Worlds & Time

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Message Board Administration

Here's some thoughts on what my two and a half years at IIDB taught me about running message boards, presented in unreadable block paragraphs. Forgive me, please, but I had to get it out somehow, but I couldn't make it comprehensible.

  • Given a large enough population, there will always be some people that disagree with a change in policy.
IIDB had long term users that had joined before the board had formally codified its current rules, and some of them considered the less restrictive environment "the good old days" and longed for the time where calling people names was allowed. They chaffed at the new rules, and some of them were eventually banned when they violated the rules too many times. Making sure that your users have a comfortable environment is key to quality moderation, but that doesn't mean allowing your long term highly recognizable users to run roughshod over new users just because they were around when times were different.

Disagreement doesn't necessarily mean disruption or argumentation either. People can be polite in their disagreement. I've seen it happen and if someone says "I can't be polite and expect you to listen to me" then you should immediately disabuse them of that notion. Politely.

Also realize that there's a difference between a few people and a vast number of people. If people start complaining and are still complaining two weeks later, that's probably an indication that the change you made isn't going over very well. It usually takes people a few days to become acclimated to significant chance. Also, if there are 200 people complaining on a website with 1000 active members, that might be another sign that you should listen to what they have to say instead of dismissing their actions as unrepresentative of the feelings of the membership as a whole. That's a large chunk, and while there are people that always complain, numbers above 1 in 10 should be considered significant.

  • Moderation is intended to present a clean, comfortable environment for discussion and debate.
With all due respect to Teresa Nielsen Hayden, I disagree with her practice of "disenvowelling" posts to make them nearly unreadable. Leaving incredibly unreadable and still possibly disruptive posts to indicate where disruption occurred can still be disruptive. On blogs with comments, such as BoingBoing, Making Light, and this one I would prefer to remove the disruptive post completely. Thus, space and attention isn't granted to people that need to learn how to make constructive comments.

This is a little more complicated in a message board situation. Our policy at IIDB was to leave as much of the post as possible undisturbed and insert special "edited" marks, and that's about as much disruption as I think is appropriate. If the entire post is provocative or problematic (i.e. a rules violation) then the entire post should vanish into the ether (but the moderator must let the poster know why it vanished). That allows people to know that an edit occurred without disrupting the flow of the conversation.

Also, IIDB mods were charged with cleaning up problems with the bbcode tags, especially the quote tags, which a lot of boards don't do but certainly contributed to the professional appearance of the board.

  • Privacy relates to the personal and private information of users and everything else is simply a courtesy.
I first saw this become an issue at CF, where it caused huge problems in interactions between the staff and the general membership, but it had started to become an issue at IIDB when I was dismissed. IP addresses, real names, locations and anything else that the staff may be able to learn about someone through their higher level of access should be protected as "private." Anything else that is protected by the board's privacy policy is just a courtesy that the board provides according to the environment that the board wishes to cultivate. I would say that staff members shouldn't talk about infractions/warnings and edits required by users publicly unless those same users give you permission to talk about them, but that is up to the owner's discretion.

Under no circumstances, though, should staff have "privacy" from the users. Anything said about a user in staff forums, or pretty much anything said in a staff forum at all should never be considered "protected."

As soon as staff needs "privacy" in which to operate, problems occur. At CF, the staff cited privacy to cover themselves when they made mistakes and obfuscate issues in which they were clearly in the wrong. People couldn't defend themselves against unfair warnings delivered by abusive and factionalized staff members because the reasons behind the warnings couldn't be discussed with the person that had incurred them without breaking "staff privacy" even when the warnings were technically "official" correspondence.

  • Promote staff due to competence, not ideology.
There is a certain acceptance of the goals of a message board that is necessary for a user to make a good staff member but I would much rather have someone calm and collected that can enforce the rules with equanimity that disagrees with me on who should be the next president of the United States than a hot head that thinks exactly what I think and enforces rules emotionally. IIDB was usually very good about this, but I did see the occasional problem with some staff members who seemed to be think that their rank gave their political opinions extra weight.

One of the requirements for inclusion on IIDB staff was the ability to let insults and personal comments slide off. If a staff member got mad or upset every time someone called them incompetent, then it wouldn't be long before someone upset them. When people are angry and emotional they make mistakes and so you shouldn't be moderating someone that is personally calling you a name, but you shouldn't let it get to you either.

A minor part of this emphasis on competence has to be a consideration of reliability. I noticed that there were a few people that handled most of the issues and could be counted upon to show up day after day, while other staff members might show up once every few days. Oddly, since input is important to being a moderator, those people that had irregular schedules weren't just holding up their own work but other people's work as well. This led to the delay in the resolution of complaints on multiple occasions.

I know that there's the old saying that the people that desire power should be the very last people that should actually have power, and that's partially true in moderating a message board. People that want to be moderators just so that can boss others around should never be promoted to those positions. In fact, I recommend making it clear that to be a moderator is a role of servitude: they serve the needs of the community. "With authority comes responsibility" to paraphrase the Spider-man movie. Be careful not to mistake people who want power with people who want to serve. Sometimes people that don't have the ability to consistently contribute discourse still have the time, ability, and inclination to moderate in order to make the message board a better place, and those people should be snapped up whenever available.

One final note on this, as much as I hate to use a phrase that's been used against me, sometimes good moderators are poor administrators. If you are having trouble with a new Admin but that person was one of the best moderators that you've ever had, consider explaining the situation and asking them to step back into their old position.

  • Enforce the spirit of the rule, not the letter of it. Make this one of your rules.
If someone manages to insult someone else without actually breaking a rule, perhaps by way of comparison with something that most people wouldn't be offended by ("You are an Eagle" where "Eagle" is taken by the other person to be an insult), they've just broken your rules even if this specific instance isn't specifically mentioned in your rules.

This is a tough one, because experience with the American legal system is predicated in the exact opposite terms. Judges typically seem to uphold the letter of the law even if the result seems counterintuitive and users sometimes get upset that you are giving your moderators discretion to make their own determination of what breaks the rules or not.

This is exactly why I say that you should make this one of your rules, because each moderator action should be what the moderators understand to be a violation of the rules, not necessarily something that the violator understands it to be. I have my own understanding of trolling, and if I say "no trolling" then people could argue endlessly about what that prohibits or permits. However, this leads directly into the next point, which is:

  • Allow moderators autonomy but review their actions.
Moderators shouldn't have to wait to do things. The absolute worst case of this is also derived from CF, where at one point you needed at least two people to sign off on any moderator action before the post was edited. I've heard unconfirmable rumors that at one point you needed two moderators and a supervisor before any action could be taken. Whether true or not, forcing currently active mods to wait for input before allowing them to edit problematic posts only cripples their ability to do their job.

Ideally, you should have a certain amount of trust in your moderators. Instead of waiting for multiple other people to weigh in, they should be able to take action as soon as they find a suspect post.

However, this doesn't mean that first impressions are always the correct impressions. I once edited a series of insults in a thread that I hadn't been closely monitoring only to find out that the insult had really been intended as a light-hearted jest. It wasn't the person who'd said the insult that complained about my edit, it was the person who'd been insulted. He was upset that I'd interrupted their friendly back and forth. When I re-examined the situation I found that the supposed insult really was clearly not a violation of our rules, and I reversed my edit and apologized.

Even though in the above example the insulted party complained, the first people that should be reviewing the moderator's action should be the other moderators. At IIDB, we had multiple moderators assigned to each forum, and they would review each others actions if they weren't quite sure that they'd done the correct thing. If they can't agree, that's when the Admins should step in and review the situation.

At IIDB if a moderator saw something problematic, such as a blatant insult or a copyright infringement, they could edit it as soon as they came across it. If you choose the correct people, you shouldn't have to worry that most actions are approved by handled by a single person. After all, if you can't reliably count on your moderators, then why are they moderators?

  • Have a simple and clear way to complain or challenge moderator actions and never ever penalize anyone for using it.
Again, IIDB did this fairly well, especially for the first year and a half or so after I joined. There was no required format, only the requirement that you needed to provide a link to the post or thread that you were complaining about.

Once a complaint had been made, the other moderators of a forum would review the edit, and an uninvolved moderator of the same forum, or rarely an administrator, would provide a response. Now CF has moved to a completely transparent process where moderator deliberations can be seen but I don't necessarily think that's the better way to handle it because it can distract from the topics of conversation on the message board. As long as a board is well administrated (by which I mean run by people that understand that moderators can make mistakes which need to be corrected, and that prevents mods from forming cliques of moderators working together for mutual protection and support) I don't think that absolute and complete transparency is necessary to maintain a fair and working complaint system.

Granted, at the end of my experience with IIDB, this system had broken down mostly because there was no one overseeing it. In the ten days that I administrated IIDB two cases were brought to my attention of complaints slipping through the cracks, and more appeared to be on the way. However, when the system was working, it worked very well.

  • Within reason, document everything.
When any edit is made, no matter how clearcut the violation is, the original text and state of the post needs to be documented somehow. When I started at IIDB as a moderator we used user notes to document any edit made by a moderator. Later we used the infraction/warning system that was inherent to vBulletin which had the added benefit of sending a PM to the user letting them know that they'd been edited.

There are always cases where this may be superfluous. If all a moderator is doing is correcting the formating tags of a post, I don't think that requires documentation. However, any time actual words are removed from a post, or a post is removed from place, that requires some note on what was removed and the reason why.

If a mistake has been made, or the other moderators or the administrators have determined that no rules were broken, the post should be restored with all possible haste, and the only way to do that is if the text of the post is saved somewhere.

  • Term limits for moderators suck. Term limits for administrators are mandatory. (Only at big boards)
I haven't clearly differentiated between moderators and administrators, so let me do that here. Moderators are the people that handle the day to day work of editing posts, issuing warnings and infractions, and spend a lot of time on the public forums. Administrators are those people that make the decisions about what the rules are, how they are enforced, and they're the people a user would appeal to in a last resort for relief from an abusive moderator.

Moderators usually moderate forums that they love, and are invested in the topic. In my experience at IIDB, at busy boards administrators tend to have their favorite topics and forums as well, but they spend most of their working time in the staff forums making sure that things run smoothly. Or they should be doing that.

What that means is that moderators often have an emotional investment in the forums that they moderate, and if you were to remove moderators with term limits you would be removing the people that care most and are most knowledgeable of the forum subject. My experience at CF and IIDB has led me to believe that the administrator job is different. Administrators often don't have as much of an emotional investment in running the board as they do to contributing to it.

Eventually, when Administrators drift away and stop performing their duties, they tend to become entrenched. This happened all the time at CF, where the number of Supervisory moderators, Admins, and super-Admins eventually rivaled the entire number of moderators. At IIDB, some administrators reached that position and eventually stopped regularly contributing. Unfortunately, at that point, they had no one to review their activity or behavior and they would enter a fugue state where they wouldn't be contributing but they couldn't be removed either. Term limits, or perhaps just a non-staff governing body that reviewed the Admins could have prevented that from happening.

This doesn't make sense at smaller boards because usually they are privately run and the administrator is also the owner of the board. However, for large boards catering to large segments of the population such as CF and IIDB, making the top positions change is usually necessary, especially if:

  • A council of equals should administrate your large board.
Erwin, the former owner and webmaster of CF, had almost no time to focus on the things that needed his attention because he did everything. Not only was he in charge, he did the programming, maintenance and set policy for most of his ownership of the forum. CF, with thousands and thousands of active members at a time was simply too large to controlled by a single person.

However, when things on the administration side went wrong (and they always go wrong) things had to be approved or fixed by Erwin which meant that he'd get slammed when he went online. And he was a busy guy, so he wasn't always online and things would take weeks or months to deal with.

At IIDB, the Internet Infidels Board of Directors created a circle of seven equal Administrators to run the board. Major policy changes were sometimes approved by the board, but the rules were written and enforced by the Admins, and they were the last resort in appeals.

A system like that is designed to prevent one person from getting too uppity. Major changes require votes, but the Admins can handle the more common administrative tasks on a medium to large message board by themselves, which means that no one is going to get overwhelmed. Just like the moderator actions are reviewed by other moderators, the administrators can review each other's work if there is a problem.

  • People have different senses of humor.
I suppose that just thinking about this, I could shorten it down to "people are different" because that's certainly true. However, as it relates to message boards, I think that humor is a more important quality to be taken into account.

The upshot of this is that sometimes someone will say something intended to be funny which comes out completely wrong. I've definitely said the wrong thing and the wrong time and had my head nearly snapped off by upset users/moderators/admins. In the sort of situation where no one's really at fault, instead of telling someone "YOU BROKE A RULE, OMG!!!" it's much more effective to discuss the post with the person that's offended and the person that made the offending post.

Most good users (i.e. people with an ounce of compassion) will understand this implicitly and sometimes even agree to edit themselves or personally apologize to the offended party. Sometimes the offended person will calm down once they realize that what was said wasn't intended to be mean/nasty/rude. And if they don't understand, then you'll know that they're probably trouble makers that may need some further attention.

Oh, right, I forgot this when I proposed the "enforce the spirit of the rules" bulletin point: Enforcing the spirit instead of the letter of the rules means sometimes not enforcing the rules. After all, the rules are intended to provide a clean and comfortable place for discussion of the issues and sometimes you can bend a rule if its relevant to the conversation. Ask your moderators to recognize that sometimes the enforcement of a rule isn't necessary, but if they aren't sure to bring the matter up with other moderators and administrators to ask for their feedback.

  • If you aren't having fun, then you're probably not doing it right.
There are a few odd people out there that can't deal with online socialization, and obviously this point doesn't apply to them, but running a message board is fun. If it isn't fun, then you're doing something wrong and you (and possibly your admins and mods) may suffer from burnout.

The most common problem I see that tends to lead to burn out is the driving need to make sure that you get everything done right now! You don't. If you're facing an overwhelming amount of work find more people to help Administrate and search for more good moderators to help them deal with their forums. More people equals more fun, as long as they're competently doing their jobs.

Besides, there's nothing special about the number 7. If you run CF maybe you need a group of 11 Admins or maybe 21. Maybe they do need to be divided into teams of administrators to deal with different sections of the board, but be careful. Large bureaucracies can turn a little bit of poor leadership into huge honking messes. The people at the top need to be the best of the best, regardless of what they believe. They need to be able to coordinate dozens and sometimes hundreds of people and make sure that they're all on the same page and getting work done at multiple levels. This is where you need dedicated HR people, dedicated moderator trainers, and a Super-Admin group, all of which can be interesting jobs, but need to be carefully watched.

Remember though, if you can't trust the people that run the site, you'll have problems. This is where its especially important to promote due to competence and not seniority because the temptation will be there. You'll certainly have people that will get upset when they're passed over for positions but you have to remember that these people don't deserve the positions, they earn them.

Finally:

  • Any message board staff other than the owner are there to serve the interests of the users and the board, not the other way around.
This is sort of a big deal, and it has definitely been touched on before under "promote due to competence." CF eventually had people in powerful Super-Admin positions that took those positions not because they wanted to do them or were good at them but rather because they liked the feeling of superiority that they had over all of the normal members.

The didn't realize that Administrator is actually the lowest position on a message board. Yeah, it's an exclusive position and it offers a lot of benefits, but it requires mounds of hard work in the guts of the system, often dealing with angry people and upset moderators. It's hard and emotionally draining, and if you aren't up to dealing with all the pain and tough decisions you really don't want to get involved with it.

Administration means that you see everything, including all the worst facets of people. You'll deal with almost all of the porn, spam, fights between friends, stalking and internet spats that occur on the site. Every move that you make will be questioned and examined for a deeper meaning. People will consistently fail to treat you nicely.

And through it all, you need to remember that your position exists to serve the people that treat you like crap.

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