Last month we got together with many of you in the Tavern for our first Meta Stack Exchange Town Hall. Like we shared in my original announcement, amazing as meta is, we need to do more to keep lines of communication open with the users who work alongside us making our software great in the longer haul to shipping. So, we're doing a three-event trial run to see if this fits the bill, and this marks the second in the series. During last month's chat event things got hectic and disorganized...yet it was still some of the best time we've spent with you all in a while, and we're excited to do it again.

When and where is the next MSE Town Hall?

We'll be meeting in the Tavern for an hour on Wednesday, June 22nd, at 1pm EDT/17:00 UTC. Here's a handy tool for figuring out what time that is for you, wherever you're based.

What's the topic?

Let's discuss chat moderation, as suggested by rene.

Will the format be the same as last time?

We're making a few tweaks in hopes of improving the signal to noise ratio.

At last month's town hall, we all clamored to speak and it was a little hard to dig into the meat of the subject at hand. This time, you already know the topic will be chat moderation, so we have the chance to get some thoughts out in the open prior to us all tumbling into the Tavern. Getting an early look and reading on your perspective beforehand will help us make the most of the conversation. Feel free to use the answers below to flesh out any thoughts you have on chat moderation. For example, you could share some thoughts on:

  • What disruptions are difficult to handle in chat currently?
  • How do Room Owners make sure rooms stays within the community limits?
  • How can chat be used effectively for a specific goal/purpose on the main site, while minimizing friction?

Weigh in via answers below, and we'll be grabbing a handful and using them to focus the conversation during the town hall.

Can I have a chat transcript for last month's MSE Town Hall?

You bet.

See you in the Tavern next Wednesday!

Update: Thanks to all of you for the insightful discussion earlier this week. You can find the chat transcript here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). Feel free to post a few words on how you think it went in the comments. Otherwise, keep an eye out for info in the coming weeks about the third installment in our test run of these events!

  • 1
    Aarrrgghh..... Darn end-of-year exams. I totally would want to pop into something like this. Why school why?
    – Zizouz212
    Jun 16, 2016 at 0:29
  • 9
    @Zizouz212 Age faster!
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Jun 16, 2016 at 1:58
  • 1
    @Zizouz212 On Jun 22?!?!?!?!?!?
    – bleh
    Jun 16, 2016 at 2:18
  • @bleh Yep. Physics exam on the 22nd. I know. Physics. :/
    – Zizouz212
    Jun 16, 2016 at 2:23
  • 3
    Minor quibble. Its 1am for me. Us folks on the other end of the world and can't stay up late're left out :( Jun 16, 2016 at 10:18
  • "it's no fun to drop into a room and be ignored either, especially if you're wanting to talk about the topic of the site and everyone else is talking about unicorns or something." –Shog
    – Mazura
    Jun 17, 2016 at 3:02
  • 2
    @JourneymanGeek In the current experimental phase, we're putting all our effort into carefully getting the format right and vetting whether doing these is a good idea at all. Assuming we can get these events running well with relative regularity, rotating when we hold them to better accommodate the many folks not in the Western Hemipshere is one of our immediate next steps. In other words, you're right, and we're working on it.
    – Ana
    Jun 20, 2016 at 21:51
  • 1
    Can we post the transcripts from this here somewhere so that we can review and so that people who missed it can find them?
    – Catija
    Jun 23, 2016 at 15:40
  • @Catija You got it!
    – Ana
    Jun 24, 2016 at 15:58
  • 1
    This one went much more organized and was better controlled at the start, having enough room for even non-native speakers like myself to keep up and even participate. When the meeting moved into the free-format I lost track. Overall I'm still positive about the usefulness.
    – rene
    Jun 24, 2016 at 17:51

13 Answers 13


Do we have to have three separate chat servers?

Specifically thinking about chat.SO here. Main meta is so different from the rest of the network that it makes sense for it to have its own chat system, where the only 'moderators' are SE employees and where users who are suspended in chat can come to air their grievances (until they get suspended there as well), just like the meta main site.

But SO, different as it is from the rest of the network, doesn't really need its own chat server. Its having one makes moderation more difficult. The only mods in SO chat are the 20-odd SO moderators, whereas in every other chatroom all 500-odd moderators have mod powers.1 I've never ventured there myself, but I've heard tell that some of the rooms on chat.SO have language to make the roughest soldier cringe and flags to put the most hardened Bridge or Mos Eisley veteran to shame. Those overworked SO mods could do with some moderation help over there, and the chat.SO network could do with being unified into chat.SE and held to similar standards.

The answer is probably that this would be too difficult to implement, but meh - I'd like to get the idea out there at least, see how people vote on it and why.

1 Whereas the SO mods do get moderation powers on chat.SE. It's not fair! :-P

  • and the chat.SO network could do with being unified into chat.SE and held to similar standards - not quite sure what you mean by that - care to elaborate a bit? Jun 18, 2016 at 13:31
  • 2
    @JonClements Bear in mind that I've never been to chat.SO and don't really know what I'm talking about here :-) But what I've heard is that some of the rooms there have terrible 'room culture' and the SO mods aren't enough to deal with it and hold those rooms to the same standard as rooms on the main network where 500-odd mods can help out if necessary. I dunno, maybe it's just gossip or exaggeration. Jun 18, 2016 at 13:35
  • That's what I thought you meant meant - I was just checking :) However, the flip side of the coin is that the SO mods that moderate chat are aware of the rooms/users/cultures and have either agreed with ROs what expectations are and where their limits stand as to when/why we will intervene or end up removing the room... And yes, while some rooms can be somewhat very "blokes down the pub talking" - it's understood that unless it becomes really off rail - there's some leniency... Jun 18, 2016 at 13:44
  • 1
    ... my concern here would be that throwing another 500 mods (not all of which use chat frequently) - that have differing ideas of how their site related rooms are run and possibly have no experience of the users/culture involved on the SO rooms - is that there's the potential for more "drama" than need be, thus not actually solving a problem, but potentially escalating another one. Jun 18, 2016 at 13:47
  • @JonClements Fair enough. I have no dog in this race; just throwing the idea out there for possible discussion by those who actually know about SO chat. (And like I said, even if the idea gets widespread approval it might still be rejected by SE as too difficult to implement. shrug) Jun 18, 2016 at 13:50
  • No worries - I'll be attending the meeting anyway - just throwing out there my comments/concern :) Jun 18, 2016 at 14:21

How to deal with chat room "culture" that conflicts with the "be nice" policy?

I've been involved with at least two chat room explosions that involved (supposed) "outsiders" of a chat room flagging chat messages that contained content they found offensive.

Depending on the severity of the statement, this tends to bring lots of mods in along with lots of high-rep users who saw the flags and inevitably leads to a long conversation/argument/complaint session full of:

  • You took it out of context
  • it was a joke
  • no one actually believes that
  • we say stuff like that in here all the time and no one gets offended
  • You don't understand because you're not one of us
  • The people flagging are just trolls
  • If people don't like it they can just leave

Personally, I don't think that "culture" should be allowed to invalidate the "be nice" policy but that doesn't seem to be the general consensus... particularly for the people who feel "wronged" or their supporters.

Where, as a mod or room owner or even just a user of one of the chat spaces should you feel the line should be drawn?

Note, I am not talking about people who intentionally go searching for content to flag just so they can get someone "in trouble" by flagging them months later.

  • Related: meta.stackoverflow.com/a/323489/1849664
    – Undo
    Jun 15, 2016 at 23:04
  • 1
    The main point of the Be Nice is that you avoid, well, not being nice. A list of all those words we can't use would be nice (Don't ask: SE is determined not to provide this, so we'll have to go with Carlin's list I guess). Then we could just flag for vulgarity, and get back to mentioning the BN when people are mean to each other, not when someone says something flippantly. Something somewhere that's on every SE page that exists, WILL offend someone at some point. Well, then, let's go ahead and just delete everything!...
    – Mazura
    Jun 15, 2016 at 23:53
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    @Mazura You are being hyperbolic. There is a middle ground.
    – Catija
    Jun 15, 2016 at 23:55
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    @Catija I think that middle ground lies in the perception of the flag system. It isn't apparent what the flags are actually do, and having an automatic punishment tied to them results in the "someone's upset but won't talk about it, and someone else will have to pick up the pieces" situations we've seen. Jun 16, 2016 at 0:06
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    While I completely agree that a culture of being non-nice is a bad thing, there's a strong implication here that the flagger is generally more likely to be right than the flaggee, which is not true. The real challenge here is figuring out how to keep chatrooms "nice" without simply assuming all flags are valid and thus allowing people to get banned for something as innocuous as mentioning they ate a sandwich.
    – Ixrec
    Jun 16, 2016 at 0:06
  • Add the fact that we have conflicting use cases for the flag on the forum and on the popup message, and you're left with the perception that they're harmless and to be used liberally. Jun 16, 2016 at 0:07
  • @Axelrod Yes: it should be more obvious that validating a flag could result in a short suspension. You could post that as an answer. Jun 16, 2016 at 0:08
  • @Ixrec See also my answer. Jun 16, 2016 at 0:08
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    Anyone standing on the middle ground, deserves the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that everyone thinks that's where they stand. And those same people with their measly amassed 10k get to toss "valid" around like they do their votes. Remove the carrot on the stick and these pseudo mod powers from the general public. - We are all trolls.
    – Mazura
    Jun 16, 2016 at 0:16
  • @Mazura "measly amassed 10K"? I think it needs a harder look than that. On SFF I only have 11K, because I started spending all my time in chat. I feel like for Mos Eisley my time spent/rep should be good enough for that room/site. I don't think the issue is as simple as just 10K, but 10K from where? Should would have a stack-specific rep requirement and a higher one for global flag validating?
    – user287266
    Jun 20, 2016 at 15:54
  • Also, it amuses/intrigues me that everyone commenting here is active in Mos Eisley. Are there other chatrooms that are having concerns over this?
    – user287266
    Jun 20, 2016 at 15:55
  • @CreationEdge the explosions I talk about in the answer are actually utterly unrelated to Mos. :D
    – Catija
    Jun 20, 2016 at 15:57
  • @CreationEdge - IME, if the flag isn't from Mos, it's from the Bridge, or a site where I can't read the language. IMO, it's really not all that hard to amass 10k site-wide. Go answer a few WB questions... or go do a FGitW on anything (or wait a year and just let the votes trickle in).
    – Mazura
    Jun 20, 2016 at 16:01

Chat is real-time, and that by itself makes moderating it hard.

I'll be honest; when I see that "flags pending" indicator show up, I tend to ignore it unless the number is growing rapidly. Why? Because of the real-time nature -- it's probably in a room I don't know, on a subject I don't know, with people I don't know, and by the time I can figure out enough context to act, the damage has been done already. Besides, I know that every moderator currently in chat (up to about 500 people) is seeing it at the same time I am, so it doesn't feel critical for me to go handle it. (Tragedy of the commons, you say?)

It would be nice if we could come up with some way of directing chat flags to the people most likely to be equipped to handle them, while still maintaining checks and balances against certain "room culture" pathologies. There's been talk of showing flags to room owners first and only everybody else after a few minutes, but maybe there are other approaches.

Some ideas for exploration, off the top of my head:

  • Maybe indicate somehow if a flag is from one of "my" rooms, where "my" means room owner or a room I frequent?

  • Prioritize flags from people with a good flagging record? Indicate that flags are coming from people with a good record? Specifically in that room or on that site, maybe?

  • Somehow alert a site's mods (and room owners?) if flag rate in one of their rooms spikes? I might not usually sit in my well-behaved room that gets maybe three flags a month, but if it's gotten ten today mods should probably know that. Ideally this is a real-time ping that isn't just buried in the "flags pending" bubble.

  • Can we do anything to provide better context in the case where people are flagging each others' messages in the midst of an argument, or a user is hostile to another user and spite-flags that person? This is a hard problem. Maybe, to start, flags from people who also have pending flags against themselves could be presented together somehow? Instead of treating flags in isolation, can we present related ones together to get the bigger picture?

  • Handle flags on older messages differently from flags on active chats? We don't necessarily want to prevent flags on hours-old content, but anything not in the current room "buffer" (however many messages that is) can probably wait a bit longer.

  • 1
    "Tragedy of the commons" - the phrase you're looking for is "dilution of responsibility"
    – Dan Hulme
    Jun 21, 2016 at 9:16
  • 1
    @DanHulme isn't dilution of responsibility the means by which the tragedy of the commons arises? I don't need to pick up that litter in the public square; somebody else will do it. But your phrasing is more precise, so thanks. Jun 21, 2016 at 12:56

Should flaggers be able to (or required to) provide a reason for their flags?

When flags do come up, it's fairly common for me to look at the message and have absolutely no idea what's wrong with it. In these cases, unless there's an argument under way in the chatroom it came from, there's generally no way to find out what motivated the flagger, much less do anything to solve it or prevent it from happening again. I don't like assuming these flags are "frivolous" or "abusive", but there's simply no alternative in the current system.

One possible implementation would be to provide a freeform textbox with each flag, just like custom flags on the main site do. I have no idea if this would help, because I have no idea if any flaggers would use it...precisely because I have no idea what motivates "most" flaggers to flag. So it might be worth trying solely for the purpose of getting some hard data.

Another implementation would be a list of flag reasons. My personal opinion is that we could dramatically improve the practical effectiveness of the flagging system just by distinguishing between these two reasons:

  • This message is rude or offensive, and should be deleted.
  • This user is being rude, hostile or argumentative, and a moderator is needed to de-escalate the situation.

The current way flags are handled where 10k users click on valid/invalid buttons for the message without any context makes some degree of sense for the first reason, where only that one chat message is at fault. It doesn't make any sense at all for the second reason, which I feel is one of the most common legitimate flag reasons (and arguably the most important one to handle well). If this ever did get implemented, I imagine the second reason would do something completely different such as notifying a bunch of actual moderators/CMs rather than every random 10k user. And perhaps the first reason would be far less likely to get you chatbanned than the second.

In my ideal fantasy world we'd do both of these, so that when you flag someone for saying they ate a sandwich you can pick "This message..." rather than "This user..." and type something about why this particular kind of sandwich is considered offensive in your culture. Seriously, I would love to know.


What about foreign-language rooms? Specifically thinking about chat.SO here.

My opinion is that they should just be shunted over to chat.SE, and disallowed completely on c.SO - but it'd be interesting to hear other folks' opinions (and staff opinions) about the subject.

Should we allow these rooms at all outside of sites in that language?

  • 9
    I personally still don't understand why Chat.SO is still a separate server :/ Jun 15, 2016 at 23:07
  • 1
    Hm, I strongly agree the problem should be discussed, but I very strongly disagree with the non-solution of moving the problem to a different chat server when all chat servers are equally bad at dealing with this, much less banning all non-English chat...does that mean upvote or downvote?
    – Ixrec
    Jun 16, 2016 at 8:11

Should flagged chat messages be reviewed in isolation or in context?

Personally, I almost never click the "valid" button on a flagged message because whether or not something is offensive, in my opinion, usually depends very heavily on the rest of the conversation. So my response is always to go to the other chatroom and see if there really is a situation getting out of control or if it's just a completely frivolous flag.

I have no idea whether this is the majority or the minority viewpoint on chat flag review, but more importantly, I suspect this lack of context encourages people like me to flood into the flagged chatroom, and that flood alone sometimes creates its own meta-drama, leading into many of the more obvious problems chat moderation currently has.

  • 2
    +1 for making a good point - but it's such a good point that there's not really much to discuss! I doubt anyone will argue against showing flagged chat posts in context. However, to address your last paragraph, it's perfectly possible (and in fact, the way chat flags are shown makes it easy) to view the transcript of the chatroom without entering the room itself. That way, you get the context without the flood and meta-drama. Jun 16, 2016 at 12:28
  • @randal'thor If there was nothing at all to discuss, SE would've changed the flag reviewing interface already =) But I agree if this comes up at all it'll probably be in the form of a debate about whether this should happen now or other ideas are likely to make a bigger impact.
    – Ixrec
    Jun 16, 2016 at 12:50
  • There's a feature request from 5 years ago related to this that I'd love to see implemented.
    – user307833
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:43

When can the flagger, as opposed to the flaggee, be considered the problem?

This is always an issue to consider when matters arise which concern one person offending another.

On the one hand:

  • encouraging the attitude that flaggers are the problem will lead to some people feeling freer to post offensive content and others feeling afraid to speak up when they're offended
  • the flagging system is there for a reason, and discouraging people from using it rather defeats the purpose, whatever that purpose may be.

On the other hand:

  • we can't have a policy that the flagger is always right - this would be abused by trolls daily, and people would be getting suspended for nothing left and right
  • flags cause drama - issues that could be resolved peacefully by people simply talking to each other become escalated affairs involving heightened emotions when flags are raised.

At first glance, it seems that the issue comes down to "where should we draw the line between content that could reasonably cause offence and content which isn't really flaggable except by trolls?" And indeed, that question is what the 'peer review' system for chat flags exists to answer: when you get flagged, a jury of six 10k+ chat users can decide whether or not the flag is valid (unless a mod gets there first).

My own solution is slightly different from this ... come along on Wednesday to find out more! ;-)

  • 6
    Stop showing the people in chat the flags. Drama negated. Done.
    – Mazura
    Jun 15, 2016 at 23:45
  • 2
    @Mazura That might mean flags take longer to be acted on. It would also mean abolishing the peer review system, making chat flags the same as main-site flags: able to be approved or rejected by a single moderator. Might still be a good notion though, and one I've also thought of :-) Jun 15, 2016 at 23:47
  • 6
    Response time is the problem: it's too quick (and having 10k site-wide is a horrible metric to use to assign "mod powers" with). People in chat have nothing better to do than harp on whatever new thing is happening. Take away the carrot on the stick. Usually, I can't even click on the 'flag'. It all happens way too fast. Surely the mods could handle all the flags on their own? (I'm ignoring w/e happens over at SO)
    – Mazura
    Jun 15, 2016 at 23:58
  • 3
    Perhaps rejected flags should have a cooldown - maybe for every rejected flag you can't cast another for, say, 30 minutes. Or maybe a max of 3 rejected flags per week. I just pulled those numbers out of a hat, but the idea is that rejected flags should only rarely happen, at best - anything else and it's an issue that needs to be addressed with the user.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 12:24

Are we showing chat flags to the right people?

  • Why can someone with zero chat experience handle flags?
  • Should there be more restrictions on who flags are shown to?
    • Should these restrictions demonstrate knowledge of how the chat system works?

  • Maybe require some number of chat messages (1000? More?) in addition to Q&A reputation?
    • Room owners should be able to see all flags from the room they own regardless of other qualifications.
  • 4
    No. - I don't know why. - Yes. - Yes. - Yes. - And yes.
    – Mazura
    Jun 17, 2016 at 1:53

What is offensive?

Or: we need better guidance on what's considered offensive.

  • This inevitably devolves to 'room culture', i.e. what the regulars think is acceptable - they won't flag the rest. Then someone new joins, with different perceptions of offensive, and starts flagging away. That never ends well.
  • The majority of Be Nice obviously deals with how we interact with other users. This is good - as far as I know, there are very few if any 'room cultures' that promote or allow rudeness directed at other users.
  • We end up on the topic of vulgar language. Be Nice suggests avoiding vulgar terms.

    • Most 'borderline' flags fall into this category. Most rooms I've seen have a fairly relaxed attitude towards a swear word now and then, but once a flag is raised it typically ends in deletion (of an otherwise-useful message!), suspension and a very annoyed user (or even entire room).
    • Should this be somewhat relaxed for chat? (My opinion in comments.)

    • If the rule is relaxed1, should individual rooms be allowed to choose whether they want to allow a bit of vulgar language (in a non-abusive fashion)? How can that be handled with the global flag system?2
      • Currently, many rooms will implicitly allow some, while other rooms would probably prefer to keep it completely clean. A global "always allowed" or "no way" policy will probably make a fairly large group unhappy either way.

1 I'm trying to avoid the room culture vs be nice issue here - if the decision is to not relax the rule, then of course rooms should not be able to choose differently.

2 Or, preferably, without the flag system?

  • 1
    Apparently an average of some 1 in 200 spoken words are vulgar terms. In a semi-professional setting as the main Q&A, that can and should be avoided. In chat, sometimes vulgar terms will flow out in normal conversation - without being rude towards other users. -- Relaxing this rule also saves us from having to balance how different cultures (countries!) weigh different words in vulgarity.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 13:05
  • 2
    It's a fairly pointless rule when everyone starts using euphemisms - barely better than a Scunthorpe-style filter. We all know what they mean... while saving our eyes from seeing a word? -- Given that it apparently happens so often, we're not going to catch most of it by flagging anyway. Thus, inconsistent enforcement, and annoyed users (who may feel targeted when they see someone else use vulgar language and get away).
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 13:06
  • 1
    I think the major issue that always gets missed every time the vulgarity discussion happens is that it's more about intentions. Mentioning the programming language called brainfuck isn't offensive (some might find the name offensive, but that is between them and the language's author, not the person who referenced it), but suggesting to someone that they should copulate with themself is offensive.
    – user307833
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:47
  • @Mego I don't know about missed - I've brought up the 'intentions' issue every time I've been in these discussions and indeed there was a lot of agreement last time. Personally, I've never flagged such language when not directed towards other users. But we've still got no hard rule to refer to, which leads to moderation problems. (I'm of the opinion that if it does come down on "no vulgar language whatsoever" that's just going to open yet another can of worms - there is no global definition of vulgar language and of course Scunthorping.)
    – Bob
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:55
  • Perhaps "missed" wasn't the best word to use - rather, many people tend to get sidetracked with the pointless "let's try to form a list of vulgar words not to use" tangent (like in the comments of the post you linked), rather than getting to the core argument about intent.
    – user307833
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:57

I would like a warning mentioning the automatic suspension, should the flag be validated, on the flag tooltip.

I think that middle ground lies in the perception of the flag system. It isn't apparent what the flags actually do, and having an automatic punishment tied to them results in the "someone's upset but won't talk about it, and someone else will have to pick up the pieces" situations we've seen in the SFF chat room(s). Add the fact that we have conflicting use cases for the flag on the forum and on the popup message, and you're left with the perception that they're harmless and to be used liberally, when in fact they have very real consequences -- a short suspension seems like nothing until it snowballs into something else.

  • 1
    Are you sure this is an actual problem? Very few legitimate chat messages will be flagged - even fewer will be validated. The more someone moves towards the line with their message, the more likely it is to be flagged.
    – hichris123
    Jun 16, 2016 at 0:52
  • 4
    @hichris123 Frivolous flags are actually fairly common IME. In fact, I remember one instance where the flagger later said he was trying to ask a mod to delete a thoroughly non-offensive message (I think it was an annoying gif or something), not to get the flaggee in trouble or bring a ton of other mods into the room, which led to all the mods explaining to him why not to use flags for that purpose. That's probably a rare case, and I don't think the suggestion in this answer is the right response to it, but it's important to be aware that this has happened.
    – Ixrec
    Jun 16, 2016 at 7:16
  • 2
    @hichris123 I've seen many legitimate chat messages being flagged. If you have a look through the new list that's now available to mods, you'll see quite a few too. Jun 16, 2016 at 10:18
  • The punishment for a validated flag should be reduced, perhaps to a kick-mute (as room owners can do). Why does a flag get an automatic 30 minute suspension? Could even make the first offence (per period of time? like kick-mutes only 'remember' 24 hours) just a message deletion + warning. Suspending someone instantly puts them on the defensive.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 12:25
  • 1
    @Bob there are also cases where a kick-mute makes things worse, and these are more frequent than the raging outcome of lengthier bans I believe. The user comes back yelling "Y U KICK-MOOT, I'LL . . . ".
    – M.A.R.
    Jun 16, 2016 at 12:27
  • 1
    @randal'thor But how many were actually validated? My point being: if a frivolous flag was raised, oops, but if it wasn't validated, the system worked.
    – hichris123
    Jun 16, 2016 at 15:13
  • 1
    @hichris123 - If everything worked how it's supposed to, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Axel is talking more about when flags that shouldn't have been validated, were. And how a warning about meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend might stem some of those.
    – Mazura
    Jun 17, 2016 at 2:00

What disruptions are difficult to handle in chat currently?

As a moderator, not much. If something's disrupting chat, and it won't stop if I ask it to, I can suspend it. (There's one exception - keep reading.) So perhaps this question should be what disruptions are difficult to handle for regular users/room owners?

As far as I can see, the the point where a moderator gets called in is (broadly) one of two situations:

  • offensive/abusive ('regular') flags that a mod just happens to handle
  • moderator custom flags cast by users or owners when things are spiralling beyond their control

Those, then, are the situations that have regular users or owners tied up in knots, and those are the situations we should focus on. In particular, some questions to think about:

  • Why are there so many more invalid offensive flags in chat than on main sites? Is more guidance about when to flag required?
  • What can be done to reduce the number of times a room owner has to call in a moderator because they feel powerless to control the room?

I'm a big fan of letting rooms moderate themselves as far as possible - it's better for the room than having a possibly 'foreign' moderator turn up and be stricter on the situation than is totally necessary. But for self-moderation to happen, users and owners need to feel that they can control the conversation, and if necessary, room owners need to feel that their powers support them.

In an ideal world, we'd also have it so that room owners feel that they will be supported by the moderators, if they have to call one in. From what I can tell now, for a room owner, calling in a moderator is a bit of an unknown quantity - I'd like to see how we can make sure that if a room owner is doing the right thing, they know they'll be supported by the mods.

[The one thing that I find hard to deal with, as a moderator, is foreign-language flags or chatrooms. Without knowing the language, I just can't moderate - it's either Google Translate, or wait for a mod who does know the language. Neither of those are brilliant options, but this situation isn't terrible left as-is.]

How do Room Owners make sure rooms stays within the community limits?

This is the crux of it. If room owners can be encouraged to moderate effectively, then we have an ideal situation where moderators only need to be called in very rarely.

Perhaps controversially, I'd like to point to Mos Eisley as an awesome example of room self-moderation. This is the room that, late last year, was frozen for a week by the community team because the attitudes in it were toxic and it was almost un-moderatable without being an 'insider'.

Shortly after that incident, impromptu elections for room owners were held on meta, two new (non-mod) room owners were installed, and we've almost not heard a peep from there since. I think the key elements here were:

  • RO's came from the chat regular community
  • The chat community trusted the RO's (they were elected, after a fashion)
  • The RO's actively moderate conversation

The moderation the owners do isn't capital-M Moderation - it's more like catching potential issues early, steering away from potentially dangerous topics, and gently guiding chatters on the right path.

How can chat be used effectively for a specific goal/purpose on the main site, while minimizing friction?

Let's be clear: chat has become something it was never intended to be. It was intended, as far as I can tell, as a venue for less structured site discussions, with some socialising alongside.

What it's become is more like socialising, with occasional site discussion.

That's not a bad thing, but it's important to recognise that we can't moderate it for what it was intended to be; we have to moderate it as it is. It's a problem child, but in the same sort of way that dumping your child on the street if you don't like it is considered bad, we can't just give it up as a lost cause.

I think the major cause of friction in chat is differing opinions and differing styles of moderation. Another answer here makes a good point about what's offensive?; that's a big friction point sometimes. However, I honestly think the best way to bring friction down in chat would be to standardise moderation strategies as far as possible.

This difference in moderation style is, I think, partially why moderation gets a lot of resistance in chat. This is Stack Exchange, we're all used to even, consistent moderation - but in chat, that changes. It's perhaps not totally the fault of the 'great unwashed', but also potentially quite a bit the fault of the moderators as a collective (not individually, I'm sure we all do our best to moderate as an individual).

I recognise that doing that isn't totally possible, but we can do better than what we have right now, which is each moderator moderates how they think is best. We should tell moderators what's best (or at least give some good guidance - more than is currently available) to avoid massive conflicts of style.

I hate to blast my own horn, but a number of moderators have noted that I seem to be good at chat moderation - I get on well with users, while keeping my ability to moderate efficiently. Now while standardising policy on what I, alone do is a terrible idea, the same is true of a number of moderators (a few names spring to mind). If we used the expertise of the moderators who are widely recognised as being good at chat moderation to create a set of strong guidelines on how to handle various things that crop up, then I think we'd go a long way to standardising moderation style and reducing friction.

That was a fair ole' essay. Now to find a way to compress it for chat...

  • "We should tell moderators what's best (or at least give some good guidance" - there is A guide to moderating chat. Those lay down some pretty good rules; is there really much more in terms of main-site moderation? (most main site moderation "rules" come from meta & user discussion on what should/shouldn't be allowed)
    – hichris123
    Jun 20, 2016 at 20:09
  • @hichris123 That guide is a good start, but it doesn't bridge the gap in moderation styles. Chat moderation is less discussed on meta, too, so we're left with a similar standard of rules but without the community policy and discussion to back us up when moderating.
    – ArtOfCode
    Jun 20, 2016 at 20:12
  • Also, "It was intended, as far as I can tell, as a venue for slightly less structured site discussions, with perhaps the occasional bit of socialising" isn't correct, from Jeff's blog post Do Trilogy Sites Need a "Third Place"?: "should we add a Campfire-like "third place" for real time socialization and coordination of work?"
    – hichris123
    Jun 20, 2016 at 20:12
  • @hichris123 Ah, hadn't seen that. Looks like equal parts, though, which it still isn't.
    – ArtOfCode
    Jun 20, 2016 at 20:14
  • I think one of the issues with inconsistent moderation is that on a main SE site we're dealing with only a few mods (10?) per site, while every chatroom has hundreds of mods with powers in it. And these mods come from very different communities - for example, an Academia mod will likely have very different ideas on "allowable fun" compared to a Science Fiction & Fantasy mod. I'm not sure it's even possible to standardise across such a diverse group. (There's also the aspect of chatrooms being moderated by people the users had no control over the election of.)
    – Bob
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:52

How do we deal with new people coming into a developed chatroom with a culture?

Similar to Catija's answer, new users can often join a chatroom and become confused due to the culture that has been developed there. This can cause many problems for the new users and those who have been around for a while. Some problems could be:

  • Confusion between what is acceptable

  • New users posting messages that don't "fit" the culture

  • Familiar users posting messages based on the culture of the room, confusing the newer users

  • Familiar users getting frustrated on the new users' inability to comprehend the new culture

  • Or vice versa, where new users are being frustrated by the culture of the room

  • etc.

This seems kind of like what to do with newcomers, treat them nicely or the hard way and stuff like that but this is a big issue. Lots of times new users get their chat privileges, join a chatroom, and become totally surprised about how everything works in that room. What gets even more frustrating is adapting to each and every developed chatroom. So how exactly to we treat and deal with new users that join a developed chatroom with a culture they're unfamiliar with?

  • 1
    Be welcoming. Whenever a new user comes into the room, at least one of the established users should put on a lab coat, say "Welcome to the world of tomorrow!", and make the effort to explain things to the new user and help them find their feet in the room. Jun 16, 2016 at 0:00
  • @randal'thor We tried that (with a chatbot). It got the chatbot suspended (temporarily) with the threat to ban all chatbots network-wide because it "annoyed" users (amongst other things, but that was a major reason). I don't see how someone manually doing so is that much better. As far as SE corp is concerned, your suggestion is apparently a bannable offence.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 10:02
  • 1
    @Bob Hmm. Weird. Being welcoming to new users is never a problem; I assume the issue there was that it was done by a bot? Something to discuss at the town hall event! Jun 16, 2016 at 10:54
  • 2
    @randal'thor Just refreshed my memory and it was about special rules for it being the "general" chatroom for a site. Apparently you're otherwise allowed to do it. Personally, I don't agree with that decision at all, nor do I see a meaningful distinction for a "general" room... but that's apparently the decision laid down by SE. So: yea, you can welcome people all you want unless you happen to be in an actually active room.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 11:38
  • @Bob Curiouser and curiouser. Mos Eisley is the general chatroom for the SFF site, and very active, and there's never been any problem with welcoming new users there - quite the opposite, in fact. Jun 16, 2016 at 11:40
  • @randal'thor I doubt they'd actually tell you not to, because apparently there's some difference between users and bots doing it. Heck, if anything users are more likely to repeat the message to someone who's been there but they haven't noticed before. On the other hand, users are less likely to welcome someone before they speak (person joining the room isn't as obvious). But this isn't the best place to have this discussion, especially since there's no one here to argue the other perspective.
    – Bob
    Jun 16, 2016 at 11:43
  • If we had some indicator of a new user's first time to chat, we could more easily welcome them specifically. Say, if they have < 50 messages in a given room, their avatar in the current user list has some border or icon.
    – user287266
    Jun 20, 2016 at 16:04

Is flag handling by 10k+ users part of the “room culture” solution or part of the problem?

The only aspect of “room culture” that I see as a problem is the part that reinforces and promotes behaviours that SE as a whole is currently trying to eliminate from chat. There is a momentum to resist any reforms around acceptable behaviour and how chat is moderated. Unfortunately, given community self-moderation principles, this introduces a rift and conflict into the very moderation we're attempting to use to enact these reforms.

I've started moderating chat more in the past few months, and something I see over and over again is users reacting to a message flag as if it's a weapon being used in conflicts between room regulars, or a weapon in an attack from “outsiders”. This starts with a 10k+ user objecting to the flag that they can see (sometimes even attempting to shame the unknown flagger into owning up to it), and other users jumping on the bandwagon of flag-shaming. The idea that flagging is often invalid seems to be, if not a majority view, a very loud minority view that is disproportionately represented in actual messages posted, and hence in room cultures across many rooms. I've also seen mods' handling of flags deemed invalid merely because the room's high-rep regulars would have handled it the opposite way if that darn mod hadn't dropped in to interfere, which leads to the paradoxical assertion (and room culture belief) that mods should not be moderating chat.

Normally I'd say that distributing flag-handling to high-rep users is a good way to balance the workload. But currently the network is trying to turn around the momentum that chat has as the place where Be Nice doesn't apply, because “room culture.” During a time like this, the chat body-politic seems to contain more user who are vocally opposed to reforms than users who vocally support them. And these users have flag-handling powers.

Moderating chat often feels like telling the tide to stop coming in.

In this period of transition, are the very users whose behaviours we're hoping to redirect into more productive cultural customs the people who should be handling flags?

Is a temporary moratorium on 10k+ flag handling a good idea? Is there some other adjustment to chat flagging possible that would give staff and moderators the ability to better promote acceptable behaviour/content policies? The ability to review recent flags is a great new tool to have, but it's still limited: reviewing the recent flags to find badly-handled flags (and then do what?) seems like shutting the barn door after the horses have already left.

As a point of data, we have 500+ chat moderators and the record of recently flagged messages seems to show that we're getting fewer than a half-dozen a day on average, with the rare peak around 10 a day. It would seem that we have few enough flags that it would be feasible for only moderators to handle chat flags at the moment. Average flag handling time currently appears to be a matter of fractions of a second, and I don't think slowing that down by having fewer handlers will hurt, and may improve flag handling.

  • You're saying that 10k users are inconsistent (and I agree). But you're also assuming mods are consistent. I've seen wildly varying behaviour: for the same (type of) flag, I've seen some mods deem it valid, some invalid, and even seen one mod come in and delete a few pages of messages (mostly unrelated! and for "not discussing the room topic", an action and reasoning other diamond mods in the room objected to!). It seems like a bigger problem than merely disabling 10k powers can fix. Yes, there are 500+ mods - how do you ensure consistency across so many?
    – Bob
    Jun 21, 2016 at 2:09
  • @Bob Mods are a much smaller mob to attempt to point in the right direction than all our 10k+ users, at least. :) Unless we're going to give up entirely on improving chat moderation, pointing people with flag handling powers in the right direction has to be done at some point. That would be easier with fewer people to coordinate. Also: mods are highly motivated to make chat moderation suck less! We have much more motivation to get on board with reforms and be pointed in the right/same direction. Jun 21, 2016 at 2:48

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