blamed for not catching a squabble within a thread or some inappropriate content we may have missed. The entire staff is not on the forum at all hours of the day, nor can they read every single post in every thread. The busiest forum I work with has over 200,000 new posts submitted per month. This is why a forum has a “Report” system—content can be reported to staff, who can then deal with it. It is much easier for the staff if these problems are reported through the Report system, rather than contacting an individual moderator—reporting it ensures that the entire staff is notified of the problem, and whoever is online can deal with it much faster.
Do moderators disagree with each other? Of course! Like any organization, a moderation staff is made up of individuals with different backgrounds, different beliefs and different styles of communication. Some member issues are easily dealt with. For more difficult issues, it is nice having our fellow moderators to bounce our thoughts off of so we can make the right decision. Some might be more willing to “swing the ban hammer” at a problem member, where others might see the issue in a far less severe light. Sometimes we’re unsure of what to do with a problem member, and we value our teammates’ input. We all keep each other in check.
One thing that assists us is our forum’s list of rules. These are not there just for the members—the staff uses them as a guideline for deciding what is, and is not, acceptable forum behavior. We hold a member’s behavior up against the published list of rules in order to determine the number of rules broken, and how severe the infraction is. (We will explore specific rules, and how we arrived at them, in our next installment.) Are we perfect in interpreting the rules? Of course not. Sometimes it appears as though we have a double standard—maybe one got off with a wrist slap for the same offense that we might have suspended another member for. Some rules are also not as serious as others. Some are just guidelines for how to write in the forum (such as, not writing in ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT IS CONSIDERED SHOUTING), where others cover behavior we do not allow in the forum (like racial slurs, personal attacks and posting spam).
Despite all the ups and downs, a good moderation team is proud of the work they do to maintain a smoothly operating forum. It isn’t anyone’s dream job by a long shot, but when problems are resolved efficiently, it’s satisfying to know you did your part to make the forum an enjoyable place for fellow members to participate in.
Now, it’s your turn! Have you had a question you have always wanted to ask a forum moderator? We’ll be picking some of the best questions from our comments and answering them in one of our future installments.