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What is the role of moderators? [Transcript]

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Abby: Hello everyone and welcome to the Meta Petting Zoo episode number two. I believe it's episode number two -- it could be any episode you want by the time you listen to this, but we'll say it's two for the purposes of this show. My name is Abby, aka [also known as] hairboat, here on the Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange sites. I'm here with Jon and Juan, as we were last time. Let's maybe all go around and introduce ourselves again for the folks at home who maybe don't know how amazing and wonderful you guys are starting with Juan. Hi, what's up?


Juan: Hey, hey! So, my name is Juan M, I'm one of the community managers here. I'm not Jon, but I'm Juan, in case anybody is wondering, and yeah, happy to be here in our second episode. Jon, how are you?

Jon: Personally, I am Jon and not Juan. You know how, like, in Spanish class, you were all supposed to -- I don't know if you had to do this, Juan, but I had to come up with my "Spanish name", and it was always Juan, and I was like "I don't wanna be Juan, I just wanna be Jon".

Abby: [laughs]

Juan: Sometimes, I don't want to be Juan either.

Jon: Now...

Juan: [unintelligible]

Abby: Maybe you could be Jon.

Jon: I convinced people that I was Jonatán.

Abby: Ooh.

Juan: That's right, that's what it should be. Jonatán.

Abby: I love that.


Abby: I'm Abby, as I said. I'm neither Jon nor Juan. When I was in French class in middle school, I had to pick a French name and I went with Emily, because my sister's name is Emily and there's a French version of that. There's no French version of Abby or Abigail, as far as I know, although my nickname my mom used to call me as a kid -- abeille, which is the French word for bee, like a bumblebee, because I used to talk a lot and be really annoying and also, it sounded like my name. So, I was a bumblebee and she could tell me to buzz off, maybe that was... So, you can call me Abby or abeille or Emily or "hey you" or "buzz off" or whatever you feel like. Speaking of bumblebees and buzzing off, we're gonna talk about moderation today. That's the segue I'm going with, maybe. So, as everyone to this listening probably knows, definitely knows -- you probably are a moderator, if you're listening to this, honestly, our audience is fairly limited. Um, we rely on our moderators throughout the network to keep things moving, keep things running, keep things clean and civil but also just keep the communities kind of tightly knitted and working together really well, so we wanted to take a little bit of time today to talk about moderators. Moderation. What do they do, what should they do, what do they need from us, what do we do for them, et cetera. So, I guess the first thing we got to do is define our terms, right? That's where you start--

[02:57] Jon: Webster's dictionary say --

[02:59] Abby: Webster's dictionary defines a moderator as-- so yeah, we will start with the non dictionary definition of moderator just kind of what is a mod here at Stack Exchange Stack Overflow, what do they do, what has moderation been like through the ages, and yeah what have you guys observed? Starting with Jon.

[03:16] Jon: Yeah. So when the site first started one of the things that it was built on is the idea that, you know, everyone is working together to produce this content. And a lot of the traditional roles of moderators went to other people in the community. So, like, a lot of places you can't edit other people's posts but a moderator can. And around here anybody can edit, well you can at least suggest an edit for a post. And so there were a lot of things that were intended to be done by regular users. But then you kind of, you know, there were, there's always exceptional cases, right? So okay, fixing a typo, well you don't need to be super specialized to do that. But what if you have someone who is constantly trying to, you know, sell their product sort of sneakily within an answer. How do you deal with that person? Or, you know, just sort of exceptional situations that are beyond the capacity of, you know, most people in the community need someone with a little bit more specialization. So that was, I think, the original idea of moderators. They would be, we used to call them, exception handlers. We'd call them exception handlers because these are exceptional situations, unusual situations around the network.

[04:40] Juan: Interesting, so guys, I'm coming from a forum background where a moderator does not function in the same way as a moderator functions here in our network at Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network. And so typically what we would do when looking at a moderator we would look at individuals who A, were trustworthy, B, were almost as a super user, right? Somebody who was highly engaged in the community. Someone who had good reputation amongst their peers. Someone who was contributing. Someone who was who was definitely a user that brought value to the community. And when moderation issues come up typically what it is, you know, the removal of spam, things being posted that are inappropriate, content that is not wanted. But then also dealing with squabbles between users, you know, arguments things like that and so, you know, we would want to look for individuals that had these kinds of skill sets. To where, you know, they showed passion and they showed integrity. And they also had a level mind and an ability to communicate well. At least that's in my mind when I think of a moderator. I think of someone who is definitely an exception handler, but also someone who is going to possess a degree of skill. And in, I don't know, we'll call it peopling, right?

[06:01] Jon: Yeah.

[06:02] Juan: ... individuals, that's going to help with the community grow and be at peace. Does that does that sound like what we're doing here?

[06:11] Abby: Yeah, yeah, I think so. Jon I was about to ask you how if you feel like our current moderation procedures are, the way that we find moderators, are we optimizing for the same thing as what Juan's describing from other communities? Or what do you think?

[06:24] Jon: You know that's interesting, we had um.. For many years, we had a system where sites that had been graduated would run elections. And so it's actually other people in the community who are finding the moderators or who are picking among the nominees. And for a long time the beta sites, the sites that hadn't reached graduation yet, community managers would actually appoint people. And I think when I was appointing people regularly all those things that Juan was talking about were things I was definitely looking at. Especially for a smaller site, the people interaction and the sort of leadership stuff, that's probably even more important than being able to handle a bunch of flags. So on stackoverflow like exception handling is the real big thing. Because you've got, you know, just thousands of flags set to churn through, and on a small site you might only get, you know, a handful of flags in a week. But you also have uh.. community conflict. And so, when we were running, when I was appointing moderators, that's sort of the same sort of person that Juan was talking about, I think.

[07:40] Abby: Yeah, that's something I've never really considered.. So we've long known that there's kind of two different theories of moderation. There's the solely exception handler, you know, handling flags and doing things the community can't do. And then there's this other leadership role, that kind of better at peopling role, like Juan has been describing. And I had never made the connection until you said that just now that there's um.. Different communities have different needs at different points in their life cycles. So they need often a little bit of flag handling exception handling whatever, but if they're smaller like you're describing, when we were appointing Pro Tem moderators. They need a lot more of that designated leadership. It's harder for that kind of activity to just bubble up when the activity overall on the site is so much lower. And so they need a little boost from us to say hey you're thinking in the right direction, you know, step up and kind of take a little bit of ownership here. And that really encourages people to help the site coalesce. So that that's kind of a distinction I never really made that maybe the needs change over the course of a site's life cycle, and we should think about incorporating that into our process. Juan I was gonna to ask you, in your experience with, you know, tons of other online communities, have you ever encountered elections on any other kind of community engine or forum or anything like that?

[08:58] Juan: Yeah, this is something that is more uncommon, at least with the experience that I've had. More so because the placement of moderators, in that position, was one that an administrator would do, a community manager. And so depending on the kind of community, the structure would be administrator (at least within the backend system we have administrators), you'd have moderators, you would have super users, you would have regular users, and then you could designate a bunch of different categories of users. Like, you could have a certain part of your sites that only certain people can access. Like if you had a marketplace, right, you would do verification. All those people that have filled out the application and been verified would get that permission to enter that specific part of the site, and so giving permissions was a big deal. And so the administrator, which could be the community manager in my experience, would appoint the moderators. They would be the ones to place these individuals in that position because you're talking about working within a team. And so it isn't just, you know, clean up do, you know, do spam removal or, you know, send people their passwords or send them, you know, a link or.. So it involved a bit more interacting with the community. It involved talking with them and sharing a vision. It involved getting them to buy-in into a direction that the community was going to be moving into. It involved discussing any features that they wanted. There was there was a sense of a team..

[10:28] Jon: Hmm.

[10:29] Juan: ..within the administration, if you will. [pauses] And so here at Stack Overflow one of the one things I had to really get accustomed to is that elections are a big thing and they're important. I see the value of it here, totally see it. But also that the way that we work between.. and maybe this is a topic we can discuss in the future.. what is a responsibility of a CM to a Moderator.

[10:53] Abby: Mmm.

[10:54] Juan: Because we talk a lot about the responsibility of a moderator, at least as this is one of the topics we're doing, but internally we discuss a lot about what a moderator should do.. But what are some of the things that the CMS are responsible to the moderators for? And so here it seems like the moderators really are, they're brought up from the community which I think it's great! they're peer reviewed, they're peer elected, they know the system. But really what they're doing is they are handling exception cases. Very few.. I have yet to see an increase of a team like environment to where the community manager will sit with the moderators and discuss the vision of the site will discuss the direction, the future, you know, plans, things like that. And granted, just so everybody knows, there's only a handful [dramatic pause] of community managers as compared to the number of moderators.

[11:47] [Abby exhales]

[11:48] Juan: ..So it is physically impossible! What with the changes that have gone on within the company, I mean, it makes it really hard, it's not that we don't want to, I just, I'd like to see that shift a little bit. So from my experience, in answer to your question Abby, is election was something that was done not very frequently. Mainly moderators were appointed by the administrator or the community manager.

[12:09] Abby: So.. go ahead Jon.

[12:11] Jon: I was thinking there.. This is something I hadn't thought of, but, when I was a user and a moderator on a small site, we did sometimes have those discussions where we would sit down with a community manager and say: "Listen, this is where site is, this is where we want it to go". We even had a full site evaluation process that we would try to do. We have what, 170 something sites now? And we haven't grown our community team as fast as we've grown our sites. So I definitely see that as something I'd like to [dramatic pause] improve on, is have, you know, if we're asking our moderators to be leaders on their site, like, let's help them be be leaders on the site, in the various ways that we can..

[13:04] Juan: Yeah.

[13:05] Jon: And not just focus on, you know, how many flags can you handle this month or whatever.

[13:11] Juan: To go back and hit at a point that you made, Jon, I think depending on the life cycle as we mentioned, depending on where the community is; whether you appoint or elect I think it's crucial when the community is young, you know, if the community is young, still trying to figure out who they are, what the main topics are going to be, what's accepted, what's not.. I think it's important have a community manager appoint a moderator there's more communication there about what's expected. And then once a community gets going, like we do, in the life cycle of the sites, we allow the community to select from among their peers. But I think even through all of that we are looking for individuals and those that are moderators on our sites, we like to believe and to think that they're individuals that are definitely invested..

[13:34] Jon: Mmhmm.

[13:35] Juan: the communities, they have a lot to share. Their knowledge is there. I would like to see us increase in our communication with them. I know communication is increasing now, it's not like it hasn't been there, and it's not like moderators aren't saying "hey we really need these features" or "hey what about this". We know that there they are in fact asking. When I say increase I mean more; I'd like to see the community management team engage more with them. With, again, the caveat that because there's so few of us, it's a lot of work to go through each and every site.

[14:30] Abby: Yeah one thing that occurs to me is as I listen to you guys talk about this is how much we've been able to achieve at this scale, because we've figured out lots of ways to automate automate a lot of the work that community managers of other styles of community might have to do. Not just moderation, you know, we do have a lot of literal automation for moderation. You know, cleaning up voting, vote fraud, and finding spam, and stuff like that. There are a lot of robots that do that work for us. But also automation in terms of, you know, elections are an automated process for finding the people who are moderators who're going to do those exceptions. And also the whole reputation system that gives people access to other tools other privileges, you know. We don't have a concept of, you know, a super user or special access or whatever like you were describing on other sites, Juan, but we have privileges. We have, if you hit this level..

[15:22] Juan: Yup.

[15:23] Abby: ..You know, you can see this these stats, use these tools, or whatever. And that's a direct function of your reputation which is an automated process..

[15:28] Juan: Absolutely, yeah. Those things are so beautiful and they work so well. I'm very fortunate to be working within a platform that allows those things to happen. Because now it's not just the moderator who's gonna get pinged and say "Hey this person said this" or "They posted their phone number by accident or their credit card number or their home address, can you go in and remove it" and nobody can go in and edit a question except for the moderator, and again they're always going to be the minority! So it's great that we have those privileges, I think that's that's a fantastic feature that we offer.

[15:56] Abby: Yes. It's definitely what's enabled us to scale, to have as many sites as we have, and to have the sites that we have, that are very active, to let them be as active as they are. But I think the cost of that is what you guys are describing. There's a little bit less interaction between the community team, obviously it's very small and there's a scale issue there. But we rely on our users, obviously, and these automation processes to get the stuff done that needs to get done. Which is great, and it's wonderful that it happens, but also we're less connected and we've, over the years, kind of drifted a little further away from the communities. That's one reason why we're doing this podcast is to put some human speech you know facial recognition or voice recognition or whatever back in the mix here, so that we can be more connected and get to know each other a little bit better. Or at least, you know, this is one way you guys will get to know us a little better but we'd love for it to go the other way too. Jon were you going to say something?

[16:51] Jon: I was about to say, maybe in future episodes we could interview moderators?

[16:57] Abby: Ooh!

[16:58] Juan: That's a great idea!

[16:59] Abby: This is a call for, you know, requests for proposals if you'd like to be interviewed on this podcast you can call 1-800-IDLIKETOBEINTERVIEWEDONTHISPODCAST ...

[17:05] [All laugh]

[17:08] Abby: ... We do not have a phone number set up [inaudiable]. This is a very low-budget podcast, [inaudiable]

[17:05] [All laugh]

[17:16] Abby: We have a couple minutes left, I'd love to know if either of you have any thoughts about, you know, we talked a little bit about how you would like to see the relationship between moderators and community managers evolve a little bit. We'd love to see some more communication. What are some other ways you'd like to see moderation at Stack Exchange evolved? What's kind of what do you feel like is the future of moderation here?

[17:34] Jon: I think for me, we have this concept of once you're a moderator you're always a moderator and it's not been easy for people to sort of slip out of the job. And we've done a few things in the past, like giving them an opportunity to take a vacation, like, there's a feature for "I'm not going to be at the site for a while". But I'd really like to see more ways that we can give people the freedom to say "I'm no longer I'm interested in moderating the site" and they can just do that, and you know you they can always contact us now but it's sort of like "All right, well you contact us and then we're gonna set up an election, and can you wait until we're done with the election" and all that sort of thing. [a teacup starts to slide] And it'd be nice if we could put some more structure around [teacup clashes] just, you know, "I'm done, this is a phase of my life and I'm no longer interested in being a moderator".

[18:34] Juan: Yeah.

[18:35] Jon: I think it's a human thing.

[18:36] Juan: That's pretty good.

[18:36] Jon: You know, right?

[18:37] Juan: It's just..

[18:38] Abby: Mmhmm.

[18:39] Juan: Yeah.

[18:41] Abby: We go through phases we go through, you know, "I'm still interested and engaged in this community but I have less time". Or, you know, "I'm want to focus on asking and answering questions instead of moderating" or whatever. It's a natural part of being a member of a community if your relationship with, you know, a person or a community or yourself or your family or whatever, if that relationship isn't evolving over time then, you know, that's stagnation. That's kind of a problem. And we've been at this for 10 years and so everyone's relationship should be changing and evolving. And if that means stepping back from moderation, great! If that means you want to become a moderator or get more involved, great! But we need to have that flexibility to allow people to grow and change, and have their interests evolve. Just like in any other community, or any other type of activity. What about you, Juan, what do you see, what do you wanna see in the future?

[19:28] Juan: I would like to see the role of the moderator expand to one of an individual who is a living example of what a good member ought to be. So not just somebody who's competent in the technical in the technical aspects of moderation but also someone who is worthy of emulation, so to speak. Somebody who you can follow, someone that you can trust, someone that is, you know, an evangelist for our site, someone that can guide new members, someone that is, you know, a breath of fresh air, somebody who can inspire others, and who is so affectionate about the community that it's just, you know, everybody gets, you know, it's just contagious, or she's contagious. Everybody has the same feeling because this individual is moderating. So more than just, you know, the ins and outs of, you know, removing cleaning fixing editing all that, but also somebody who is really, you know, engaged in a level to where they're able to bring and inspire others to participate more, you know, to write more, to edit more, to answer more, you know, all that. I'd like to see the role of a moderator expand to that, to those meta aspects, to..

[20:40] Abby: A little bit of a mascot, almost. Or a person familiar around and inspiring. Somebody to look up to..

[20:45] Juan: Sure, yeah.

[20:46] Abby: That's really beautiful. Well, on that note, and speaking of moderators, Jon, do we have a sponsor for this week?

[20:52] Jon: Yeah I did get a sponsorship request right at the err, just at the last minute here, and the sponsor is very important on the site already but we just want to, you know, they want to raise their visibility a little bit and remind people about who they are and this is the moderator diamond! Every moderator on every site has a little diamond next to their name, and it's there to remind you that this is the person, you know, perhaps to look up to. As Juan was talking about, we've got a lot of great people who already have diamonds next to their name. And so we want to show that they have that commitment by putting a little symbol next to their name. And then the diamond also can sometimes signify employees. And, you know, that can get confusing because you've got moderators and employees, but the diamond shows that even our employees are on, you know, they're not some super high level person beyond moderators. In fact a lot of our employees have diamonds and don't do any moderation at all, they just have it there so that they can take care of a few things on the site. So we were sponsored by the diamond. The little diamond next to the moderator name.

[22:14] Abby: It's like we always say diamonds are a mod's best friend.

[22:17] [All laugh]

[22:22] Abby: You're welcome.. [inaudiable]

[22:23] Jon: All twenty two minutes into this podcast for that havn't you!

[22:29] Abby: Yes, I thought of it immediately.. No actually I thought it while you were talking and I had to refrain from bursting it out until you were done..

[22:37] [All laugh]

[22:39] Abby: On that note with that incredible joke that everyone loves and made nobody groan, I think we should call it. It's been a wonderful twenty two and a half minutes, 23 by the time I'm done talking. I'm gonna do Joel's outro, you've gone and wasted another 22 minutes of your life listening to the meta petting zoo podcast. Thanks for hanging out with us and we will talk to you next time.

[22:58] Juan: Alright, Bye!

[22:58] Jon: Bye!

[23:00] [Outro music]

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