The Delicate Art of Forum Moderation

7-minute read

“An enlightening consideration for the proud forum moderator.” — Antoon van Breedebroecke, 1673.

A few years ago, in 2012, I wrote some satire at one of the Dutch forums I frequent. It told the story of a fictional seventeenth century Dutchman who lived by three simple rules of moderation. I would gladly look them up but I can’t. The post discussed some moderation issues at hand and suggested ideas for improvement. The story triggered a lot of people to contribute comments but unfortunately the thread caught fire and after a few days of mayhem the complete thread got locked and was subsequently deleted by moderators. That very act of deleting did annoy me a bit. An interesting discussion was interrupted and – even worse – erased. Things will never change, let alone improve, when there is no room for criticism. It also proved the discreet point I tried to make and got me interested in the subject. Why did I care?

Beavis & Butthead fighting

See, if you choose to, you can experience the incineration of your post as to blatantly being told to shut up; an aggressive act. Then again, you can just as easily not care at all; it’s just ASCII. Some people just pay a deadpan visit to a forum, for others it’s a passionate experience. I think imprudent moderation does impact at least part of your userbase, and as a result can disturb the well-being of your forum.

While reading up on the subject I ran into some interesting articles but the majority of those end up categorising the actions of users and explain how to react accordingly – especially in the ‘trolling’ category. In smaller forum communities trolling is a rare phenomenon though; the typical trait of a troll is total disinterest in the forum. Reality is, forum users usually do care. Dealing with users’ issues on a personal level is a far more common challenge.

Power to the people

In the early nineties, I was lucky enough to be able to operate a BBS from my teenager bedroom. It was a great adventure. The distinctive sound of a blueboxed HST call connecting from oversees had me jump out of bed every single time. Just starting out I was unable to compete with the high-traffic ‘elite’ boards – by far – so I chose not to focus on so-called warez and went to create a nice place to hang out instead.

During the first few months – and with the sure help of my friends – I managed to get some regular users: it must have been less than ten. Initially I ‘lured them in’ by the use of adverts on other boards but I quickly learnt more durable ways to get and keep people interested and thus I invested a lot of time in social interaction. I kept people interested by showing interest. Suddenly it took off. Within a year the board attracted dozens of users and something magical happened: the BBS came to life: the users built and nourished their place. My bulletin board became the mere foundation of something far more important: a community of people; it became their bulletin board! During those days I learnt a valuable lesson about communities: creating and sustaining them requires mindful investment in people. Offering a platform and content - by itself - is not enough. People create your forum.

Crowd control

User accounts represent real people and people are… well… people. They tend to walk on the grass and will not behave the way you envisioned. You lay out the most beautiful path and they all walk the other way. This is desirable behaviour! It encourages new ideas, progression, and growth.

People are using your system for the fun of it. They visit your forum to have a pleasurable experience interacting with other users: to learn or to share. Or both. And people, gotta love ’em! They laugh, disagree, inspire, tease, create, dislike, worry and ask the same questions over and over again. Wherever people gather there can and will be tension. Threads suffer from miscommunication and people even heat up once in a while. Forum operators should embrace that nature and not try to fight it. Occasional tension even serves a purpose: people will get to know each other better.

Trying to harness or force control users is not benefiting to your forum. People usually do not like to be told what to do, especially without delivering good reason – and good reason is arguable.

Ad hoc moderation

Quite a few forums regularly use harsh moderation methods to keep people in line: they moderate by publicly reprimanding users, deleting posts – effectively altering history – and even unvoice or ban users that, willingly or not, do not adhere to the rules – leaving at least some users with discontent. This type of forum moderation reacts to affairs afterwards and comes through as policing. Although a set of rules might be installed for moderators and users to refer to, users often aren’t aware, don’t understand or don’t agree.

Military tank patrolling in a sunflower field

Ad hoc moderation almost always is driven by panic or lack of time: a quick attempt to extinguish a fire and not being able to control a situation otherwise. It often results in obvious questions and loose ends that can smolder for a long time before a little spark all of a sudden makes them ignite again.

Let’s be clear here: some forums need rules, for instance if there’s a commercial interest to protect or a law to abide. However, there must be a smarter way than thoughtlessly pushing the delete–ban combo. Keep in mind that I am not discussing trolls; your forum is less troll-infected than you may think. I am addressing the regular – fresh and longterm – users of your forum that ‘suddenly’ seem rogue, which is commonplace at both small forums and the bigger ones that feature niche topics.

Preemptive moderation

Commanding your forum’s users? In my opinion you do not. What you can do is facilitate a safe and comfortable environment where people like to come back to. A place where users want to invest in, much like a real club or community. Try recognising possible incidents beforehand. The main trick: make people – all people – feel welcome, always.

So, how do you accomplish just that? Here are the magic words: interest and tolerance; a combination of both. A genuine interest in other user’s beliefs, whether you agree or disagree. Accept the fact that people have different ideas. That’s all. A forum user that voices an (odd) opinion is looking for acknowledgement rather than persuasion. He or she is investing in the forum, sharing an idea, and will feel welcome if listened to. Think difference, not right or wrong.

You can adopt this idea starting right now but how about your users? So much for the easy part! Your forum community might not be able to embrace the aformentioned change of attitude that easily. You want users to co-operate and at the very least tolerate heterodox users. Here’s the key: inspire them by showing how it’s done. This will take time but by giving good example, even stubborn users will eventually copy behaviour that has a positive effect on their forum.

Fire, walk with me

Modern forum moderation does not entail visibly wearing a badge looking for unwanted demeanor to squelch.

Strive for no moderation at all: state-of-the-art forum moderators spend their valuable time enjoying the forum, walking amongst users, and show interest in every single one of them. Be a positive example to everyone. Contribute, especially to threads that you suspect to go awry. Suggest the positive behaviour you want. Show involvement, try to predict the future by reading between the lines. True involvement prevents fires. And if threads blow up anyway – we’re just people after all – let it play out! The contributors were trying to get a point through and interrupting a conversation will not change that wish. Try and steer towards a positive dialogue, even when under enemy fire. Insert smart humor. Eventually, people will cool down, stand back, and open up. It takes effort and some self-control but it’s a pure win!

A perfect match

You might think you don’t have enough trusted moderators to execute this time-consuming job. You do. Your forum’s users – contributing all the time – are the best possible avant-garde moderators in the world!

Last week I stumbled upon my antique bulletin board’s welcome-screen which I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. When I noticed the same message — in plain sight, I smiled.

BBS screen: The users ARE the board!