!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Let's All Get Along: Moderating an Online Forum

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Let's All Get Along: Moderating an Online Forum

I have been helping administer an online forum for a Finnish rock band for a little over three years, during which time I have been solidifying my ideas of how best to handle this job.

My aim as a co-administrator with the site owner (a young German man) is to maintain an inviting, friendly atmosphere among the forum members, old and new. The people who visit the forum come from all over the world and use English to communicate with each other. In fact, using English is one of our rules because we want to be inclusive.

The members are also mostly young — in their teens and twenties. This means that there is often some educating needed concerning accepable behavior. In other words, some of the problems that crop up are honest mistakes of inexperienced youth.

For this type of forum — recreational, skewed young — these are the main principles I'd recommend to administrators and moderators:1
  • Rudeness is out. Since some young people enjoy trash talk, they think it's OK to bring it to our forum. They have to be clued in to the fact that trash talk is not part of our culture and is not allowed. Other types of rudeness are also verboten. On the other hand, isolated, mild instances that don't lead to flame wars are often quietly ignored. (My worst experience in this area involved a young German woman who felt entitled to criticize quite scathingly the mother of an autistic child in Britain who was trying to let her daughter participate in the forum because it seemed like a safe site to her.)

  • Encourage thick skins. Some people are quick to take offense at statements they encounter in postings. They then want to quarrel, and maybe even get one of the moderators to issue a warning or a ban to the poster who has given offense. I believe warnings and bans should be used as lightly as possible — basically, only to control truly disruptive visitors. Again, the idea is to be inviting and not have people thinking that they have to stifle themselves lest they get in trouble with the forum powers-that-be. Some of the moderators have a harsher view, so another part of my job is deciding when to overrule a moderator, which brings us to the next point ...

  • Display a united front. In the event of a difference of opinion concerning how to handle something obnoxious a forum visitor has done, such as expressing racist views, I generally support whatever action a moderator has taken even if I think it is too harsh. After all, I may be too much of a softie, and even if I'm sure it would have been better to let the incident pass, I believe it's important to minimize second-guessing the moderators. I know they're all well-intentioned and trying to make appropriate judgment calls.

  • Be responsive. If a member of the forum has a question or complaint, it's important to respond quickly and sympathetically. As with customer service situations, how a forum administrator or moderator handles an issue a forum member raises makes a tremendous difference in how the member feels about continuing to be part of our online community.

  • Neatness counts — on the front page. For the most part, I don't edit postings, since there's no reason to spend my time on something that is likely to annoy at least some of the posters who don't appreciate having someone else meddle with their text. What I do do is correct spelling errors that appear in the thread titles on the front page of the forum. With so many non-native speakers of English, errors are fairly frequent. Even native speakers have their problems with spelling. Cleaning up the mistakes keeps the front page looking presentable, which I consider important for making a good impression, especially on newcomers.

  • No blatant copyright violations. Forum participants have to understand that the forum owner is not willing to risk being sued just because fans of the band enjoy sharing digital files they are not authorized to distribute.

    With the advent of YouTube, this issue seems to have become easier to cope with. Content owners appear to be accepting an approach whereby, if some kid somewhere posts an unauthorized video, it stays online unless and until the copyright owner requests its removal. This is as opposed to expecting site owners to vigilantly watch for unauthorized material and to remove it without being asked — a time-prohibitive task in the Internet era.
As I mentioned at the beginning, our forum is frequented by a lot of young people, so I view what I'm doing as including an element of teaching, which, no surprise, is something I enjoy.

1 Forum moderators have somewhat fewer privileges than forum administrators. For instance, moderators can move, edit, and pin posts, and they can warn and suspend members, but they may not be able to ban members.