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Moderators on S[OFU] have a number of privileges above and beyond those of normal users. These are necessary in order for them to perform their duties as moderators: keeping the peace, identifying and mitigating abuse, etc.

However, most moderators also participate on these sites in a fashion similar to ordinary users: asking and answering questions, voting on posts, etc. And it occurs to me that while so engaged they might occasionally find their moderator tools useful for purposes not directly connected to their jobs as moderators of the site... For instance:

  • Moderators can view the email addresses of users who have provided one in their profile. Upon answering an unclear question and encountering disagreement from other users who interpreted the question differently, they might find it expedient to email the user directly rather than or in addition to leaving a comment on the question itself.

  • Moderators can view full names (if specified) and IP addresses, potentially allowing them to track down the physical location of a user. If a question has been edited by its original author such that the answer originally provided by a moderator no longer applies, the moderator could dress himself in a feathered suit and dance in front of the OP's house, creating a spectacle for the neighbors.

  • Moderators can see who leaves votes on posts. A moderator whose question is down-voted without comment could find out which user had done so, and ask them privately for an explanation. [edit by Jeff Atwood: not true -- striking this out because it borders on dangerous misinformation. See my answer, below.]

  • Moderators can leap tall buildings in a single bound. A moderator who found himself unable to answer a question due to the interference of a tall building could leap over it.

Note that I'm not claiming any of this actually occurs on S[OFU]... Merely that it could. And here's why I think it should:

  • Q&A on SO is intended to be valuable beyond a single Asker-Answerer interaction: a good question and corresponding answer can be valuable long after the original authors have moved on. While it might seem unfair that moderators would be able to obtain improvements to questions and/or promote their own answers in situations where other users are not, the end result justifies the means... If normal users could be trusted with the means, they would be allowed, nay, expected to achieve these ends as well!

  • In order to be fair to other users, a moderator must first be true to himself. If a moderator sees another user a user down-voting his answers without explanation, he might be tempted to retaliate, at which point guilt might prevent him from fairly resolving the disputes of other users. Rather he should sate his curiosity and move on, perhaps even encouraging another user to do a better job of participating in the site.

  • Leaping tall buildings is cool, regardless of the motivation.

Thoughts?

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And they can answer questions faster than a speeding bullet... no, actually, they can answer questions exactly as fast as a speeding bullet. Only Jon Skeet breaks speeding-bullet-speed. –  mmyers Mar 15 '10 at 20:13
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I believe moderators cannot look at individual votes, only at vote clusters. –  Georg Schölly Mar 15 '10 at 20:17
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Moderators should be like jedi knights, emotionless –  jmfsg Mar 15 '10 at 20:19
    
We need stakes, gas and matches to solve this issue once and for all - Burn, mod, burn! –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 20:21
    
@John: you have many to choose from: meta.stackoverflow.com/about (+ Sampson and Gumbo) –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 20:23
    
@voy: I'll get them all! –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 20:25
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I'll bring the torches, let's go! –  jmfsg Mar 15 '10 at 20:27
    
@Downvoter: I don't care... –  Ivo Flipse Mar 15 '10 at 20:29
    
@Ivo: you don't care about the emotionless jedi part, or the burn at the stake part? –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 20:30
    
Well, we did do the nose. –  dmckee Mar 15 '10 at 20:31
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@Ivo: But we care :] –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 20:31
    
@Pek: We just burn him! You never know! (I hate it when comments get deleted which I answer.) –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 20:47
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@John sorry. :) Original question: If a moderator deletes these comments, will it have been for personal reasons? –  Pëkka Mar 15 '10 at 21:11
    
@shog9 - you forgot to add that moderators have access to flagging info (i.e. the flag link) which can be used for nefarious purposes. –  Kev Mar 16 '10 at 4:15
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@Shog9: I'm not disappointed in that edit. :) Also, the rep-report hole that Kyle pointed out is now fixed. Moderators can no longer see other users' rep-reports. @Kev: I suppose we could do that if we wanted to make our own jobs more difficult. I'm more interested in putting out fires than in throwing gasoline on them. ;) –  Bill the Lizard Mar 22 '10 at 1:54

8 Answers 8

I think some misinformation is being presented here.

It is not possible for moderators to see who voted for a particular post.

Moderators can see a summary of who has cast the MOST votes for / against a particular user, but it is presented as summary data, and it is not tied to any particular question or answer.

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Good to know... I must admit that there've been times when I've been reluctant to vote on moderator posts because of this misconception - I have been called out before, and was never sure afterward if it was inside information or just a guess. –  Shog9 Mar 16 '10 at 1:30
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Was it ever possible to see individual votes? –  alex Mar 16 '10 at 7:40
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@alex not that I know of (edit: I forgot we used to have the votes tab on the users page, and mods could see that. But we pulled the votes tab a while back because it wasn't very useful). It's also not possible to change votes as a moderator, not without direct (and rather tedious) database manipulation. This is [by-design].. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 18 '10 at 4:16
    
So it's as it should be. Glad to know :) –  alex Mar 18 '10 at 6:44
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Just to clarify, there were a few obscure and relatively painstaking ways you could see individual user histories (basically, visibility of /recent/ and /reputation/ to moderators). These routes have been changed so only development team members can see them.. which is sensible, because the dev team has access to the underlying database anyway. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 22 '10 at 2:28

The most important attribute of a moderator is a thick skin.

The second most important attribute is an inordinate amount of patience.

The third most important attribute is wisdom, both in knowing when and how to act and more importantly when not to act.

The fourth most important attribute is the ability to separate out your participation in the forum (for lack of a better term) from your actions as a moderator.

Ergo, a moderator should never use his moderator powers to enhance his participation in any way. Even, if it is just to look up an email address on an unrelated matter, he should respect the privacy wishes of the user in question and refrain from using anything other than publicly available data except in when performing his moderator duties.

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Not that it's directly applicable (and thus not in my answer), but the SAGE Code of Ethics (sage.org/ethics) would be a great resource for moderators and potential moderators. –  tvanfosson Mar 15 '10 at 20:59
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... AMONG our attributes are a thick sk... Blast it, I'll come in again. Nobody expects the Moderating Inquisition! –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 21:00
    
That means we need a reelection. –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 21:01
    
@John: What do you have against the moderators? Do you have specific complaints or do you just dislike any authorities? –  mmyers Mar 15 '10 at 21:10
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Oh @mmy! Who likes authority figures? –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 21:14

Could happen or has happened? The first case, shows that you care about the site even if it might sound a little paranoid, the second case would be a really, really really scary precedent. No moderator should contact any user regarding downvotes, unless there is voting fraud.

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I donno, man... Bottling up one's emotions can be harmful to the psyche. And we certainly don't need psycho moderators running around! Wouldn't you rather a moderator you'd annoyed emailed you privately, rather than storing up his terrible anger until it erupted in a catastrophic bloodbath of mass-deletion? –  Shog9 Mar 15 '10 at 20:16
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@Shog9: No, I wouldn't. If a mod has any kind of opinion about me, then it is his problem. If a mod were systematically checking who is downvoting them, then they are not fit to be a moderator. A good moderator doesn't let emotion get in the way. –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 20:21
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@Dow: Downvoters should be like Sith: cold-blooded and merciless! –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 20:23
    
Hear hear! –  XMLbog Mar 15 '10 at 20:24

Responses to the first four bullet-points in order:

  • We should resolve any disputes about question and answer content on site if at all possible. We can see your email so that we can contact you when there's a need for confidentiality. Question and answer interpretation should be done in the open for everyone to see. If there's some confusion, I'd rather iron it out with everyone at once rather than just with one person via email.

  • I've actually been tempted to do this, but resisted. It's irritating when someone changes a question to render formerly correct answers incorrect, but the right thing to do is to modify your answer or accept the down votes. (Since it's you, @Shog9, I know you're going to change the question now. How can you change it to make this answer hilarious?)

  • We can't see who voted on individual posts. There's a script that looks for voting anomalies that reports if one user votes another user up or down a lot, and we can see the results of that, even for our own profile. So if you vote down an abnormal number of my questions or answers I might notice it eventually. (That doesn't mean I'll take retribution, though.)

  • Only while jacked in to the Matrix. I will not give up this ability willingly.

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Interesting... I based #3 on a comment made here once (by Marc, I think) about seeing users down-vote his answers after posting their own. Can't find it now though, might not have remembered the details correctly. –  Shog9 Mar 15 '10 at 22:10
    
@Shog9: I was just shown by another moderator (via email) what I had missed before in regards to another matter. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 15 '10 at 22:14
    
@Shog9 I was downvoted on SO once. Another user responded in the comments asking for a reason, to which I stated that I knew who it was (not by using any magical-mod-powers). This resulted in one particular user getting upset that moderators (with a bit of searching) can find out who downvoted them an excessive number of times. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 22:17
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@Jon: Maybe you should resist your "magical" powers and do not call people out (not even mentioning that you could or imagine that you could). It's a good habit for every SOFU user, mod or not. –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 22:21
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@Jonathan: Mmmm, I've seen this before, and it's never ended well. It's a big reason why I support anonymous voting, and try to discourage users from speculating in comments on who is voting how: being wrong is only slightly worse than being right... @Bill: ah, good to know I'm not crazy ;-) –  Shog9 Mar 15 '10 at 22:23
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@John I didn't call anybody out, and I didn't use any magical powers either. In fact, I don't even think I mentioned that I could. I mentioned merely that from my history, I had a hunch. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 22:24
    
@Shog9 I agree. I am also in favor of the anonymous voting. Calling people out by name can't end well, as you stated. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 22:26
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@Jon: Are you even aware that you are contradicting yourself? –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 22:29
    
@John No. Care to point out where? –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 22:30
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@Jon: "to which I stated that I knew who it was" - Shog9:"discourage users from speculating in comments on who is voting how" - "@Shog9 I agree. I am also in favor of the anonymous voting." –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 22:38
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@John: I don't see the contradiction. I did state I knew who it was (not via mod-abilities), but I mentioned no names. I didn't speculate about who It may be. Voting is anonymous (as it should be) and I made no indication that it should be otherwise. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 23:15
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The relevant comments stackoverflow.com/questions/2381323/… I knew I had seen that somewhere before. –  perbert Mar 16 '10 at 1:57
    
You found it @voyager. I was going to hunt it down just for reference, but you beat me to it. +1 –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 16 '10 at 2:10
    
Looks like you can see the trail of up/downvotes now through the rep report. –  random Mar 21 '10 at 3:05
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@random: Jeff fixed this earlier today. Moderators no longer have access to any reputation reports but their own. You now need direct database access to see other people's reports, so basically only the dev team can get at that information. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 22 '10 at 1:49

Moderators most definitely should not use their abilities for personal reasons. I can't think of a single instance where this would be appropriate. The only instance I can think of that would appear similar would be if the Moderator was a victim of malicious activity, in which case they could react in a professional capacity to address the problem as they would for any other victimized user.

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What constitutes malicious activity? –  perbert Mar 15 '10 at 22:15
    
@voyager Inappropriate edits, for starters. Targeted voting is another possibility. The system watches for this type of stuff, but it's velocity-based. To supplement this, the system also keeps a running track of excessive voting against particular users over time - this is not velocity-based. This is helpful for finding users who are targeting one or more users. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 15 '10 at 22:21
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In cases of malicious activity, I would hope that the moderator would step aside and let another moderator handle it. It's really hard to be impartial, so the safest route is to avoid any suspicion right from the start. –  Ether Mar 16 '10 at 0:48
    
@Ether Absolutely correct. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 16 '10 at 2:12

Plain and simple, the potential for abuse is always there, no matter who is at the controls.

Maybe we finally annoy Jeff for stupid new features enough that he disables the vote-collusion script and goes on a massive downvoting spree the likes of which we've never seen.

I've been an administrator on a public forum before (though it was private with a much smaller community), so I know where you're coming from with your questions. It's good to address these issues, but in truth, they really aren't a big deal.

I think the most important thing is that we continue to select moderators based on character by holding public elections. It's important that the community trusts its leaders. Should that trust ever be in doubt, there certainly are mechanisms by which the community can voice their opinions. Even moderators themselves can be proactive and question their own actions.

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He could just do an update users set reputation = 1 and forget the where clause –  jmfsg Mar 15 '10 at 20:36
    
@Downvoter: Yes, he could. But that's why we have redundancy in place: both in terms of people and data. –  Jon Seigel Mar 15 '10 at 20:38

Should moderators use their abilities for personal reasons?

Surely they do that already, unless they're on the payroll.

the moderator could dress himself in a feathered suit and dance in front of the OP's house, creating a spectacle for the neighbors

This is perfectly acceptable, provided YouTube videos are taken.

I'll wait for the visit then shall I?

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Should moderators use their abilities for personal reasons?

I really don't care. They put a lot of time and effort into the community, and for what, exactly? If they want to play, "I see you!" then hey - it's just like every other large website run by a team of people with elevated privileges.

Unless there's obviously egregious abuse of their ability, it really doesn't affect how I, or anyone else, really uses the site.

More power to them, the job they do isn't fun or glamorous.

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Run, you fool! –  Ladybug Killer Mar 15 '10 at 21:46
    
@John It's too late for me! Save yourself! –  Adam Davis Mar 16 '10 at 0:23

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