In the ideal forum, the only button a moderator would ever need is the Post Reply button. I’m a big advocate of soft modding, which is moderating through negotiation, personality and respect rather than by pushing buttons that force people to do things. Moff Tarkin was totally right, governing through the threat of force is much more effective than the use of force itself. It may not have worked out for him, but it was a bloody good doctrine nonetheless.
Realistically though, soft modding techniques have their limitations. You are never, ever going to reach a point where the trusty buttons lie completely fallow. You’ll always have trolls, newbies or drive-bys who don’t care who you are or how you do things and are determined to drop their trousers in your garden. In any forum you’re going to have a bunch of different buttons you can push, and Vanilla plugins can lead to a supply of buttons that is theoretically endless. You want buttons? We got buttons. Buttons. Yeah.
Your forum is going to be defined by your moderation, and your moderation will be defined by the tools you use. I can’t go into every possible plugin, especially given my craven fear of new features, but even the basics have a lot of nuance to their use. Most of these functions have different names across the internet, but they should be pretty familiar. Like Weird Al albums, the first one you heard is the best one.
This is the basic workhorse. I don’t need to tell you what it does, do I? It stops normal users from posting in the thread. The trick is knowing what to lock, and when to lock it. By locking threads you accomplish two unavoidable things. The first is gradually pruning the dead wood from the forums; saying “we don’t need this thread right now” either because its time has passed , it’s become unhealthy or things simply need a change. I have a standing policy of locking every thread at page 100. It’s arbitrary, but it prevents the forum being dominated by huge, terrifying threads with storied histories and cliques. Huge or fast-growing threads can be like weeds, choking the discussion in your forum by moving it to one place.
The second, trickier aspect is developing a kind of common law for your forums. Your users will remember what thread did and did not get locked, and you’ll gradually develop a set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t work on your forum. Since you will never, ever be able to write a rules thread that deals with every possible eventuality, this is inevitable. You can’t consciously control this effect, but be mindful of it. Every premature lock is a way of saying “this isn’t what we do here”, a gradual damming of the river to make it flow to the place you want.
Think about what threads you lock. Make it clear why they’re being locked, and try to avoid the appearance of being capricious. Even when you know you’re being kind of capricious.
This button keeps a thread at the top of the forum, regardless of how often it gets posted in. Stickies are seen as a badge of honour on some forums, and thread-makers will really want their thread to be sticky so that everyone can see how important they are. Probably the most common sticky seen at the top of most forums is the rules thread. I think that’s a bad idea, but managing the rules thread should be an article on its own.
The two issues to think about here are the practical and the aesthetic. From a practical point of view, the more stickies you have the less valuable each one is. People quickly learn to glance over the top few threads on a forum, because it’s going to be the rules thread or that one thread that’s always there. If you have too many stickies, they simply become an ignorable mush. Making a thread sticky can, bizarrely, decrease its visibility as your users learn to ignore it.
The second point, aesthetics, ties in closely. The aforementioned sticky clutter is absolutely hideous. If you have five, six, or even more stickies you’re not only wasting most of your front page, but rendering it useless by turning it into white noise. I’ve seen forums (particular official forums for games) with over a dozen stickies. One for each gun, each character, each class. It’s awful, amateurish, unnecessary clutter that serves no purpose.
Consider this before you sticky a thread: Will it receive enough posts to stay on the front page without being stickied? If so, why do you need to sticky it? The answer is, you don’t. The flipside of this: If it doesn’t have enough interest from the forumers to justify its place on the front page, how does it justify the sticky? The ideal sticky thread is one that provides information and value without requiring discussion. That’s a pretty slim criteria, so there’s unlikely to be a reason to sticky more than two or three threads.
This is the big one. Kicking someone out of your forum. In previous articles I’ve talked about using bans to deal with sock puppets, alternate accounts et al, so there’s no need to go over it again. Banning obvious trolls or spammers is a formality, an administrative chore. The occasion will come when a regular, known member of your forum will need to be shown the door. In these cases the problem isn’t dropping the bomb, it’s the fallout. No matter how badly behaved that member is, or how justified the banning was by the minutiae of your rules, seeing a friend kicked out on their arse will rankle some members of your community.
The first step comes before you hit the button. Do you need to hit it? Is there an alternative? Will the ban be temporary (for salvageable cases who need a shock) or permanent? Are you just taking a bad day out on them? After the button is pressed, be sure that the reasons for it are clear. The user should know what they did, why it’s unacceptable and if/when they’re allowed back. Be clear from the outset. Have a clear line of appeal and don’t allow deviation from it. Don’t debate the matter with the users either, allowing appeals on behalf of others is a disaster waiting to happen and often stems from prurient nosiness. If someone wants to appeal, they can come to you themselves.
Other users are going to be curious as to what happened, and refusing to say simply leads to rumors and inaccurate whisperings. You don’t need to debate the ban, but you should justify it and be transparent about your reasoning. I’d tentatively recommend using a coveted sticky thread to log significant bans (not spammers or drive-bys) and explain why they were necessary. If you choose to do this, bear in mind that you need to keep it updated. Once the expectation is there, not logging a ban will make it look as though you have something to hide.
There are other buttons of course. Secret buttons. Shiny buttons. Deadly buttons. There are even buttons the uses of which are so fiendish that I can’t reveal them here lest my own sneaky forumers discover their purpose. They are however, largely tricks and scalpels for very specific situations. If you can master the big three, the zen ideal of the Tarkin Doctrine isn’t too far out of reach.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.