Fascist or facilitator – some thoughts on forum moderation

When you read ‘fascist’ in the title, think of the late Rik Mayall in The Young Ones. So hold your horses, this isn’t going to be something politically incredibly incorrect dribble. But I think the dichotomy expressed in the title is apt, in a way. Please allow me to muse a bit on the topic of forum moderation, because I think there’s some misconceptions about it. Well, in my opinion, at least.

Mind you, this is not something I write out of resentment for being crossed by a moderator on some forum, in case you think that’s the direction we’re headed off in. Sure, I’ve had my run-ins with ‘the mods’ once or twice over the years. People who interact with me on forums are probably aware that I can be edge, direct or even somewhat blunt from time to time. But that’s another matter – and I try to moderate my behavior a bit, I really do!

No, what I’m about to write is something that has crossed my mind from time to time over the past, oh…twenty years or so. Which is roughly the period I’ve been active on online message boards, a.k.a. forums. Time flies, eh! Most of the time and on most of these forums, I was a regular participant. In one particular case, I held a post of moderator for a while on a fairly busy/large forum. And way back in time when the web was still fairly young, I even set up a couple of message boards. No, none of them thrived and I don’t think any of them still exists.

Having been part of forums for two decades, I can’t help but forming some thoughts about moderation. You have to, I think, if you moderate one. You definitely have to if you make mistakes, which is bound to happen, and I sure did. At the very least, it makes you wonder how to make the job as stress-free and pleasant as possible for yourself. And with a bit of luck, you actually wonder how you could do the best job from the perspective of the community. After all, most moderators do their work pro bono – simply because someone asked them and they thought it would be appropriate to give something back to the community they usually were part of for a while already. Well, ideally. There are other motives, and we’ll get to that soon enough.

What moderation is – or…is it?

I’m a fan of Wikipedia, so let’s start there to get us a starting point on the definition question:

The moderators (short singular form: “mod”) are users (or employees) of the forum who are granted access to the posts and threads of all members for the purpose of moderating discussion (similar to arbitration) and also keeping the forum clean (neutralizing spam and spambots etc.).


I think that’s actually a good start. And let’s take it from here by scoping a bit. In the definition above, there’s mention of keeping the place clean of spam, and indeed, this can take up a considerable part of a moderator’s time. It depends a bit on how tasks are divided and what kind of automated tools are used, but removing spam and spam accounts can easily add up to 90% of a moderator’s tasks in my experience. But I’m not going to go deeper into this, because I feel it’s different, and from a social perspective much less involved task than the actual interactions with bonafide users, which are as a result more interesting and relevant to focus on.

Reading a bit more on that Wikipedia page, we quite quickly hit upon the dichotomy expressed in the title:

[…] users have accused moderators of abusing special access privileges to act as a “cabal” of “petty tyrants”


Well, that’s certainly true in my experience. There’s of course the accusation on the one hand, and the degree to which it’s justified on the other. I separate the two of these, because both of them can be a problem in their own right. Even if forum users are factually quite wrong in painting their moderators as a corrupt, nefarious clique, it’s evident that this in itself is already a toxic situation.

(Indeed, on one occasion, when I was a moderator, someone called me an ‘asshat’, which I found more comical than anything else. Trying to picture what such a garment would look like and what purpose it would serve, you know. It helped me to see things in perspective that my intervention to which the user responded angrily really was justified by all means.)

So moderating isn’t all moonlight and roses, that much is clear. But what are the issues and possible causes? Let me try and take a stab at this (and probably fail miserably at completeness and structure, because it’s a pretty darn complex and vast if you think about it).

Moderation is facilitation

Well, if only that statement were true all of the time. It’s perhaps the most important issue in forum moderation and the question how effective it is in the long run. Look at how the Wikipedia definition refers to moderation as ‘arbitration’. I think that touches upon the essence a lot more than ‘policing’, although some moderators do behave as policemen with chips on their shoulders. In fact, I would even go so far as to state that good moderation is more a matter of facilitation than of arbitration.

Think about it – when you organize an event, let’s say a conference, and you include a round table discussion into the program. You invite a couple of participants, preferably with views or experiences that don’t overlap entirely and that are perhaps even opposites. To ensure that the discussion is fruitful – as in, interesting to hear, without spiraling down into name-calling or discussants merely digging trenches and defending their positions from them – you add a moderator to the bunch. The task of this moderator is then to ensure that a balanced discussion takes place, that the participants have the opportunity to share their views, that people respond to each other in a constructive way, etc.

In short, the moderator in this case really acts as a facilitator. And why should it be any different at all on an internet forum? So I’m going to take this view as my point of departure: online forum moderation is essentially facilitating.

As a result, moderation in its best form should be constructive, coaching and supporting, and it should not revolve around repression, rule enforcement or other means of powerplay. That’s easy enough to say, and I’ll be the first to admit that the more restrictive tools are simply necessary some of the time. But they aren’t as necessary as some moderators think – I’ve seen many cases where a moderator wielded ‘power tools’ because they set themselves up for it (or simply out of ignorance), and not because there was no other way out of the situation.

If I were to create practical recommendations on this basis, they would go something like this:

  • Let it be. For the most part, a community tends to right itself. I think the worst thing a moderator can do is intervene too quickly. Only facilitate when necessary. Some degree of discord is normal in debates, and in itself, there’s nothing wrong with a heated debate, as long as it remains fundamentally respectful.
  • The second worst thing a moderator can do is intervene too late. Ah yes, a balancing act. There are more of these… Once the name-calling has begun, people have already gotten hurt, ugly things are there for all to read and the forum is no longer a hospitable place for all. Once things go off-track, intervene rapidly and effectively.
  • Nudge discussions back on the right track, if you can. This is in contrast with applying restrictive force. There’s a distinct difference in user perception between being told “guys, shall we get back on track?” and seeing your posts deleted or your forum account being (temporarily) suspended. Again, a balancing act between overreacting and not being decisive enough, but I would suggest to err to the side of caution.
  • Try to maintain an attitude of service to the community instead of leadership. This may sound somewhat vague, but I think there’s a psychological difference between seeing yourself as a leader vs. being a facilitator. A moderator really should be the latter, and in my opinion the beauty of a forum is that it has no leaders. This basic equality between people is perhaps the greatest good of a forum.
  • Ensure that the forum is a place where people feel welcome and generally respect each other. Many negative examples exist; on one forum I participated in, the default response of a moderator to any new thread (especially from new users) was a brief note that boiled down to “don’t expect any help if you don’t stick to our rules”, accompanied with a link to several pages’ worth of rules, guidelines and best practices. There are kinder ways to get the same message across, I think.
  • If restrictive action is necessary, make sure there’s a consistent and transparent framework of rules that underlies your actions, and act accordingly. Try to prevent any suggestion of arbitrary behavior or favoritism. When intervening, clearly indicate which rule(s) were violated and what the purpose of the restrictive action is. Apply restrictive action not as a punishment but to get the discussion/forum back on track.
  • As a moderator, contribute to developing and honing the rules that form the basis of accepted (by the community at large) moderation. Periodically review the rules and see if they’re still necessary, productive and up to the daily needs of the forum.
  • Don’t over-regulate. While having some ground rules is great, I don’t think it’s necessary or productive to enter a longwinded process of lawmaking with a large and complex set of rules and regulations that cover any eventuality. There are some common situations that you want to cover with rules so everyone knows what’s expected from them, but despite the basic equality of people on a forum, it’s not a democratic society. Much of the point of having moderators is that they can act on their own discretion. I think it’s better to put energy into appointing good moderators than going overboard with writing rules.

The wheat and the chaff: scouting moderators

You’re running a forum, or you’re part of a team of moderators, and you need help from new moderators. So you go out looking for a new candidate, and probably look primarily for regular users who seem to be expressing a keen interest in the forum, as signified by frequent visits and posts. And maybe they have expressed interest in being a moderator, perhaps indirectly, and/or you’ve been in touch with them in prior accounts and the interaction was constructive and pleasant. You propose a post as a moderator to them, they gladly accept (of course!) and all is well. Or is it?

In principle, the above works and it’s actually how I would still do it. But I would look for specific things, and perhaps weigh other things not as heavily as they’re being done in practice. Let me illustrate: when I was assigned a moderator on a fairly large and busy forum, one of the main reasons was apparently that I had good knowledge of the subject matter that was central to the forum. I think that’s a particularly poor criterion, to be honest. While some knowledge of the subject matter is certainly handy and perhaps even essential when facilitating discussions on that subject, it’s not the characteristic that makes someone a good moderator.

Now, there were probably other reasons why they picked me at the time, and content knowledge was perhaps also a little bit more important than in other places – personal safety played a role, and in such a case it’s perhaps a good idea to have moderators on board who can decide quickly and accurately if advice handed by someone is actually dangerous or not. But in general, there are other things I think we should look for when scouting new moderators.

Think of characteristics like these:

  • Being a frequent contributor. After all, a good moderator who only visits the forum once in a blue moon isn’t going to help much. This criterion usually sorts itself out, because it’s the frequent posters that stand out anyway. But it’s still relevant.
  • A constructive debater with a capability of acknowledging nuances. How would you expect users to perform as moderators who tend to get caught in diatribes a lot and dig into their positions without allowing for the possibility that others are right some of the time, too? If you facilitate the exchange of information between parties, it helps to see how all parties involved may be right. Or at least, how their views are sensible from their perspective and how their interests are just as valid as anyone else’s.
  • Good alignment with existing forum policies and culture. This is a tricky one, because some of the time, you may be looking for a moderator to help shift the culture of a place a bit, and then you might actually look for dissonance with existing practices – an innovator, as it were. But in general, it helps if your new moderator smoothly fits in with the team and ‘gets with the program’. If you take what is essentially a dissident and then give them a bit more power than a regular user, evidently you’re going to have interesting times. Again, perhaps you actually want this, but I assume that most forum administrators/moderators are looking to pretty much perpetuate things.
  • Someone with a way with words. Forums are language-heavy, and people who are capable of expressing themselves well, generally have the edge. It may or may not be fair that this is the case, but it’s inescapable (just like attractive people being more successful – it’s an ugly truth, but still a truth!) Besides, a moderator who can use language to get their point across with someone in such a way that the other party actually appreciates (or at least accepts, or tolerates…) it, is a great benefit.
  • Someone with little interest in power or status. Huh? Well, think about it. If you appoint a moderator, you’re giving someone powers that other users don’t have. Yes, their marginal ‘powers’ indeed, completely irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, and they are the simple tools and capabilities they need to get the job done. But they do allow for the exercise of whatever small amount of power over others. And some people really like that. Actually, I would venture that most people like this to some degree. So it’s not necessarily wrong that a moderator enjoys their position of power (it sure is a very tiny and precarious kingdom, though) and status – but if it’s something they’re occupied with more than average, I would hesitate. Tyrants emerge, but we also make them, in a way.

Note that lacking in the list of criteria is content knowledge, but I’ve tackled that. Note also that I did not include, with good reason, actually liking a person, or recognizing them as being similar or familiar to you, or having a sense of kinship. I think those things will creep into the selection process anyway, and to an extent that’s perfectly alright (we’re all human!), but I don’t think it should be an explicit criterion. When having a team of moderators, a degree of heterogeneity is a good thing, and the one thing you want to prevent is groupthink. This of course also makes for a balancing act if you take into consideration the third criterion on the list above. You want a certain degree of conformity, but not too much. And you’ll need to challenge your own views (or allow them to be challenged, at least) to prevent clique-forming and intellectual in-breeding.

The ‘fun’ of being a moderator

The above is all kind of an outside-in view, or top-down, if you will. I’d like to complement this with a more inside-out perspective as well, based on my days as a moderator. It sounds easy enough to pile duties and expectations on a moderator, but to what extent could or should we do this?

I skipped over it at the beginning, but remember that being a moderator generally involves a lot of rather boring, repetitive and uninspiring work. Every forum has its share of spam that’s being fired at it on a daily (or even hourly, minutely!) basis. Some of it is blatantly obvious, with users with random names registering and posting a couple of messages within a few minutes with just a link to www.buymyproduct.com/Iwillgetrichfromyourstupidity. Automated spam filters may catch some of those, but in my experience, some manual labor is still involved. Besides, a lot of spammers have grown a couple of additional brain cells by now and post more subtle messages that at least tangentially touch upon the topic of an existing thread, with a link to a commercial website hidden somewhere in that message. It’s up to you as a moderator to figure out if it’s just another spammer, or if you’re dealing with a legitimate new user who happened across an old thread and genuinely wants to share the solution they preferred with the rest of the world.

So some of the time you’re doing boring stuff, and some of the time you’re doing stuff that doesn’t make you many friends. After all, even if you’re a great facilitator, it’s sometimes necessary to reel in a discussion that has gone awry and you have to delete some content that’s verbally abusive or otherwise really over the line. Users often don’t respond well to this, for a variety of reasons. “But the other guy started it and he should be punished as well” – this isn’t, or shouldn’t be about punishment, but does the user recognize this? “You’re just a power-hungry nazi trying to rule your little kingdom and restricting free speech which is my damn right” – if you’ve just removed a particularly acrimonious post with a lot of name-calling, a lot of penned up aggression / negative energy was apparently there already, and a moderator makes for a relatively easy target. No, it’s not always fun. And in cases like these, I think it’s almost an art to effectively de-escalate.

Sure, there are moments when people voice their appreciation for what you do. There are users, when you delete some of their posts that really crossed too many lines, respond to you and say “sorry mate, I really had a bad night’s sleep and I went over the line; my apologies, thanks for intervening”. And there is the feeling that in general, you’re helping along the community that one day you also came to and learned to appreciate, which in itself is rewarding. It’s not all negativity. But the negativity is there, and you can’t walk away from it.

Based on the above, I think perhaps it’s appropriate to also give some encouraging recommendations to moderators. How about this:

  • Don’t take it personal. As soon as you become a moderator, other users will start responding to you in a different way. Just like many of us will complain about the police, the government, corporations, etc., we complain about, and to, moderators. For the most part, it’s not personal, even if it’s sometimes worded that way by the more insensitive users. More often than not, the problem really is with the user, at least if you’re doing your job as a moderator in the facilitating way that I advocate here. Some of us really have difficulties with authorities or power relationships, and the position of a moderator (however limited in terms of the power it gives!) combined with the anonymity makes for sometimes pretty harsh responses. It’s virtually never about you as a person.
  • A small intervention for you might be painful for a user. As a moderator, maybe you delete several messages per day, ban a couple of spam accounts and post some admonitions here and there to get discussions back on track. It’s all in a day’s ‘work’! For a user who is on the receiving end of having a post deleted, this may have a bigger impact than you imagine. You might find yourself, unknowingly, in a parent-child dynamic (cf. transactional analysis) with the user being genuinely hurt or feeling caught. An emotional response is only logical, to some extent, and the advise above comes into play: don’t take it personal. Take the other person’s feelings seriously, de-escalate and try to turn things around.
  • Do it for the community, not for yourself. Moderating is a way to make yourself useful and to help along the forum you’re also part of. It’s really something you should be doing for the greater good and because that’s what gives you satisfaction. If at any point you notice you’re doing this because you like to be in control and you like exercising power over people, for the love of God, step down (if only temporarily until you’ve sorted yourself out)! We’re all human, and I think there’s nothing wrong with having a small sense of pride that others entrusted you with the responsibilities of being a moderator. But if power is an important motive, you’re doing this for the wrong reasons. People will get hurt, and you’ll likely be one of them.
  • Callousness is not a badge of honor. If you moderate a forum for a longer period of time, especially one where there’s a lot of discord and difficulty, you may at some point grow a thick skin and start treating people differently…and not in a good way. Try to recognize it when this happens. To an extent, it’s inevitable and I think it’s a protection mechanism all of us would develop at some point. But I’ve seen too many moderators who grew from perfectly fine people into blunt rhinos. Nobody benefits from this, and it’s certainly not something to be proud of.
  • Reflect on yourself. Much of the above revolves around one central theme: the ability to self-reflect and to critical assess your own actions, feelings and motivations. Personally, I think this is one of the useful things of being a moderator. From time to time, it forces you to have a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re still doing the right thing for the right reasons. Indeed, I think it can teach you one or two things about yourself in a relatively cheap and safe way. It’s a nice opportunity – and I think it makes for better moderators as well.

Closing comments

Well, all this turned out much longer than I anticipated, and I feel I haven’t even touched upon some important things. Think of phenomena of group dynamics where teams of moderators or forum administrators create their own subculture, which evolves over time – for better or worse. Or the challenge of being a moderator as well as user – after all, once you become a moderator, to an extent it also becomes more difficult to engage in discussion with the same degrees of freedom than before. Or how about the user perspective: what can you do as a user to help ensure that your forum has the best moderators on board? But I’ll leave those for another day. Perhaps I’ll add to this post in the future, or create new ones as the inspiration and/or need arises.

For now, I’d like to reiterate / emphasize what I’ve said before: all this is my personal opinion. Even though I formulated much of this as general truths, they of course aren’t. I believe they should be, alright! But there are different views on this, and perhaps they are just as right. My views may also be idealistic and not always realistic in the harsh realities of some of the more difficult online communities. I’m very well aware of this, but I think idealism can inform us, and it still leaves a lot of room for compromise on the shop floor.

Furthermore, it may seem I’m taking all this very seriously. To an extent, I am. We’re all real people and we have real interactions. The fact that those interactions occur in a world we call ‘virtual’ changes nothing about the fact that the feelings of these real people are also very real indeed. This doesn’t mean that I think forums are all serious business all the time, or should be. There’s certainly room for playing games, for acting certain things out and for experimenting. And for having fun, of course!