Nowadays it is very easy to setup an online community due to the increasingly popular platforms such as Discord, Flarum and Discourse. An online forum or chat service can be setup within minutes, but all platforms have something in common: They require moderation.

I've moderated online communities for almost a decade, varying in size between a couple hundreds of users to over 250 000 members. In this blog I'll talk about my moderation philosophy for growing communities. We'll talk about understanding the broader role of a moderator, as well how to develop community guidelines and how to resolve conflicts between users using proven techniques. Furthermore, we'll discuss how to establish moderation objectives, how to stimulate and sustain a high number of discussions and how to steer the community how you want to.

In my opinion, many people have a wrong idea about moderators in a sense that they're not just there to combat spammers. I will show you my opinion about what defines a good moderator and what their tasks consist of.

Moderation is facilitation

First of all, we will have to define moderation differently than you might expect. Moderation should be seen more along the lines of facilitation. How do you facilitate a greater level of activity in your community. How do you make sure that everyone who has an opinion, is motivated and not prevented from contributing and participating. In practice, this means two things:

  • Remove barriers to participation
  • Create motivation to participate

When it comes to removing barriers to participation, every community deals with the same tangible and intangible barriers that prevent members from participating.

  1. Spammers and advertisers. In small amounts, spammers do not have much of an impact. But if a community becomes overwhelmed with spam, this will become a big issue.
  2. Inappropriate material. Material that is not relevant or not fit to your community. If your gaming community has a lot of pornography for example, this will create a barrier.
  3. Conflicts. Conflicts aren't necessarily bad, but a conflict that spirals out of control or affects every discussion in the community, becomes a barrier as well.
  4. Information overload. Something not well known is that too much information or too much activity can become a barrier if members do not know anymore what is going on, there is too much taking place and people cannot find what they are looking for. Social density is a very important factor to prevent and detect information overload.
  5. Lack of narrative. A lot of communities don't have a narrative, members do not know what role they're playing in the broader context of that community.

These are all barriers you have to prevent or remove to enable people to participate in your community, but you also have to motivate users to participate in your community. There are a couple ways to encourage people from contributing to your community.

  1. Initiate discussions. Create new content that is relevant to the community, making sure members want to contribute to ongoing discussions is very important.
  2. Solicits contributions. Reach out to members to encourage them to contribute to the community instead of relying on users to become active.
  3. Recognition. How do you recognize members when they do something good, how do you use recognition to stimulate further activity in your community.
  4. Guidelines or constitution. Creating guidelines for members so they can see what and where to contribute is important, we're not just talking about an endless rules page nobody is going to read.
  5. Highlight popular content. People want to do what they see other people doing. It is therefor very important in your community efforts to highlight what people are doing.

Let's talk about moderation objectives first. This is important, because you shouldn't be aimlessly be moderating your community. You should not just remove all content you consider bad, because how do you know what is bad? Where do you draw the line? Sometimes it is a good idea to allow off topic content in your community and sometimes you don't. That's why you need a moderation objective that fits where your community is going. Some examples of these could be:

  • Increase the number of participating members
  • Increase the amount of posts
  • Increase the amount of different discussions
  • Improve the quality of discussions
  • Facilitate relationships between members
  • Focus or steer the community

If you want to increase the number of participating members, that will be an entirely different approach than if you want to increase the amount of posts, for example. If you have a lot of posts from only a few different members, then you have to to concentrate on increasing the amount of participating members and not necessarily the amount of posts. Examples on how to achieve this would be a greater level of recognition or looking at newcomer to regular conversion funnel.

As you can see, I also split up the amount of posts from the different amount of discussions. You can have very few discussions with a huge number of responses but it does not benefit your community that much because there aren't that many of discussions. How do you keep fresh discussions taking place and how do you make sure your community is on the cutting edge of its field? If you want to increase the amount of discussions, it is usually good to move your community away from what it is now and initiate conversations about a variety of different topics and your approached moderation objective will be focused on this.

Community guidelines

The biggest mistake that most people make with community guidelines, is spending too much time on them. The problem with guidelines is that they are usually too restrictive. They tell people what they can't do, rather then what they can do. Nobody is going to read this. Instead of having guidelines (or a long list of rules for that matter) of what people cannot do, you need a welcome guide that defines what people can do. That usually means co-creating a community constitution as well.

What you want in a welcome guide is how members can get started in your community, one of the first things they can do such as highlighting a relevant discussion taking place in your community right now.

You also want to cover your community culture. When someone visits your community for the first time, they are going to certain reservations about participating. They are going to have a social fear of participating. They need to be guided on what the culture of the community is, what does a typical post look like, how do people respond to it. You might also want to include the history of the community because it helps create a narrative for the community and helps people understand their role in the broader picture.

You might want to think about co-creating a community constitution at some point which details the purpose of the community, as well as its personality and their beliefs. Is sarcasm tolerated in the community? Is swearing allowed? It is important to think about this together with the community. It should also outline the governance of the community. What are the rules of how members should behave, what behavior is expected from members as well as moderators. I'll go more in depth on this topic in a later blog.

Conflict resolution

At some point in your community two or more of your members are going to have a fight and the problem with an online community is, that nobody will back down whereas in the real world people might agree to disagree, online they don't have the same incentive to do that. What happens online is that, because every response that you make is visible, it is not just for you but for the whole community, when someone attacks your viewpoint or you in any way, you feel like you have to defend yourself. Conflicts online tend to spin out of control rather quickly.

However, conflicts can be good for a community. If you look at how an online community develops, it goes through a phase where initially everyone is polite to everyone. What happens is that at some point, people begin to express themselves and state how they really feel about issues. This is an important phase for a community to go through. A mistake a lot of moderators make, is that they get involved in conflicts too quickly. As soon as two members disagree, they get involved and that is a big mistake because conflicts can be good for your community, not only to develop the community but conflicts also increase activity because nobody wants to leave in the middle of a conflict.

You should only be involved in one of two situations. Firstly, when the conflict gets too personal. If someone starts attacking someone personally and not discussing the initial issue, that is a good moment to intervene. Secondly, when there is a direct threat made, obviously you have to step in because you don't know where the conflict is going. Conflicts should never be a barrier for others to participate so if you see a decline in activity or growth, this is also when you take action.

When you do get involved, there is a certain approach you have to take.

  1. Individual outreach. The first step is to reach out to all members involved individually. You cannot resolve a conflict in front of the whole community. Tell them directly that the conflict is hurting the community, don't make it about you or from you, you can simply tell the members involved you have receive complaints from the community about the conflict. If you do this the wrong way, the members involved will turn against you. You have to be clear you are acting on behalf of the community, not on your own.
  2. Rigging the game. This is derived from game theory, the idea is all members involved in the conflict are not allowed to participate in the community until they resolve the conflict privately. This will motivate the members to solve the issues between themselves because they won't be able to participate otherwise.
  3. Prevent loss of status. When you resolve a conflict, you have to prevent the loss of status. Members should never have the feeling they lost status or lost the conflict itself. If you can remove the fear of loss of status among members of the community, you will find that it's far easier to resolve conflicts that take place.
  4. Resolve underlying cause. You cannot simply remove the content where there is a conflict, you have to resolve the underlying disagreement.

When it comes to conflict resolution, there are proven methods you can use (Thomas and Kilman, 1976).

  • Accommodation. You persuade one member to cave to the other member, you can do this in a way where you tell them this is better for the community and in exchange for caving to the other member, letting the member have the last word.
  • Avoidance. You don't resolve the issue but distract the participants into doing something else. This works very well for communities that focus on chat such as Discord or IRC to tone down a more hostile environment.
  • Collaboration. You encourage the members to work together to find a solution. The issue is that is this is very difficult to do, but if it works it is the best solution that you can have to resolve a conflict. You can for example setup a joined task that the users need to complete to resolve the issue.
  • Compromise. Both users have to give way in some regard, you have to find out what the very minimum acceptable thing is to allow them to participate in the community without any further issue in regards to the conflict.
  • Competition. This is where both users compete to win the conflict. This can work really well if done right. For example, you can setup a poll where all contestants gather their friends to find out who was right. This is very intense and increases the moderation load, but in the end the conflict is resolved.

Stages of escalation

When there is a conflict, there are different stages of escalation. Key is here that you do not need to spend too much time doing this. A mistake that is made a lot is that they spend hours upon hours thinking of how they can deal with the bad people in the community and that is simply a waste of time. You can better spend most time focusing on the members that are happy in your community and keeping them happy than to spend time on users that are unhappy. You want to deal with problematic members as soon as possible.

  1. Do nothing. The first recommended step is to do nothing. The reason for this is that provocative members aren't always bad. They play a role in a community, namely having "a common enemy" that unites the other members against them. They also play the role that they can come up with different viewpoints, they can prevent group thinking and they can bring up pressing issues that other members are not keen on bringing up. This is often a viable option.
  2. Reason / befriend / distract. Explain to the members why their behavior is not acceptable, try to understand what the issues are of the members and see if you can resolve those issues or distract them by giving them something to do or something else to talk about.
  3. Remove / suspend. You can temporarily or permanently remove a member from your community as a last resort. You can escalate the duration of a suspension or ban based on the severity of the displayed behavior. For forums, it might work to (automatically) edit the provocative content instead. Don't be hesitant to ban bad people instead of accommodating the needs of them. You don't have to be completely fair or have a whole judicial process in place. You can ban people if they do not fit the community.
  4. Contact ISP / police. Occasionally you might have to report someone to their ISP or police if they keep coming back with serious threats or harassment. This luckily rarely occurs.