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This is, of course, a response to [gestures broadly at everything].

One recurring theme in the discussions about these issues, reflected even in the headline of the article in the Register, is that the main incidents being discussed occurred in private and cannot be publicized without breaking Stack Exchange policy. This has led to conflicting accounts from different parties who were able to witness them.

And, prior to Monica Cellio's dismissal, Aza's resignation post refers somewhat obliquely (in my opinion) to private conversations and actions leading to her resignation. In a comment, she wrote,

Unfortunately I don't think I can be much clearer without posting message logs.

What I would like to know is, do the benefits of having separate communal areas for moderators, particularly the Teacher's Lounge, outweigh the lack of transparency entailed in this privacy?

This has been discussed a little before, and I found the concerns in this answer from 2012 rather prescient. But I have not seen an existing discussion of why the Teacher's Lounge and other private areas for moderators exist.

I do understand that moderation requires dealing with sensitive material, and that moderators may wish to discuss sensitive issues with each other prior to taking action in some cases.

But it seems to me that there is a degree to which moderators form a separate, private sub-community, one where, apparently, quite a bit of drama is hidden from the public eye. I am not sure I see the advantage of this, and I don't see why it is a necessary aspect of moderation. For instance, having a public channel where only moderators can post would still provide a way for moderation decisions to be discussed without non-mod interference, but it would automatically increase transparency of the moderator community.

Even having a separate private channel for discussing things that, for one reason or another, must be private, in addition to a public moderator "lounge" channel for general discussion, seems like it would facilitate keeping sensitive information private while giving interested members of the community the ability to see how the moderator community operates and behaves.

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    I for one like that moderators have a resource that they can reach out to when faced with difficult decisions. Rather than stranding them on an island and forcing them to make choices on their own when faced with decisions where they can't bring up the details with the community out of respect for the individuals involved. – AGirlHasNoName Oct 4 at 22:32
  • @bruglesco That makes sense, but couldn't that be done just by messaging other moderators privately? Or, for a fancier solution, having chat room with a way to obscure links & names with some kind of redaction tool that would show redacted content to other mods but not users? – Kyle Strand Oct 4 at 22:34
  • ...or, as in my last paragraph, having two channels, one for sensitive information, and one without sensitive information? – Kyle Strand Oct 4 at 22:35
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    @KyleStrand If you make two channels, what will happen is that mods will only speak in the sensitive information one, to reduce the chance of accidents that leak sensitive information. I know I would. – Wayne Conrad Oct 4 at 22:38
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    A place for the people who control a public square to communicate privately is Very useful for actually getting things done. I believe it is necessary for any such public place that has a decent amount of traffic/participation. Without such a place, it would be very difficult to respect the privacy of the people you support while discussing future (and past) actions/policies. – Kevin B Oct 4 at 22:38
  • They are a sub community. – Trilarion Oct 5 at 9:11
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    As an ex-diamond bearer let me simply state that having both a per site mod chatroom as well as Teacher's lounge makes for a much, much smoother running of all the sites. For me over 95% of my between-the-mods communication took place in the smaller chatroom, but that reflects the fact that I was/am really active only on a single site. Both those chatrooms are a fantastic resource. And what is said there (particularly in the smaller one) absolutely should stay there. When you do janitorial work in a sewer, you need to unwind occasionally. The comments blurted out are not for all eyes. – Jyrki Lahtonen Oct 5 at 16:47
  • @Trilarion exactly; why? – Kyle Strand Oct 6 at 23:49
  • @JyrkiLahtonen Doesn't the existence of private per-site rooms make the privacy of the Teacher's Lounge less strictly necessary? – Kyle Strand Oct 6 at 23:50
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    @KyleStrand Depends. I probably could have managed without TL, but the mods of smaller sites don't have enough colleagues. Also, occasionally we need to ask for opinions of mods of another specific site: when contemplating migration, or discussing an intersite problem user. For mods active on many sites TL is surely more useful than it ever was for me. – Jyrki Lahtonen Oct 7 at 4:17
  • @KyleStrand Because of their office. They do special things you and me are not doing and have special needs to discuss things confidentially and to exchange with other mods. Anyway you could not forbid it, they could just open a private discord channel or something similar. There is nothing bad inherently in sub communities. – Trilarion Oct 7 at 8:20
  • @Trilarion I'm not asking why there's any privacy for mods. The end of my question even mentions having separate public and private channels. – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 13:23
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It's the same reason that your parents would shoo you out of the house or go to their bedroom when they needed to discuss something of gravitas, or the same reason that one-on-one meetings with your direct supervisor are done behind closed doors.

There's no reason to expect that any communications done by moderators should ever be public until it's ready to become public. It would give the moderation team a chance to refine certain messages or define policies amongst themselves before trying to communicate that out to their communities.

Additionally, the notion of it shields us from much of the drama that takes place in there. The only reason this one bubbled to the top was due to it being, quite literally, such a earth shattering event that we couldn't help but pay attention to it.

The stark reality is that moderators are and moderation is separate from the day-to-day notions of a community. They have to deal with a lot of sensitive, in-context stuff on a regular basis, and being able to lean on the experience or guidance (or sometimes another warm body to help in the trenches) of other fellow moderators is something key and valuable.

I think what's being lost here in all of this kerfuffle is that, while people want some kind of justice, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden we should just bust open the doors to allow everyone to pry into conversations that are generally private.

  • I'm not suggesting prohibiting private one-on-one chats with another moderator or a problematic user. I don't understand why the vast majority of moderator-to-moderator discussion is assumed to benefit from privacy. – Kyle Strand Oct 4 at 22:56
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    @KyleStrand: Flip it on its head. What would be gained from making the vast majority of mod-to-mod communications public? Moderators have been the target of abuses ranging from your "everyday" trolling to death threats all over fake Unicorn points, and if someone learns that they've been "discussed" in a moderation capacity, I can only hope for the moderator's sake that they don't have an online presence otherwise. – Makoto Oct 4 at 22:57
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    @KyleStrand: Put another way, you don't get to listen to your CEO's phone calls, and some of those things can be incredibly sensitive. You don't get to listen to HR's dealings when they have to handle a troublesome employee. No reason to expect more privilege when dealing with something somewhat similar in the Network. – Makoto Oct 4 at 22:59
  • I'm sure it's not the same reason that my parents would shoo (me) out of the house ;-) – uhoh Oct 5 at 7:46
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    "t's the same reason that your parents..." wait. Seriously? There are these enlightened species, moderators, who know so much more about everything such that they cannot possibly make their thoughts public, these poor creatures, the users, would just get irritated. This is at least how that sounds to me. – Schrödinger's cat Oct 5 at 16:36
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    @Schrödinger'scat Agreed, sounds incredibly pretentious. – Erik M Oct 5 at 17:27
  • @Makoto The obvious answer is transparency. As I said, I wouldn't expect all moderator communication to be public; I just don't understand why the default for moderator discussions is private. – Kyle Strand Oct 6 at 23:54
  • Consider: do you think there's a benefit to C-SPAN? – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 0:59
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    @KyleStrand: I suppose then you're valuing the transparency aspect of this, which is fine...but is it really worth the cost of the ability for moderators to operate as they need to across the network? I suppose I haven't seen a convincing argument as to why it should default to be public conversation. – Makoto Oct 7 at 4:50
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Rather than speak entirely abstractly, I thought it would be good to give examples of things I've done in the Teachers' Lounge which require such a private backchannel:

  • I've pinged a mod on another site to share some (public) information on what I believed was a possible sockpuppet network on their site (and it turned out my guess was correct). Had this information been made public, the puppeteer would have known what signs of connected accounts we were picking up on.
  • I've had a discussion with another mod about a delicate situation with a user in another chat room we were both in. This discussion - the details of which I cannot disclose - also ended up with me pinging a Community Manager. Again, it was important to maintain privacy for the sake of that user and the other folks in the room.
  • I've vented about particular problems I've encountered in the course of moderating. I think a lot of us have, at one point or another. It can be good to let off steam in a controlled, private setting - again, where details about moderation actions remain unknown to the relevant users - while still being able to talk with mods across the network, who can likely empathize with the frustration. Plus, on ideal days, it has the potential to be a stress-free environment, because I don't have to pretend to be a perfect Stackizen. I'm human - and I feel like in the Teachers' Lounge, I can be more of an imperfect human and less of a perfect moderator.
  • I've talked with mods from other sites about personally identifying information (PII), which can help us figure out if a user is creating new accounts to avoid a suspension or committing voting fraud. While IP addresses usually don't need to be shared between mod teams, simply saying to another mod team, "Yeah, we're seeing a lot of activity out of [insert city here]" can be quite helpful. Having this be public would clearly violate the user's rights of privacy. I would likely be instantly de-modded if I revealed information like that in public - and quite rightly so.

I'd also like to parrot remarks by terdon and Stephie, pointing out that the Teachers' Lounge is a place where mods can . . . well, paradoxically, not be mods for a little while. Everyone's equal, and nobody has to be a leader. That can be both relaxing and conducive to discussion and debate.

To be honest . . . I think mods really do need to be transparent, and I've striven for transparency in the almost four years I've been moderating Stack Exchange. But that transparency shows itself in other ways - commenting on answers I delete (even though usually only the answerer will see it), responding to mod messages asking for clarification (if the user is being constructive and wants to improve their behavior), hanging out in chat so I'm easy to reach if folks need clarification on a decision I made, commenting like crazy if I can, etc.

When it comes to accountability, I very much trust the Community Team to hold myself and other mods accountable for decisions we make. Obviously, relations between mods and the company at the moment are icy, to put it nicely, but these folks work hard and, honestly, do want what's best for the userbase. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen a mod behave extremely poorly and the Team hasn't taken action in response - and maybe I don't need any fingers at all.

I know. It kinda sucks for everyone else to know that there are discussions happening behind closed doors. And, yeah, that maybe slightly fogs the glass through which users can glean what mods are doing. But it also protects the privacy of regular users, protects our privacy to consult with each other when needed, and keeps things running as smoothly as possible.

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    It's also important to point out that the TL is the one place where mods have no special powers. We're used to being arbiters in the sites we mod and it is very healthy to find yourself in an environment where everyone is just as "blue" as you are. Where you can be openly criticized and where your mistakes can be pointed out freely since you have no more privilege than anyone else in the room. The TL helps stop us from letting our petty mod privilege get to our heads. – terdon - stop harming Monica Oct 5 at 18:16
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    @terdon or put it the other way round - where you don’t have to be the role model, referee and guide that knows everything, handles whatever comes up and is still under permanent scrutiny. The diamond / blue user name brings a lot of side effects. – Stephie Oct 5 at 18:21
  • Thank you for answering why more concretely! Since the first two examples are private person-to-person conversations, they don't seem communal in the sense of the Teacher's Lounge. Having a non-public place to "let off steam", though, does seem valuable. I also see how the fourth example requires a shared space for moderators, but it does seem that in the specific example, redaction would be sufficient. – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 0:05
  • @terdon Why does that require privacy, though? I'm not asking why non-mods can't participate in moderator-only spaces, only why they can't read what's written there. – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 0:07
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    @KyleStrand this particular aspect, the being in a space where everyone is a mod, so there's nothing special about you, kind of requires being in a space where everyone is a mod :) The privacy aspect isn't really relevant for this side of things, no. But it's aso nice to know there's a place where I can let my hair down, so to speak, and don't need to be a model citizen all the time. That can only happen in private. There are many users I can think of who would just lurk in the transcript ready to pounce if any mod acted as anything less than an angel. – terdon - stop harming Monica Oct 7 at 0:16
  • @terdon Do you mean other mods, or normal users? If Teacher's Lounge were public, I'd expect there to be a pretty strong convention of "complaints from non mods about behavior in the mod-only channel are generally safe to ignore". – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 0:37
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The Teachers Lounge (“TL”) is first and foremost a place where mods can ask for help doing a task they haven’t been trained for (unless you count the privileges that come with high rep status). There’s also a handful of tools that make mundane tasks easier. Being able to freely ask for advice and guidance is very important to get new mods comfortable in the role and provide experienced mods with feedback. Consider it peer coaching. Now, one could argue that this could happen within the site’s specific mod chat, but sometimes asking a wider circle is better.

Second, often enough a user is, hm, shall we say “difficult”? And may struggle with the concept not just on one, but on multiple sites. A coordinated effort can help to clarify what’s really going on (malice or simply not understood something?) and the mods do come up with better solutions how to either help a struggling user or block malicious activity.

In both examples it is very important that all participants can talk freely and in a protected (aka confidential) environment. Both for the moderators’ and the discussed users’ protection. Obscuring names wouldn’t help much - especially on sites with lower traffic, very few keywords are sufficient to get what post and therefore what poster is discussed.

Occasionally a CM may bring up something or chime it on an ongoing discussion about site policy. Not necessarily because it’s super-secret-let’s-exclude-common-usersirony! stuff, but because the moderators should be able to answer questions that may arise on various sites.

Of course, there’s not permanently something mod-related to discuss although there’s a “mod issues take precedence” rule. And if you have been working with others on a somewhat regular basis, you will chat about mundane things. Water cooler stuff. Moderators are just humans. Although expected to be good role models and to be leading their communities by example. It can be exhausting. Give them a bit of breathing room.

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    Also, the various tools we have at our disposal for handing users who break the rules can sometimes be very complex. However, these tools are secret since knowing how they work would also help people get around them. Therefore, it is very useful to have a place where the tools can be discussed and screenshots of the tools can be shared to help new (and old) mods understand them. – terdon - stop harming Monica Oct 5 at 18:18
  • To be honest, I'm not sure I understand why the tools are secret, either. For instance, I was one of the many people who misused the "not an answer" flag to mean "not an answer to this question" until I saw an answer explaining that the mod interface for handling that flag doesn't show the question. – Kyle Strand Oct 7 at 0:09
  • @KyleStrand ummm, I don’t think that’s the tools terdon was talking about. – Stephie Oct 7 at 6:42

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