I think what we're seeing here is the confluence of two very separate problems. Together, I think, they create situations like those Yannis described in generalities.
First: The Silent Majority
I've done my best to consistently remind people that the VAST MAJORITY of our userbase is excellent. We have some really amazing people on our sites who, while sometimes troublesome, are mostly wonderful, positive contributors who do the right things. I'm talking about the almost 700,000 users on Stack Overflow alone who are less than 1,000 rep and who never get mod message and flag / vote to close correctly and keep the site puttering along nicely. I'm talking about the numerous users on a site like Programmers who might vote in a meta discussion about hats but may never have anything to say in chat or who might not have enough strong feelings about a site design change to comment in that discussion.
The vast majority of users don't know about meta. Many meta users don't feel they have anything constructive/important to add to a discussion. I know that I often feel that way, and I work here. My MSO rep isn't higher for a reason: it's not because I don't love SE (I do, for the record) but because I often feel that my position is adequately verbalized by someone else (usually Shog9) and I just vote for him and move on. I'm exactly the type of user that would never be mentioned in a mod-only chatroom, whose entire existence is not notable in the scope of the site's lifetime. I'm important, yes, but I'm just another username/avatar in this context.
So when this is the default case, where the majority of users are excellent and quiet and don't need a lot of attention or handholding or just action, situations like what Yannis describes become particularly piquant. Troublesome users, those who just don't seem to get it become notable, become glaringly obvious and memorable because of the contrast they present.
It's also worth noting that there is a difference between a troll and a troublesome user: the former is deliberately trying to get a rise out of you, is deliberately breaking rules and doing what s/he wants because s/he couldn't care less about the site and in fact takes gleeful pleasure in everyone getting his/her proverbial knickers in a twist. On the other hand, a troublesome user might be someone who needs handholding, sometimes a lot of it because s/he is new to the network, doesn't know our norms, has never encountered a site like ours before, or is young and new to the internet in general. Both types of users can cause headaches, but there is a chance the latter is salvageable. A troll is never salvageable.
The trouble comes when we lose sight of the distinction, when those of us who serve as moderators and custodians of our spaces forget that there is a potentially valuable subset of users there. When we forget, we risk alienating and driving away people who genuinely want to learn/contribute but don't know why their actions are being received so poorly.
Second: Default Public
One of the guiding principles of Stack Exchange is the idea of everything being "default public," meaning that conversations should be by default held in the public space. This includes meta posts. I think a lot of times it's hard to separate the person from their diamond. It's definitely something that I struggle with daily. One thing I do is make clear when I'm speaking as myself, where the diamond is merely an accident and not me speaking "for the company," as it were.
In the same vein, I think moderators should be able to speak publicly about their struggles with users, to the extent that they don't violate the moderator agreement by revealing personal information about a user. (Note that mods are also not allowed to discuss suspensions, though observant users can usually make an educated guess about what prompted certain actions.)
This is the part where the line is difficult to draw with any clarity. I think, in my personal opinion, that having a mod-only chatroom sometimes creates a negative echo-chamber, where it's easy to only see the worst of our userbase. I think, also, that we as a userbase should make a concerted effort to engage our moderator team and remind them of what brought them to the site in the first place, what made them want to be a moderator. Because, as much as moderators are custodians of their site, they're also part welcoming committee, part event planners, and part PR machine. The scope of a moderator's duties varies by site size, topic, and community.
We, as a userbase, should question our moderators. That's the responsibility we have, especially when moderators are elected. It's our job to question moderator actions. Yannis is right in that we must focus on what happened, and NOT on who did the action. As the userbase, we can only make our disapproval clear when we choose to speak up. Ask the seemingly foolish question, take ownership of your site. Chances are what you're asking is quietly being asked by plenty of other people.
This section is a bit muddled, but that's because the secondary issue here is a bit more nuanced. We're seeing ongoing problems and cryptically-worded comment threads between mods and deliberately combative users, so the concerned public always feels like we're only seeing the tip of the iceberge but never the bit below the surface. And sometimes, the tip is kind of epically massive already. As a typical user, I can't make an informed decision if I feel that half the conversation is being held in innuendo and implication.
The other reason you should have as much happen in public as possible: you will see those excellent, 300-rep silent-flagging users begin to speak up. Lord knows that my natural lurker tendencies have been broken by seeing certain conversations/"drama" crop up over and over and over and over. At some point, even my tolerant self hits her limit; by having the important disagreements in meta, you can refer to them periodically and even see those of us who usually keep quiet break our silence. (We have seen this before on sites where one troublesome user suddenly took over the majority of the conversations on a site.)
The Thin Blue (Diamond) Line
Moderators are held to a higher standard than the rest of the community. Their actions are subject to more scrutiny, both from their userbase as well as from the community managers who keep an eye on their interactions with users. That said: increased scrutiny does not negate the fact that moderators receive the same protections as normal users. Ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated, including against mods.
It's absolutely worth nothing that, especially on MSO, a lot of the top/consistent contributors are going to be SE 2.0 moderators, employees, and (many times) people who have needed the tools that moderator provides. It's true of any profession: no one understands your problems better than your own. In turn, that makes contributions from the rest of the userbase -- people like me, people like you -- even more important.
The trouble arises when we create a culture that forgets about the nuances in building and maintaining a site. Mature sites like Stack Overflow do set the moderation tone for the rest of the network -- but moderation on SO is vastly different than it would be for a burgeoning site like Genealogy. To reiterate: the scope of a moderator's duties varies by site size, topic, and community.
When we create an echo chamber, we teach new recruits that this is the accepted and correct way of looking at our users. When we expect the worst of our userbase, they will always succeed at meeting our expectations.
To summarize this post:
- The vast majority of users are awesome, never need moderator attention, and will do the right thing every time. Remember this! You are a moderator for those users, and not the ones who are simply there to get a rise out of you.
- Do as much publicly as you can. Users should (civilly) question actions as much as they see fit. The more we default to public discussions, the more likely we are to get honest responses from usually-silent community members.
- Understand that moderation creates its own culture, and this is (in part) status-bydesign. However, also remember that moderators enforce community norms and are, themselves, people who love the site just as much as you or I. It's not your site any more than it is theirs.
- Personal attacks against any individual user are unacceptable. Comparisons to Nazis/dictators/genocidal totalitarian state figureheads in lieu of constructive criticism are prohibited and should be removed on sight, whether they are directed at moderators or anyone else.