Sunday, March 3, 2013

Moderation: Policing, Curation and Shoveling Behind Elephants

A new tenant moves into a community, notices that the grass has been trimmed, the kids are playing in the street without fear of being run over, and every Friday, there's a BBQ for the residents.

How does that happen? Well, resident fees are high enough to pay for regular maintenance, people obey the posted rules and they all chip in for the weekly affair with money, time, or supplies.

That sounds idyllic, but in reality it's just as likely for new residents to chafe at the rules, and work harder to find ways around paying the fees, and be annoyed by the constant clipping of the grass.

In online communities the secret ingredient to a peaceful life is almost always good moderation.

Good moderation looks awfully like the secret police to those members of communities who just can't manage to follow rules. Transparency in moderation always sounds good but involving the entire community in moderation only produces good policy when the community is small and there is a consensus of purpose. Once the community grows larger than the founders it's almost impossible to maintain that consensus.

Moderators, like the police, have an unpleasant job and no one likes them for doing it. They have to be parents, expressing disappointment at bad behavior, reprimanding when the behavior escalates and, ultimately punishing when it becomes untenable.


In a library, collection librarians are tasked with managing the size and content of the collection. They know the space limitations, budget constraints and what their community needs from them. This is not an abstract concept - a library filled with classic literature, when the community around it needs employment resources is a terrible mismatch. The gap would harm the library as much as the community.

Moderators, like librarians, have to have awareness of what the community wants from the community. If the majority of the community likce having a nice library, as unpopular a decision as it is, Moderators will have to remove Playboy magazine from the shelves. This may mean keeping tabs on "joke answers" or memes as answers because, while they entertain, they lessen the overall quality of the community. Not surprisingly, while the community wants a nice community, if they are the one posting the joke answer, it still hurts to get slapped.

And then there's times of crisis. On online communities, crisis looks like nothing at all to people who are not involved, the end times to people who are and the inevitable "this community sucks now" to people on the sidelines.

To Moderators, who have to escort anti-social, perpetually angry/dissatisfied or microaggressive members off the community and, to the best of their ability, clean up the mess afterwards - all while taking heat from people who don't really know the details - it looks exactly like the parade does from behind the elephants.


Moderators are unloved by nearly everyone, but essential to the functioning of a healthy community. Because Moderators are human, it's smart for a community Owner not to give them unlimited personal power, and require a certain amount of checks and balances from them before drastic measures are taken.

But if you've ever wondered how an online community can keep the lawns trimmed and hold a Friday BBQ, that's a good time to reach out and thank the Moderators.

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