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How Micromanagement Can Damage Your Community

Posted by Patrick Groome on Dec 9, 2014 8:36:37 AM

5 minute read

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One of my main responsibilities as a Professional Internet (Editor's Note: no it's not a typo - it says that on Patrick's business cards - long story) is to consult with clients about best practises and methods for running their community. These meetings are rarely with the moderators of the forum, but are normally with the project managers who are responsible for the oversight of the project. Needless to say, they aren't in the trenches of the community themselves, but I can normally tell a lot about them from the way they speak about their moderators, and the tools that they use to manage them.

It's not uncommon for a manager to want the specifics of how to remove as much power from moderators as they can. Specifically, they want to ensure that moderators can't delete posts, edit content or ban users. They also want to use analytics to monitor exactly how much each moderator is doing, to ensure that they're pulling their weight. The frequency of these requests raises three questions for me. Firstly; if a moderator can't ban a user or edit content, what specific use does the manager expect to get from them? Secondly; if the people you've chosen as moderators are so untrustworthy that they can't be trusted with this functionality, what made you choose them for the role? Thirdly; since moderation is invariably an unpaid position, why would a moderator want to volunteer to be on a team where they aren't trusted?

What restricting abilities really means

A common approach is to have the moderators as mere flaggers of content. They'll say what they believe needs to be deleted, locked or banned and a higher ranked admin type will check in once a day and assess this. This strikes me as a pretty long-winded workflow, and one that doesn't really have any tangible benefits over simply letting the moderator perform the action themselves and make a note of it. As a CM, it's absolutely my responsibility to go over my moderators actions every day to ensure their wisdom, but I can count the amount of times that I've wished I could pre empt them on one hand. On the other hand, any community will be constantly faced with issues that could benefit from a larger team with the discretion to curate content and users.

What happens when a spammer inevitably shows up? What if a troll decides to post pornography in every thread? What if a user posts potentially libellous material that could lead to a lawsuit? You can't be on call 24 hours a day to deal with urgent situations. but you can absolutely manage a global team of moderators who can cover most of the day. Adding an extra stage to their workflow where they contact you and request that you do something about it simply increases the amount of time that the offending content is publicly viewable in your community. One of the biggest recent scandals in the gaming community was originally intended by its instigator to kick off at Penny Arcade. It didn't, because one of my moderators saw it and took immediate action. I was kept informed throughout, but they didn't have to wait for me to drag myself out of bed and confirm the wisdom of their actions.

Valuing the work of your moderators

Being a moderator is a largely thankless role. They receive a lot of abuse and work hard for zero pay. The only real reasons that people volunteer is either because they desire power or because they're enthusiastic about the community and want to help out as best they can. Devaluing the work of the latter because of the failing of the former is foolish. If you have bad moderators, don't restrict their powers, kick them out. You don't need that juju.

Moderation is entirely about judgment. Your mods need to be able to look at any given situation and immediately work to defuse or heal whatever ill events have transpired. It's tough to find people with that judgment, really it is. I've certainly struggled with it myself, and have picked more than one bad apple. For a good moderator to have any value however, they need to have some level of potency in the community. They have to be able to not simply determine the correct action, but also carry it out. Their curation abilities should be a way of showing the community at large that the management has faith in their abilities. Users are very quick to notice a lack of trust in the mods, and your mod staff will be completely hamstrung if the regular users refuse to do as they are asked.

Given that volunteer moderators are, by definition, doing you a favour, you shouldn't return that with an obvious lack of faith in them. I'm particularly against the abuse of analytics and stats to determine how much "work" a moderator is doing. It doesn't matter how much work they're doing, it matters whether they're having a positive effect. A good moderator can have just as positive an effect on the community by not taking action as by taking it. Don't look at the amount of time they're spending locking threads as an indication of their worth, look at the overall health of the community and how the moderators status as figureheads is adding to that. I have moderators who contribute by enforcing on the forums themselves, and moderators who contribute by playing Street Fighter with the users off the boards. Others don't do either, but are available to advise on policy and keep an eye on potential problems in the community culture. There isn't a stat on the dashboard to measure that.

Trust saves time and effort

I need to put my hands up now and admit that I've been guilty of this in the past. When I first began managing the forums at Penny Arcade, my team was largely inherited from my predecessors. There were several bad moderators in the group, and I lacked the fortitude to simply get rid of them. My attitude to forum tools was to consider each way that a moderator could abuse them, and try and head this off at the pass. Moderators could ban users, but they couldn't delete or edit content. I was as restrictive as possible about which categories they could use these tools in, to ensure that each moderator stayed in their own territory. I growled gutterally at any moderator who I thought might step out of the boundaries I'd set for them.

Needless to say, this was a tremendous hassle. It took me a long time, but I eventually started to ask myself why I held my moderators to a different standard than a normal user. After all, I'm a firm proponent that a good community manager shouldn't have to lean on software tools to get their users to behave. They should be able to simply say "please don't do that" and expect the users to abide. Why then could I not apply this to the staff? It occured to me that it was the minority of moderators that I believed would abuse these abilities, and that as the High King Of Being A Cool Guy I could simply remove them from that position.

This is the crux of the issue. As a community manager, a big part of your role is picking a great team and then getting out of their way. If you have a bad team, you need to change it. That's part of your responsibilities. Once you have the right team though? Give them the tools they need to do their job.

Topics: Community, News

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