A few notes on how to run a forum or similar community

2012-12-13 20:57

For some reason, people who run forums keep inventing the same ideas, and they keep being really bad ideas.

Premise: The purpose of a discussion forum is to create and sustain a healthy community.

If that isn’t what you want, this advice may not be helpful. But really, if you don’t want a community, discussion forums are entirely the wrong tool; that’s all they’re particularly good at. And if you want an unhealthy community, something is probably wrong with your plans. So; a healthy community it is.

Discussions of what makes a community healthy are all over the place. My thoughts are that a healthy community is one where people feel that they are a part of the community, and want the community itself to thrive. In short, they feel some kind of ownership of the community, and value it; they are not motivated by hostility to the community itself. This does not necessarily mean that they are not hostile to each other, although open hostility tends to be bad for a community.

The relationship between how most Internet forums seem to be moderated, and what you would do to grow a healthy community, can be understood accurately by imagining trying to use a chainsaw to do bonsai.

With that in mind, some principles:

People need to be heard.

This one gets an extra-big heading because it is an extra-big deal. If people do not feel that their voices are being heard, then they cannot feel that they are a part of the community, and that means they can’t feel like supporting and protecting the community. That makes them feel like unwelcome outsiders, and that generally means that all the normal social niceties are dropped. They might play nice anyway, but they are no longer feeling it, and they will show little or no willingness to ease off or back down to preserve the community. This has further-reaching effects, because feeling like you’re not being heard makes people angry in general. Don’t do that. What this means is that you really need to let people express themselves. You can restrict tone a little, but if you don’t let people say things because someone else thinks it’s “negative” or whatever? You have just dealt a harsh blow to your community. Let people talk. If they are unhappy, let them talk about why they are unhappy, and make sure that they are being acknowledged by community leaders. Acknowledgement doesn’t have to mean agreement, but you have to at least be clearly acknowledging the things people say, and making it clear that they are being understood, or you will have a much worse community.

Discussions wander.

Moderators sometimes accuse people of “hijacking” a thread when the topic changes. This is not usually accurate. It is certainly possible to disrupt a thread by suddenly introducing a major topic change, but that doesn’t mean that all topic changes are disruptive. Threads are supposed to be discussions; discussions wander and migrate. It is not a violation of some important principle when they do so; it’s a sign of a healthy and functioning community in which people are not only talking, but listening and reacting. Let it be.

In threaded forums, the thread originator does not own the thread.

If you declare that the original poster of a thread has the right to unilaterally declare the thread over and have it closed, you have created a mechanism by which people can sabotage discussion they disagree with. Don’t do it. People who want a private forum they control can always start a blog; if you post to a discussion forum, you are offering the community a discussion, and the discussion is then the general property of the community.

The harder you try to crush flames, the more vicious your forum will be.

By far the most brutal and vicious forums are the ones where all criticism is harshly moderated. This is a sort of special case of “people need to be heard”. The more people are prevented from expressing their negative feelings, the angrier they will get, and the more negative (and stronger) their feelings will get. Letting people express their anger calms them down. Yes, really. I’ve seen people who had pretty much openly hated each other for years on a forum where they couldn’t say this meet on a more permissive forum, have it out for a bit, and then gradually become fast friends.

Wherever you draw the line, people will go right up to it, and will do so on purpose to draw other people out into crossing it. Then you have people who are not only not being heard (because you moderated them away), but who are not being heard because someone else was playing malicious games. Not gonna end well.

Guidelines are good, rules are bad.

An exact rule sounds like it’ll make things “fair”. It won’t. Judgment calls are necessary; without them, you just have a set of rules people can game to take advantage of the flaws in your set of rules. No, you cannot make the set of rules good enough to get rid of that.

Moderators need to be humble.

If moderators don’t feel comfortable admitting to errors and correcting them, you have a serious problem. If moderators think they are above the rules, or tend to defend each other, you have a serious problem. Moderators should be quick to admit errors, and very very slow to react when they’re flamed or attacked. Not just personally attacked; if other moderators are quick to jump in when a mod is attacked, that looks bad too, and reminds the rest of the users that they aren’t really part of the “in” crowd. Don’t do it. Just make sure your moderators are thick-skinned and can take a bit of criticism.

Don’t kick people off staff for making mistakes; kick them off staff for making mistakes really persistently, or refusing to admit to them. If you try to eliminate all hint of error, you end up with staff who are better liars than everyone else. That doesn’t help.

Moderators should be open and clear about their personal opinions.

Some forums try to hide moderator bias; one particularly spectacularly badly-run forum used to actually strongly encourage moderators to make sock puppet accounts and only debate under those accounts, so they wouldn’t seem biased. This led to the predictable sorts of abuse. It is important that moderators be clear about their personal opinions, and not try to cover them up.

Moderators should keep their personal opinions out of moderation.

That said, official actions should reflect the needs of the community, not personal biases. One forum I used to visit had moderators who would post responses in which they first insulted someone or said a thread was stupid, and then closed the thread, making it clear that their moderator action was rooted in personal preferences. Not okay. (I tried reporting one for this once; I got an “infraction” from another moderator, for “abuse of the report system.” You can see why I say “used to visit”.)

Moderator actions can, and perhaps should be subject to discussion.

EDIT: Apparently, the following text is not universally applicable. There appear to exist forums on which discussions like this lead to highly disruptive and harmful outcomes, and other forums on which suppressing them is harmful. So this one needs more thinking/planning.

The “no discussion of moderator actions” rule is very common. It is also very stupid. It’s true that if you have no limits at all on such discussions they’ll swamp the forum. No problem. Make a separate subforum for discussions about the rules and board administration, and let people talk all they want about moderator actions. Don’t give stupid excuses about privacy; the only person with a legitimate expectation of privacy in moderator action is the user being moderated, and they have a right to talk about it if they want.

Rules, guidelines, whatever you have, users will genuinely not understand your intent. I know you think it’s “clear” or “common sense”. Doesn’t matter; users will misunderstand. A forum in which people can talk about moderator actions, and rules, can result in a number of improvements:

  1. Users will be able to see whether or not they are being treated unfairly. (If they are, you need to know this so you can fix it; if they aren’t, they need to know this so they’ll stop whining.)
  2. Users will be able to see how the rules are applied before they run into the rules themselves. They can learn from other people’s mistakes.
  3. Problematic patterns of moderator behavior will get noticed sooner rather than later, allowing you to fix things before many more users stop feeling like part of a community.
  4. Rules that are working out poorly and need clarification and change will be easier to identify.

Some people react by declaring that this will somehow encourage people to debate rules in bad faith, argue with moderator actions, and so on. This does not seem to be really true, but assume it were true: The best thing would be to make sure that these discussions happen out in the open so that everyone can see what’s up and reach a clearer understanding of the rules. Without such a forum, there’s no way to show that people are debating in bad faith or ignoring clear explanations, because you haven’t got any paper trail showing what’s been said or discussed. Add the forum, and if someone really is just playing games, it’ll be really obvious really quickly.

If you’ve never tried a forum which allows this, you owe it to yourself to see one. The change in tone, and in moderator/non-moderator relations, is immense and very positive. It all comes back to that first point: People need to be heard. People can accept moderator decisions they don’t like, but it’s really hard for them to tolerate not being allowed to say that they don’t like the decision.

There are possible issues in cases where a moderator action involves a user, say, revealing sensitive or personal information. A discussion of exactly what was done and how it broke the rules may itself be a violation of the rules, and you can be sure that a malicious user will consider this an opportunity. Some forum software (vBulletin being one example) has tools for making a sub-forum in which only thread starters and staff can view threads; such a forum can be a useful venue for conversations which involve sensitive topics or material.

Don’t let users hold the forum hostage.

Some forums end up with a “voting bloc” of users who all agree to threaten to leave unless something is done; usually, “unless those people over there are silenced”. Let them go. Otherwise, they’ll just keep doing it. Don’t let them. Make your own calls on whether people are disruptive, but whenever you see people acting as though merely holding a particular opinion is disruptive, you should be on your guard; that’s usually a sign of bad faith.

Don’t squelch references to competing products.

This one seems particularly popular in MMO forums. The City of Heroes forums had a very strict policy on this — strict enough that they once deleted a thread for warning people that a recent data breach at a competitor could have leaked credit card information. Stupid. Squelching such references makes you look afraid, for one thing. For another, discussion of competing products is virtually always a great way to get insight into user preferences and desires. Several MMOs I know of have a completely open policy on this (or a policy of “you’re welcome to talk about other games, and compare and contrast, as long as you are not actively telling people to leave this game for that game”), and after a year or two of watching the ensuing debates, all I can say is: It is laughable that anyone was ever afraid of this. It works fine.

And, of course, it reduces the need for people to try really hard to avoid quite specifically mentioning another product, while hinting strongly. Because people need to be heard.

Leave things visible.

Don’t delete threads if you can lock them and leave them there with commentary on why they were locked. Spam, sure, but if you’re just unhappy with a thread, leave a quick note explaining why it’s closed, and leave it there for people to see. And so the people who posted don’t feel silenced…

When there is any doubt, sit on your hands.

You don’t need to do it. Seriously, 90% of the time, or more, that’s the answer. You could merge those two threads on similar topics, but if you do, the posters will feel less-listened-to, and you won’t have made anything better. Merging and closing threads, deleting posts, editing posts… Nearly always a bad idea. You don’t need to do it. Small amounts of focused effort will produce much more effective results, while leaving participants more engaged, more involved, and feeling more like they are part of the community.

Off-topic is vital.

A community is characterized by people knowing each other. Knowing each other goes beyond knowing how someone feels about a particular game, or piece of software, or whatever. If you don’t have users who feel comfortable posting about their sick pets, or bragging about their kids, you do not have a community. Try harder — or more likely, stop trying so hard. Make sure there’s open forums for discussing topics unrelated to your nominal topic. These are what turn your pile of unrelated users into a community of friends.

You probably can allow politics and religion discussions, if you have a decent community.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you can’t. You can, though. You just have to accept that they’re gonna get a bit rough sometimes. Or be willing to moderate them a little more heavily for tone. It may well not be worth it, but… See above about off-topic. People who can talk about politics and religion are a heck of a lot more like a community than people who can’t.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. I know it probably doesn’t mean much now, but I’ll say it anyway: I was wrong about opposing your moderator-ship at the IIDB. I’m sorry.

    Jack Maney · 2012-12-22 04:26 · #

  2. No worries, I didn’t mind. I figure it’s part of the necessary mechanic for making sites work.

    seebs · 2012-12-23 15:14 · #

 
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