I'm spending a lot of time thinking about mods, mod tools, and the critical skills that great mods have in common. Can you tell me about a time a mod did something that struck you as really extraordinary (here or another community), and what was it about it that really amazed you?
Something I admire in a moderator is the willingness to freely and publicly admit to getting something wrong and seeking to correct that wrong and learn from it.
To some it’s a sign of weakness. To me, it’s a sign of someone willing to look at a situation again and do the right thing.
I've seen too many times moderators make a bad call and then be too proud to back down. It looks bad and puts the admin staff in a bad situation where they're honour-bound to back up the moderation staff.
The characteristics that most impress me with mods is calmness, diplomacy and approachability. Some just excel at these qualities.
I think these aren't mod skills per se but maturity the person had mostly developed before becoming mod.
In terms of mod skills per se I'd say integrity in protecting user privacy. But that might be considered a trait as much as a skill.
I remember that in 2019, MANY volunteer (diamond) moderators did something extraordinary. This: the "Dear stackexchange, Inc.,"1-letter. (the "lavender"-letter deserves a honorable mention) I'm sure this has been brought to your attention at some point, but allow me to provide some more comments about what this looked like to a small-time moderator on a low-maintenance site. (without breaching confidentiality, of course)
I believe it is already public knowledge that there was already an internal crisis the moderator community was aware of shortly before the public events. Things were bad. Trust in the company was at a low, moderators were debating and fighting each-other about whether the proposed changes would be bad/good/nessecary/evil/dangerous/etc.
What could they do? They could resign, as too many saw themselves forced to do. They could start work on an alternative website, as some did. They could at least start by moving their planning and discussion forum outside of SE's eyes.
What amazed me is that there was a prominent group of moderators that did none of those things. They2 chose to draft a letter to SE in plain sight, a conspiracy of light, it was called. When SE, Inc. did the unthinkable: unilaterally and almost immediately terminating the moderator abilities of a well-respected moderator for seemingly weak reasons3. When SE, Inc. did worse: provide comments on the matter to the press. When SE, Inc. did terrible PR. When SE, Inc. made promises they didn't keep. The moderators held the fort. (Even among those who suspended their activities made exceptions for extreme circumstances. Also, IIRC, most moderators on "strike" understood that other moderators could not bring themselves to do the same. The word "scab" was only used in jest.).
Why would they do this? How could they possibly have such loyalty? Some sort of Stockholm Syndrome? No. They did this for the same reason doctors do not refuse to treat patients (I hope) even if they strike because their hospital is involved in a terrible scandal. While the doctors' lack of extreme action helps the hospital somewhat, it would hurt their patients more. Something similar was true here. It would be the sites the moderators have long participated and curated that would take the hit, not SE, Inc. Most moderators (including me) did little of "protest action", because their allegiance to their community was more important than the terrible things SE, Inc. did.
For some moderators, there was something else at stake: the original vision of SE as a shared library of knowledge. To some, these events where the final nail in the coffin that indicated SE, Inc. was no longer deemed fit to carry out their original vision. Hence, they resigned as moderator and/or left, seeking to work on the vision elsewhere.
What can we learn from this? I think one thing has become clear. The moderator community has no allegiance towards SE, Inc. Yes, we are here because SE allows it, but we do not moderate because they demand it. The moderator community will cooperate with SE when this benefits their sites or the vision they wish to achieve on SE. SE Inc., may hold the keys to the kingdom, but the moderator community will not obey them, should they prove to be more of an obstacle than an ally.
That said, I personally feel SE has become more of an ally of the mission to create a shared library of knowledge, as of late. Time will tell whether it lasts. Or at least, for me. For you, Mr. community VP, it should be an important part of your job to make it last...
1: As noted in the letter: "When referring to the company in this letter, we've used the name "Stack Exchange". We're aware that the name that's in use is Stack Overflow; we use Stack Exchange because we feel it better represents all of us across the network." I shall follow them in this post.
2: I didn't join in the writing. All that stuff was way above my pay-grade back then, so I sat down and watched. I did sign the letter, though, as many others did. While only a few moderators wrote the letter, many more supported the initiative seriously. (I think 2 other moderators (of which none were the drafters) asked me to sign the letter (apparently unaware that I already have done so, at the time)). Heck, I think the fact that we ended up with 2 letters goes to show how serious the moderator community at large took the letters.
3: I'm aware of the rumors that there's more going on. This I can neither confirm nor deny, except that there's always more going on. The question is whether it is worse than the bit we know about, which I cannot declare knowledge about.
The most extraordinary moderators I've encountered didn't do one thing so amazing that it stuck in my memory as "that's how a great moderator moderates". Moderation is an endurance sport. Exceptional moderators are the ones who we tend to forget are moderators until they show up with just the right amount of intervention to get things back on track. They don't do everything perfectly all the time, but they quickly correct their mistakes.
The thing I've noticed about those moderators is that they somehow balance being personally deeply invested in the community and having enough emotional distance that it seems like they don't let issues they need to resolve become personal. Longtime members of the community can predict how an exceptional mod is going to react to a situation. We know their personal opinions but we also know that they give equal (or maybe more) weight to the opinions of the community.
I think a great mod needs to be able to improvise, make decisions and be able to explain those.
In 'day-to-day' moderating here, making decisions will be almost routine, as you'll have rules and guidelines that clearly apply to these situations. On SE, this will mean things like deleting spam and destroying the spammers account, deleting socks and suspending the master, and cleaning up selfies and off-topic questions for MSE specifically. All very 'simple', not much improvisation or elaborate decision making processes involved.
There's a different kind of decision-making though, where some moderators really shine. And that's in handling 'non-standard' user misbehavior. The kind that isn't explicitly forbidden anywhere, but which also isn't the kind of behavior the rules want to encourage. Or situations that have never happened before or have such a small chance of happening, that there aren't any rules for how to handle it.
The moderators I look up to most (both on SE and off), are the ones that can improvise and make decisions in such situations, instead of panicking and standing idly by, hoping the problem will go away on its own or letting their community struggle while it festers. They're also the ones that can explain those decisions in a way that users will be able to understand why the decision was made the way it was made (just understand, not necessarily agree though the very best manage the latter more often than the former).
I'm going to add something to this answer: Last week, I joined a webinar on "moral leadership". At about 29 minutes into that video, the panellists start discussing what moral leadership means to them. Quite a few of the points raised in that talk can be seen in several answers to this question here as well, which makes me thing those two words may actually 'summarize' all that makes a great mod.
A few things that were mentioned about moral leadership were that it's about setting examples for others and holding yourself accountable. That it comes with a duty to delegate things to others, while still taking some responsibility when they do the things you delegated 'wrong'. It includes being honest, setting realistic expectations and admitting to your mistakes. It means making decisions and being there if people count on you, not walking away when things get hard. All so people know they can trust you.
I'm not going to transcribe the entire conversation, but maybe some here may find it interesting to listen to it too. I sure did!
The most effective tool in any moderator's toolbox is communication.
The moderators and community managers that I look up to all have one thing in common, and that's effective communication skills.
Moderation, at its core, is about communication.
Any interaction that users have is communication. Even nonverbal actions such as voting or flagging are a means of communication - voting is communicating to other people about the quality of a post, and flagging communicates that there's an issue here.
Moderation relies on the moderators being effective at all kinds of communication. Whether that's sending a mod message and getting the right message across, or de-escalating a chat flareup, or working through policy changes on meta, those are all different types of communication.
The most effective mods, in my experience, have all those different types of communication down pat, and more. Much like Journeyman Geek mentioned, being able to use soft influence instead of relying on tools is the best way to go about things... but to get to that point, you need to connect with your community. Are you building trust? Are you present? Are people comfortable reaching out to you with an issue?
I consider it to be a success if I've reached a point where people can reach out individually to me with an issue, or to ask for an explanation... because it means I've established myself as a trustworthy person, who's able and willing to help out, and I don't bite.
Handling flags is good, but at the end of the day, the moderators who stand out are those who are communicating with every aspect of the community and doing it well.
This is a bit off the beaten path, but to be honest, the best moderators I've worked with haven't necessarily been the most graceful (grace is itself mostly a performance). They've been the most mindful of the community's state of being, and of the lines the community draws with its values.
Underlying the politics, the writing, the precision, you name it, that any good moderator has, is a crystal clear intuitive sense for the state a community is in. Who is present? What are our values, and who do they exclude? How does our community decide who we listen to, and is that process just? Do we treat our members equitably - including the members we may have pushed away by accident? Does that include the members who don't, or no longer, speak? When we ask questions inside the community, how do we make sure folks who don't currently feel welcome to contribute can still be heard, and have their relevant interests spoken to?
These questions are more complex and fraught than the day to day rumble of moderation. They require longer-term vision than just keeping the place running. All of these questions, one way or another, have answers, whether folks are spending time thinking about it or no. The best folks I've worked with had an eye for these emerging issues long before they occurred, and regularly took simple, measured actions to keep those issues in check and arrest a growing pattern before it splintered or fractured the community.
I've been in many communities where these questions went ignored. Most often, I think folks don't realize they even need to be paying attention. These communities are like a pencil, whittled down to a finer and finer point, until there is no more left to whittle away. Communities are often -- not naturally, I think, but often -- self-centered. (Many of our network communities are, too, largely by accident. I don't say this to cast blame. I'm empathetic to the difficulty, and in my opinion it's an area for future work.) But by focusing only on the people who are present, the people who speak most, the people who have an easier time making themselves heard, communities like these often slowly attrite members, one by one, until they are left with an inert and wayward core who don't understand how they ended up in this position.
The best moderators I've worked with are not just a check on this process, but understand how to guide a community that is continuously mindful of those outside its vocal circles, and knows how to listen to them anyway. The best moderators I've worked with understand how to guide, cultivate, and lead the community towards better shared values.
tell me about a time a mod did something that struck you as really extraordinary
The most extraordinary thing I've seen a mod do was something I didn't see at all.
There was a user who had been behaving on chat in a tactless way which annoyed me and a few other users. This included repeated attempts to make direct contact/insert themselves into conversations with certain users. I, and many others, had attempted to point out to this user the problems, and offer ways to improve. These attempts didn't seem to be doing anything; the behavior continued even after I'd ignored the user on SE chat and blocked them on a related Discord server.
At my wit's end, I contacted a mod privately, laid out the situation, and asked them to convey a message to the user in question ("Stop", mostly). Soon after I got a confirmation that the mod was looking into it, and shortly after that the behavior stopped.
I never saw what exactly the mod did. I didn't need to. To me, this is my story of seeing a mod act as a human exception handler. I trusted the mod to be able to talk kindly to the user and somehow, finally, explain that the behavior needed to stop. They were in that moment, and they continue to be, an extraordinary mod.
I learnt to moderate on a very small community - strangely, a VA based battletech community, that accidentally picked up a Singaporean chapter. Warning, many Sci Fi quotes follow.
While both MSE and Super User are significantly bigger than that site was, many of the philosophies I picked up there are still in play here, and while earning the respect of a very small community is different, the real power an effective moderator has is influence built by trust. There are certainly times where it is insufficient - where one needs a little more than a polite request - but even then, being a trusted moderator means you can do this and know your community has your back. It's less about individual events as much as how and what one does over the long term.
An effective moderator builds, and banks that trust - cause there are times when one needs to spend that trust, and top it up for the future.
There are certainly moments which, to quote G'kar from Babylon 5:
No moral ambiguity, no hopeless battle against ancient and overwhelming forces! They were the bad guys, as you say, and we were the good guys. And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the floor.
No one's particularly going to weep for a particularly recalcitrant troll, or a spammer (though one sometimes wonder, what sorta sad life means making life miserable for others).
A lot of the times though - in the worst of situations that might not be as clear. One of the other questions used terms of conflict. In perspective - it's rather a bunch of people trying to do what they feel is right. Often things in contradiction with each other. Sometimes it's useful to have perspective, and to try to understand the point of view of people, even ones you feel are patently wrong, is an essential skill in community work.
I also feel a sense of presence - to be seen in and around the communities one works with is remarkably useful. From the battletech/mechwarrior universe
“ Where nature's laws threatened the weary;
When food, water, even air itself ran low,
It took just a command, a word, a smile,
From the General to light the way.
He was comfort, stern courage, compassion,
To our sires as he led them from the fires
That grew and fed on those they left behind.
-- The Remembrance, Passage 2, Verse 14, Lines 18-24
Yeah, I know, clanners are munchy. But in the middle of a crisis - when things get tough, people are going to remember both who was around, fighting the fires, keeping folks calm, and hopefully safe and who wasn't. I guess I picked it up from both the mods and CMs who were around when I was an SE newbie (and certainly from the smaller communities) that knowing someone's around, and listening and looking at a problem is the single most valuable thing a mod can do. It's emotional labour - it's something that needs time and energy (and I cheat by popping in on my phone every so often :D) - but folks who know/expect there to be help at hand are likely to feel more secure.
And well, you find it really hard to walk away when your community needs you. It's not about the 'place' or even who 'runs it' - it's about the people. You make difficult decisions sometimes - but you also own those decisions, deal with the fall out and are willing to re-examine them.
This is a lots of words to say - a good moderator understands the mechanics. They keep the flag queue clean, help out with reviews as needed, and keep an eye on meta.
To go beyond that though - 'greatness' is about empathy and care for your community. The humility to listen and understand the problems the folks around you face - and sometimes not just related to the site. You're part of the furniture - but also actively observing problems and solving them, and reaching out to folks as needed. You use 'moral suasion' and your own personal influence and banked goodwill to convince your community to do the right thing.
I want to second what Mithical said about communication and expand on that a bit. Outside of my work as a Community Manager I used to serve as a volunteer moderator on a couple of different platforms. I think the often unsung hero in communication is listening.
It's important to observe and listen to your community members. This goes for larger general conversations in chat or on Meta sites, but also for one-on-one messages or DMs you receive. You may not always agree with what is being said or what someone's POV is, but if you take the time to really listen you can hopefully meet most people at a place of empathy. I find that listening is what really leads to productive conversations.
A great moderator is a janitor that does the (daily) tasks of reviewing consistently. Second, they are transparent about their decision-making and third, willing to listen and open for their peers to hold them accountable for their actions. A great moderator makes mistakes, and they set out to resolve them with the community's help.
I have seen both moderators that think their mistakes are something they don't need to address and moderators who are competent and willing to address them publicly and ask for a way forward because they don't know. The latter is what positively amazed me, and the former is what negatively amazed me in a manner that even three years later, that event is clearly on my mind.
Most of the skills that make a great moderator are mundane and often barely noticeable because their job happens quietly in the back avenue away from the action.
Oddly enough, I perceive moderators to a degree how I feel about brand logos. Good ones are there, reliable, comfortable, present in the background, and you don't pay much attention to them - bad ones stick out as a risk for the entire site.
I want to say something about the mods at Stack Overflow specifically...
Their efficiency really amazes me! (I'm only talking about default comment flags, as they're the vast majority of my flags) From the several communities that I've been flagging comments at, handling them can take up to several weeks.
Now don't get me wrong, I know that handling comment flags properly isn't the easiest task; it takes patience and good judgement, which just contributes to my amazement at the work of SO mods! It always has me wondering: How do they do it? SO is such a large site, and I'm sure there's a whole lot of users flagging comments constantly.
I don't have a particular example in mind, but any time I notice a moderator action that uses a light touch and effectively applies the Theory of Moderation, specifically
Your goal is to guide the community with gentle — but firm — intervention. Respect your fellow community members at all times; demonstrate fairness and impartiality in your actions.
I consider that moderation action a triumph of the moderation system.
When a moderator takes an abrupt action that goes against that grain (e.g. arriving and immediately applying a very hard/extreme stance), I notice it and tend to remember better, and consider it an abject failure of said system.
Participation in the per-site meta
I know this kind of falls under the communication mentioned in other posts, but I felt like it was important to emphasize how important meta is. Meta is where the community and members of the community
- Learn how to ask better questions
- Figures out what makes a good question for their community (and it's not just young sites that do this, RPG changed its rules recently, and quite a few sites recently changed their policies on accepted answers and pinning.)
- decide what to do with tags
- Ask about moderator decisions
And so much more. Most of the great moderators I've interacted with use Meta, and ask, answer, and act upon the posts there in a nice and productive way.
The invisible mods
Some posts have hinted that great moderation activity can be rather subtle. However, I think it is worth pointing out that there are a great number of excellent moderator actions that are basically seen by none unless one knows where to look, yet useful to many.
There is a certain type of mod who almost exclusively behaves this way, and I can tell you quite a bit about it, because this is the type of moderator I try to emulate somewhat. A role model, perhaps. While their actions are often unknown, I have learned some of what I believe to be their methods (I mean, this stuff is hard to reverse engineer, and the effectiveness may depend on unknown personal factors. Maybe this is just a fairy-tale I tell myself. Even if this is just a story, I think it's a good story):
Be patient, and watch. Look before you leap. If you are unsure about whether an action is good, postpone it, ask a co-mod for their opinion. Prefer doing nothing over doing something wrong, unless the matter is urgent. Recently, I thought I had a nice proposal. I showed it to my co-mods, and one of them immediately convinced me that it was a bad idea. So I did nothing. And it was the best thing I could have done. Such are the ways of the silent moderator (there is this joke that the sophisticated person thinks and then says something, the average person says something and then thinks, while the unsophisticated person says something. However, it takes greater sophistication still to think and then say nothing).
Speaking of silence, it is always good to practice the virtue of silence: to be silent if discussing something can realistically only make matters worse. This one is very difficult, and I have failed it often. (Exercise for the reader: I'm I failing it right now? If so, please let me know why!) Some argue that this is not a virtue at all, and that it is always better to be transparent, no matter the consequences. (I disagree, but this is getting off-topic) As for me, I try. I have a rather large and growing text file with many opinions and essays that will remain unpublished indefinitely, as this is for the best.
Only speak when what you have to say is both true and important, and if you do, try to do so as kind as possible. (This is a variant of the Victorian Sufi Buddha-comment policy.) It is always good to think of the purpose of your post. Simply stating the facts is often to not very useful, giving a recommendation (the sternness would depend on the situation) in addition is often most helpful. Furthermore, repeating essentially the same thing can lead to a pile-on effect. It's usually better to either say something completely new, or just comment on/edit the existing work.
A corollary of some of these points worth pointing out explicitly is that the subtle moderator has a long learning curve where they will slowly learn how stuff works, how other people think stuff works, what to say, and how to say it. Being silent helps here, because one doesn't have to fear the consequences of mistakes. But not everything can be learned from a safe distance. This means the learning process at times produces visible mistakes. The best thing to do is to accept and learn from them, as noted by Snow. Hail the absent mod, hiding the terror and (at times their own) error! Who toils and trains in secret! (Hiding their own error may sound bad; I actually mean cleaning up the mess, but I couldn't get that to be poetic.)
As above, so below. I try to act on the ideal I'm aspiring to, independent of whether it exists. For a long time, I've tried to limit my posting on Meta.SE to factual, practical issues. Only recently, I considered answering some of the community-vp-questions, because I thought I had something useful to say that hasn't been said yet, and knew how I would say it. Reception of the first one has been... mixed, but I'm not here for a popularity contest. It's more important that I've been able to write something I still stand by now, perhaps would slightly change based on what I know now.
A related thought: some people think they are too much of an introvert to become a moderator. Well, that depends. Most of the things above require neither introversion or extroversion, mainly some interpersonal skills and training (btw, becoming a moderator is an excellent opportunity to improve your interpersonal skills, especially if you're an introvert)
Let me call out explicitly the valiant work against the sock-puppet armies, spammers, recurring trolls, vote fraudsters and other hidden villains. I'm but a novice in this mostly invisible war, and I greatly respect the masters that can find massive hidden voting rings, detect ban evaders, and evil automaters. I guess the SmokeDetector project and related tools deserve a mention as well, as this is an often-used tool. Of course, I cannot go much in specifics here, but trust me that while the evildoers are plentiful and some quite sophisticated, the moderator community has quite some exceptional people in their ranks. And that's before I've mentioned the power tools that are not even available to moderators... It's an endless defensive battle, but I think I'm on the winning side.
Enough talk. Now, a toast!
To the unsung heroes! To the silent janitors! To the invisible mods!
... Still there? Very well then, I think I still have time for an encore. Join me in a parody of this song:
Mods! -- GoldHammer
Deep the networks' servers
An ancient war still burns
A moderator message is sent and a suspension starts
These are the tools of the mods, fighting the trolling horde
A secret battle for eternity
Agile and powerful, keepers of chaos
Closing the questions, with only one vote
Reaching consensus, in the TL
Guardians of SE
Far in the past they've been elected
Into the future they see
The Smoke Detector reveals the spammer to me
They see the coming battle
Across all of SE
Where evil and good collide in a controversial HNQ
Agile and powerful, keepers of chaos
Closing the questions, with only one vote
Reaching consensus, in the TL
Guardians of SE
Agile and powerful, keepers of chaos
Closing the questions, with only one vote
Reaching consensus, in the TL
Guar-di-ans of SE-E
What I've observed is frequent low-level and occasional much more extreme abuse:
Jitendra Singh commented on the question above:
Can't understand the reason of down-vote.
Because there are many young, inexperienced people from many different backgrounds who read the word "MODERATOR" and immediately see red, make snarky comments, are rude and generally abusive to mods (and curators alike) and just by reflex downvote without thought.
So I admire them for staying in the job during the learning curve part of the process, enduring the "challenging behavior" until they grow the necessary thick-skin needed for the job.
Aaand, for still retaining the sense and sensitivity to deal with everything with tact and patience. (Why I'm still a member of Worldbuilding after a few initial "misunderstandings" and why I'll never be a moderator most likely.)