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N.B.: I write this post with fear and trembling: I write because I believe it is necessary that someone do so.

We believe deeply in community moderation. That’s why we appoint Pro Tempore Moderators and, ideally, democratically elected community moderators for every site in our network. But what do community moderators do? The short answer is, as little as possible!

(From A theory of moderation)

Because Stack Exchange adheres to community moderation, every user, whether or not (s)he has a diamond beside his/her name has the opportunity to gain privileges that allow him/her to moderate whatever site (s)he is on. The goal is that the moderators simply be something like police who step in when immediate action is necessary or in places where the available privileges for high-ranking users simply don't allow the necessary action.

Unfortunately... that's not always how it happens.

Sadly, I've seen a few cases recently (which I will not make direct reference to), in which a moderator has bordered on acting as an elected legislative official, rather than an elected judicial official. My goal is not to call out any particular moderator(s), it is simply to establish a guideline and a reminder.

Moderators are policemen. Our job is to enforce the law, not to define it. If a change in the law is necessary, the community must have their voice - even if it is a moderator who proposes the change. In some cases, it will be up to community managers to implement a change...

..but it's not up to the moderators!

Friends, we are not legislators. If the community complains about the way we are handling flags, our job is not to redefine what the flags are supposed to do; our job is (I believe) to follow a few guidelines:

  • Take a serious look at what they're saying. Chew on it for a few days if necessary, but don't treat the community lightly.

  • Discuss with fellow moderators. The strength of the moderator team lies in its unity. If your fellow moderators are not in agreement with you, you have two choices:

    1. Step down. (I do not say that tritely; I mean it. You may simply not be able to stand with the moderator team: in which case respectfully step down.)
    2. Change your way of acting. Obviously, this is the more ideal of the two options.
  • If the fellow moderators are in agreement with your way of handling things, you have a few things you should do:

    1. Gauge the necessity of action. Is this just one user complaining? Perhaps it's someone who doesn't understand the system very well.
    2. Discuss it in the site's main chat. I realise this works better on some sites than others, but at some point when a large percentage of the community's moderators are available, take the time to discuss it in chat. If necessary, organize a chat event.
    3. If you still cannot come to a consensus between the moderators and the community, try discussing it with other moderators from other sites. Perhaps your behaviours are actually not in conformity with SE moderation.
    4. As a team, write up a meta post, quoting from official SE documents to show how your theory of moderation lines up with the way that SE is supposed to work.
  • Always adhere to the Be Nice Policy!

  • 3
    What? Who closed your post? – Martin James Feb 28 '17 at 17:00
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    'Sadly, I've seen a few cases recently (which I will not make direct reference to)' - OK ,so no evidence, it never happened. – Martin James Feb 28 '17 at 17:01
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    @MartinJames Since the OP is a moderator (on Internet of Things) themselves, this is not your run-of-the-mill "Boo-hoo, a mod did something I didn't like" post. – Daniel Fischer Feb 28 '17 at 17:05
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    Actually, I think the mods do a reasonable job of both policing and policy. For instance, they have resisted the continual agitprop for allowing opinionated questions. – Martin James Feb 28 '17 at 17:05
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    @DanielFischer a moderator for DDoSing webcams? :) – Martin James Feb 28 '17 at 17:06
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    @MartinJames Well, that's sure something that needs to be done in moderation, isn't it? – Daniel Fischer Feb 28 '17 at 17:08
  • LOL, just in case, I've turned off my webcam and I'm checking my fridge and toaster every hour. – Martin James Feb 28 '17 at 17:11
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    moderators are neither politicians nor policemen; we are janitors. – yannis Feb 28 '17 at 17:31
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    ... or step in when the community does have the necessary privileges to do the right thing, but things went wrong anyway. – MetaEd Feb 28 '17 at 17:31
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    If you cannot agree on an action, and are not absolutely sure you are right, you can always defer to others. Deferring action to other mods is always a good choice when you are unsure. – Won't Feb 28 '17 at 19:50
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    Wait... if I'm a policeman, where's my nightstick? And why is my mod hat a baseball cap? – BoltClock's a Unicorn Mar 1 '17 at 3:44
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    You must be one of those plainclothes officers, @BoltClock. You're on the front line, blending in down on the street with the repdealers and the answerjackers. – Josh Caswell Mar 1 '17 at 12:49
  • Police officers, maybe? Some of us aren't men. – Cascabel Mar 16 '17 at 3:49
  • @Jefromi, good point, lol. I meant no harm by being gender specific. I must confess, in my area, "policeman" is rather general; people would even go to the point of saying, "She is a policeman." – anonymous2 Mar 16 '17 at 11:48
34

I really like something you opened up with:

If a change in the law is necessary, the community must have their voice - even if it is a moderator who proposes the change.

Just a few days ago, I wrote on Hinduism SE's meta about that very theme. You can see that, for the most part, I agree with what you're saying.

The only slight difference between us is the policemen/politicians thing. I love a good analogy in my writing, and I think my history on meta backs this up, but I've never quite understood the need to equate Stack Exchange moderator-hood with another job. Law-related professions (police officers, sheriffs, judges) are, understandably, common choices. So is government, with people likening mods to mayors or chiefs in addition to legislators. "Janitor" comes up quite frequently in moderator elections, and seems to be favored by many of the existing mods. I've also seen sentry and greeter, and—stretching the metaphor a bit—exception handlers, signposts and first lines of defense.

My point with all this is that moderators are just that: moderators. No more, no less. They're not cops, even though they are entrusted with special powers. They're not janitors, even though they clean up the trash most people don't want to deal with (and often never have to see, or see much less of). They're not governors, even though they are expected to be leaders and are chosen by election on large enough sites.

Thinking about them as if they are any of these other things is a little dangerous, because it implicitly makes some parts of the moderator job seem more valid and other parts less so. It also makes it harder to discuss the job with others; if one person thinks of mods as janitors and another thinks of mods as mayors, they're going to have a hard time talking. We don't treat constables the same way we treat MPs, or mayors the same way we treat janitors.

It's possible that I've gotten away from the topic you were originally talking about. You intentionally stayed away from citing specific situations, and that's fine, but it left me making a more generic point of my own. All I'd add here is that we do trust mods to, to a degree make judgement calls in tough cases. These are, of course, subject to review by other mods, the community, and CMs. As I said at the beginning, I mostly agree with your points, and I mean it. I didn't write a lot about that because there's not much to say when you agree with someone. I'd just be careful about assigning too much of one metaphorical role to a mod to the detriment of other functions the person might serve.

14

There have been many cases on Meta.SO where people "wanted a moderator to weigh in", as if we would provide the definitive guidance on a site issue. Our usual reply is that we're just janitors here to clean up the mess.

That said, we are still members of the site we moderate. We care about things in the same way that everyone else does, and we state our opinions about various topics. We do have to be careful, because that diamond does add a little more authority to what we say, but if I feel it would be productive to say something about a topic, I will. I'm not setting policy by doing so, just stating my own opinion.

Moderators being human, there will always be variations in how we handle flags, particularly on tricky situations. My take on it might be different from most of my fellow moderators. I've used both public and private channels for disagreeing with fellow moderators, and they with me, and in general that process has worked well. I still respect all the moderators I've disagreed with, and I hope I've explained my own positions well.

My experience is with Stack Overflow, which is a very different situation from smaller and newer sites. On those sites, moderators can and do take a more active role in shaping the culture of a site. Someone else will have to speak to how well that works, but I haven't seen huge problems with it. Again, the elected moderators there are also users engaged in how the site turns out.

Yes, it's best to discuss things openly before making drastic changes in how a site's moderated, but there will always be person-to-person variances in how we interact with the site. We're not robots following a script, we're people making decisions on what we believe is best for the site.

10

I think that making a blanket statement like this is a...not good thing.

It partly depends on the community. On some communities, the people who are elected to be moderators may be the people who are the community leaders. In these cases, the people who see and propose solutions to problems faced by the community are the same people that enforce those solutions. You have a catch-22. People support the individuals as community leaders, elect them to moderator positions, and then others treat them differently on their Meta posts because they have a diamond.

The other thing is that the SE policies aren't written for every community. Sometimes, things don't work. Many times, it seems like the blog posts and guidance is made for communities of Stack Overflow scale.

People liken moderators to lots of things. Janitors, policemen, legislators. Moderators need to be what the community needs. It could be any or all of these. Or it could be something entirely different. The important thing is that a moderator should serve the community, and what it means to serve is going to be different in different communities.

At the end of the day, moderators need to do what is best for their community, even if that isn't the same as the official guidance.

  • 3
    Especially the older blog posts, when the only community was "of Stack Overflow scale" by definition. – Pops Feb 28 '17 at 17:43
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    @Pops Indeed. I think the difference in scale between SO and the majority of the other sites is an issue in multiple areas, from moderation guidance to how new features are built and rolled out. The team handles it OK, I think. But it's not an easy problem to deal with. Fortunately, we tend to mostly have the same tools at our disposal as users and moderators, so we can help each other with technical usage. Philosophical differences are going to exist, though, and I'm sure that's just the nature of communities. – Thomas Owens Feb 28 '17 at 17:49
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    This was one of the BIG reasons for splitting MSE and MSO... It'd gotten really hard to discuss an awful lot of critical issues, because "what Stack Overflow needs" and "what The Workplace needs" or "what Christianity needs" are so different (for many, many reasons). – Shog9 Feb 28 '17 at 18:59
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As a moderator (on Android Enthusiasts), I'm happy to upvote this question, because it's the principle I try to live by. I don't really understand the reason for this reminder, but it definitely is something you have to keep reminding yourself of, for several reasons.

  1. Except for the initial pro tempore mods on a new site, moderators spend some time as high-rep members of the site's community. They're exactly the people who post on meta and try to set the site's policies, to be the voice of the community. After doing that for a while, it can be a hard habit to break. As a moderator, you need to hold back more, and make sure others in the community have a chance to speak first. With that diamond next to your name, proposing or promoting a policy sounds a lot more like deciding the policy or ending the discussion.

  2. That's even harder in turn because sometimes the rest of the community is slow to take the soap-box. On smaller sites, meta posts about policy questions can go unanswered. Some people expect the answers to those questions to come from moderators. Sometimes it can be hard to judge what the consensus is or whether one exists at all.

  3. Moderators can have long memories, and it's easy to get into the habit of answering questions with "this was discussed once ten years ago, so we've been following that policy". Again, this can have the effect of stifling discussion even if it's time to reopen an old policy question. If you've been deleting one type of answer for years, it can be hard to open your mind to changing that policy: you get stuck in a "but this is what we do" mindset. It's the same as in any organisation: once the rules are written down, it's harder to change them.

  4. The idea that moderators do "as little as possible" is nice when it works, but often doesn't. Many SE sites have long review queues, and moderators have to pull their weight alongside other high-rep users to keep handling those flags. As a moderator, your flag-handling behaviour should be different: it's better to skip controversial flags (e.g. for borderline off-topic questions), to see what the community decides. Even so, you can take a lot of load off the other reviewers by acting on the unambiguous cases, so moderators do a lot.

  5. Moderators do a lot of community-building. Some of that is refereeing and dealing with problem users (exception handling, as the Theory of Moderation calls it), but a lot of it is everyday work. Promoting the site outside, setting up community events, poking people to write better questions and answers, communicating with SE the organisation: these are all things done particularly by the moderators, even when they don't need mod powers. When you can see a policy decision is "clearly" the right thing for the community, such as closing a particular class of questions, it seems easy to just do the right thing with the moderator controls in front of you. It might not even seem like a policy decision at all.

For all these reasons, it's easy to act in a way that looks like or becomes policy-setting, even with the best intentions, so we all need to remember this. Even though the moderators are chosen from the leading members of the community, it is to become the servants of the community.

I think the police is not quite the right analogy, because you don't typically elect a police force from the leading members of the community. It's more like chairing a committee than being a police force. The chair has to be someone respected by all, but not try to be the whole committee himself. The chair has to make sure everyone can speak, but be willing to sum up the conclusion. The chair represents the committee to others, and that means conveying their views without bias. The chair follows the procedures laid down by agreement, but is empowered to do the necessary when someone is out of line or to prevent the meeting being derailed.

This is the ideal we moderators try to live up to, but it's a continuing struggle against being only human.

  • Point 3 doesn't have much to do with moderators specifically. Any experienced site user can make those mistakes. – Rand al'Thor Feb 28 '17 at 22:39
  • @randal'thor That's true. You might generalise to say that policy-following naturally becomes more rigid, and then it becomes policy-setting as the desire for consistency displaces the original motivation. Everyone can fall prey to it; it's just that when moderators do it, it leads to what anonymous2 is describing. – Dan Hulme Mar 1 '17 at 10:12

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