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Moderating a forum

BACKGROUND

I moderate on http://www.opentalk.org.uk and there are decisions to be made. To leave an argument to run its course, or to step in and take action. To tell a user that what he's suggesting isn't legal, or to let it be. To allow advertising by people who register just for the purpose of selling their wares, or not.

It's fun being a moderator, but at times it's also a thankless task. There are times I have to make decisions in the heat of the moment (or in a couple of minutes between other commitments) that can be analysed later with the benefit of hindsight and time and can be found wanting. So - I'm setting down here, away from both of those forums, some thoughts. Partly to help my own rationalisation and partly as a guidance note for future new moderators on Opentalk.

STRATEGY FIRST

Why does our board - let's use Opentalk as an example - exist? It exists to help new and intermediate programmers in languages such as Perl, Python and PHP resolve issues that they have, and to which they can't find obvious answers. It also exists to help Well House Consultants build up their website and visibility by becoming a known name, and by providing material for search engines to refer people to. That's the strategy - the mission statement. Once the mission statement is written, policy and tactical decisions become easier as the first question to ask in any new circumstance is "how is my decision going to effect our strategy".

What tactics have we developed on Opentalk to help us meet the strategies?

ALLCOMERS WELCOME

Anyone is welcome to post to Opentalk. It may be the 20th time this year that I've seen someone get the $| variable in Perl wrong, but it's his or her first time and our board is NOT for point scoring. It's for an exchange of ideas. Now - you may not want to write (yet) another identical answer, but there's no reason why you can't be polite and give someone a URL to your FAQ or a previous thread that covered the subject in depth ... and add a few words of welcome too. It's not their fault that they've caught you on an off day.

At time, people surprise me. From a run-of-the-mill question, a friendship can develop. I have had someone who I emailed to say "I think you have a virus" book on a course.

Poor English and typing skills should not be a concern. If the poster's natural tongue is Urdu, then he's being very brave in posting and will probably turn out to be very bright. If you have difficulty with this and get frustrated, just think how you would be trying to post in HIS native language.

ASSUME THE BEST OF PEOPLE

"What a stupid thing to do." "She's from the USA - is she uneducated or something?" "What's her problem?"
Moderator talk. But the answers might be "he's just broken up from his wife and he's not thinking clearly", "she's visually disabled and every post is a huge effort" and "she's a recovering alcoholic - she's probably having a bad day". There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Until someone proves they shouldn't be here, give them the benefit of the doubt. In all but one or two cases, I've found I'm delighted to have done so. And remember that many people make their first post at a time that they're tense, looking for help in a crisis and could do with sympathy and good handling.

Of course, someone who's a "twit" will sometimes do a twit-ish thing and have to be restricted or even banned (now THERES a big subject ...). In a way that represents a failure to keep that person totally on board but you can't keep all the people 100% happy all the time.

MAXIMISE POSITIVE CONTRIBUTIONS

I've worked for a number of bosses and the ones that I enjoy working with the most are those who, year in and year out, take an interest in their staff. Take a leaf from that experience - make positive contributions to the board you moderate. Welcome newcomers to the site or your area, and make them feel at home. Compliment them if their contributions are good, wish them well. Ask them to update you the board when they find a solution.

Start a limited number of new topics yourself ... keep up the interest in the board by providing useful new threads. Don't be disappointed if only a few people follow up - remember that they probably hold you in a degree of awe as the moderator.

If you spot an orphan thread ... posted (especially by a newcomer) and left unanswered by your masses of visitors, have a look at it. The originator might be a bit down that they've not had any reaction. How about sending a p.m? Or posting a follow up even if you don't know the answer. "Hi, welcome ... I'm not an SNMP expert myself ... but I've found that many problems like the one you've described turn out to be buffering issues [etc. ...]. Your question's looking to combine two very niche topics so there's probably only a handful of worldwide experts who can help ..."

"Don't smother."

You'll look at Opentalk and tell me that I don't practise my suggestion here ... As moderator, I'm suggesting that silence is often golden and you should let people talk without jumping in on every thread. OK - so "opentalk" is, to some extent, an "ask Graham" board so it's hard for me to follow this suggestion but I'm delighted when Chris or John or Custard or others jump in with an answer.

MINIMISE MEDDLING INTERVENTION

"Should I correct spelling?" "Should I modify or move the post?"
Being a moderator is a privilege - don't abuse it by overusing the extra powers it gives you. It would need an exceptional situation for me to correct spelling (perhaps I would change "now" to "not" if I was sure that the original poster had made an error that changed the whole sense of a message). I'll move a post for two reasons:
a) If I feel that the ORIGINAL POSTER will get a better response elsewhere b) If I feel that the post is in an off-topic area and its presence there dilutes the content (for example, if a post on Curry Houses in Melksham appears on the Perl Programming board).
I might also modify a post if a user accidentally posted his password as part of a script ...

"Should I delete a post?"

No. Not usually. It's an extreme measure. I have done so with inappropriate adverts, posts that appear to infringe copyright, posts of the source code of viruses. Better to reduce or "snip" a post. And always explain - see the next answer for further comment.

"Should I lock a topic?"

No. Not usually. It's an extreme measure; although we don't (and can't) offer free speech, we are censoring others if we do so and we are creating an "us and them" scenario. I've seen people on both the boards I'm concerned with comment as to what a friendly place it is, and locking topics will rarely reinforce that. Look for better ways.

OK - I HAVE locked topics on Opentalk. After refusing to write someone's programming course work for him and having him come back and tell me that I should (and that I should post a copy in the mail to his home address), I advised him in private that I still wouldn't. A further public post demanding that I do his coursework resulted in an explanation being written in public, and a lock being imposed.

Which brings me to .... ALWAYS EXPLAIN YOUR ACTIONS AS A MODERATOR. On the posts / thread concerned. You may be aware of background, as may your fellow moderator, but if you appear unduly heavy handed on a public forum you'll make your new and occasional visitors nervous.

"In public or in private?"

If you're taking someone to task, it's usually better to do so by p.m. or email rather than in public. Less embarrassing for them. But it might be worth a short public note as well if you want to explain a policy. See if you can do so without blaming the original poster. "Sorry - but we're a UK based site, and in the UK copyright law says that you can only quote up to 25% of someone else's work ... original poster - please do feel welcome to add a further description in your own words".

"Should xxxx be banned?"

No. Not usually. Only as a last resort. A series of steps should be taken with a member who's stepping or stepped out of line. Deal with initially in private; failing that public comment may be necessary. Give the member every opportunity to apologise / mend ways.

Alas - experience shows that a member who oversteps the rules once will tend to do so again - but that's still not a good enough reason to ban them; to do so at a "first hit" is to assume they didn't just make a one off mistake / weren't having a bad day. If they're a newcomer, perhaps they've arrived at a time of crisis in their job. If they're an old hand, perhaps they're having an off day. Should a member arrive with a bad reputation, it shouldn't make any difference; were *you* in authority at their old place to know all the details?

BUT ... there may be occasions when an action needs to be taken that's NOT "give them another chance" ... if it's in the interest of the board as a whole. Such cases are rare and extreme.

RESPECT VIEWS YOU DON'T SHARE

As moderator, it's very easy to be dogmatic. Don't be - "the higher you rise, the further you have to fall". Check your facts and if you have any doubt, post with "I think" or "can anyone confirm". I thought I knew an answer concerning a driving license the other day, but I posted with a caveat ... and it resulted in a most stimulating set of posts which together set down the situation far better and more accurately than I could have done.

If you're a Python fan, great (so am I). But respect others who call it Pyss-on because they feel that it has a pyss-poor way of handling blocks in your opinion. My view (and thus Opentalk's) is that there's a limit and you should not get on to attacking people for their views but arguing against their views is OK.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO ACT FIRMLY

There's a thousand and one areas where you may have to lay down rules. Try to keep them all in your forum agreement, and update it from time to time as necessary. Keep a copy of the rules in "Forum Help" and tell people when you make changes. Explain why changes are made.

Rules may include:
+ Age or other limit of posters
+ Subject limits
+ Limiting sharing of accounts
+ Requiring that people not be personally insulting to others
+ Spam and bump posting restrictions

Don't be afraid to act decisively if a rule is broken, or for tactical reasons where something should be done in your view to further our strategy. Thinking of the strategy is a wonderful way of lifting the fog and clarifying what should be done - it often makes the difficult decisions easy


See also Opentalk Forum home page

Please note that articles in this section of our web site were current and correct to the best of our ability when published, but by the nature of our business may go out of date quite quickly. The quoting of a price, contract term or any other information in this area of our website is NOT an offer to supply now on those terms - please check back via our main web site

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