A “Moderator” is a Community Member, Too!

A look at authority in your community.

“They’re just as equally a community member as anyone.” — Ane of /r/GabrielDropout

Here we are in part 3 of this series following Ane, the multiplatform community builder of /r/GabrielDropOut. This time we’ll be looking at the topic of authority—Administrators and Moderators—and how to avoid common “good intentions” which may instead end up harming engagement in your community.

Editor’s Note: This is not a commentary on current events happening around the world nor is it motivated by them. This topic has been in the backlog since I published the interview with Ane on May 24th—linked above. I wrote most of this back then as I struggled to write the abbreviated version you see in that article. Most of the work done since then was only grammar and formatting.

The 3 Pitfalls of Authority

Pitfall — a hidden or not easily recognized danger or difficulty

Ane’s take on the role of “Moderator” is unique. It addresses a lot of the drawbacks you’ll often find in authoritative roles on Discord in general. Let’s first understand some of the common pitfalls when implementing Moderators and other hierarchical authority in communities. They are:

  • Label Identity
  • Moderator Flood / Drought
  • Lack of Separation of Powers (aka: The Noisy Admin)

Pitfall #1: Label Identity

At the center of problems that communities may face is what I call “Label Identity”. In this case, it’s of the label of Moderator as it’s so-often emblazoned on the member list with a hoisted role and color of solidarity to mark all its members. It’s been proven time and time again that people act differently when in the presence of authority, and also when given authority over others. The Moderator position is often implemented in a way befitting the term “authority”. It’s a title, a label that lets other people know that this person has some amount of authority in the community. This alone isn’t a problem—much like how a police officer driving a civilian vehicle wouldn’t cause anybody to immediately slow down on the road. Add some easy-to-recognize colors befitting of a police vehicle—a Moderator with a specific role color in Discord—and you’re now communicating to the world, “Watch out for this person. They have authority over you.”

Note: I use the police officer analogy because it’s a relatable job title. However, it is my view that Moderators should moderate, not police. Their actions should be more like parental figures, guiding the community in the right direction which I will cover in the final part of this series.

Most of us grew up in societies where authority is something to respect and attributed to power and rank. If not governmental authority, parental authority. If not parental authority, authority of our friends as we perceive them more knowledgeable or skilled in certain subjects (“authoritative”).

While the Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment are extreme, they hint at how poorly implemented systems of authority can negatively affect community engagement. Together with the Hawthorne Effect (people behave differently when they feel they’re being watched) you can see why the overabundance and awareness of authority figures can cause community members to withdraw. You can also see how systematically segregating Moderators from the rest of the community can cause both sides to subconsciously view the Moderators as actually being separate from the rest of the community. This may once again lead to perceived difference in status and will amplify some Moderators’ feelings of power over the community.

Having a Moderator role is necessary, people need to know who to reach out to in times of need. Segregating these members from the rest of the community in a way that overtly brings awareness to a difference in rank—such as a role color—is where it can go all wrong. However, it doesn’t stop at just the community members without the role as we’ll see in 2b.

Pitfall #2a: Moderator Flood

With the Hawthorne Effect and Label Identity in mind, let’s now look at “Moderator Flood”. Moderator Flood occurs when many Moderators who all have the same color role join a discussion in chat. A single role color is a common way to implement an authoritative role in Discord, it makes it easy to recognize who has what rank. However, it’s this easy recognition that is the cause of this pitfall.

If you have many Moderators talking in a channel blotting out the Sun with their role color, that alone makes it harder for those without the color to engage. Then, the fact that their role color is a mark of their authority makes the conversation even less accessible. This may not phase some of the long-time members of the community who know the lay of the land, but any new or lurking member will likely feel the Hawthorne Effect.

These members may also experience what I dub “The Adults Are Talking Effect”, where they feel alienated from the conversation because they see it as a discussion between people of higher rank. Some of them may not be able to adjust to this until they get to know the Moderators and Admins on a more personal level. Unfortunately, that is usually going to be too much to ask of someone who is new and looking for the next group of people to comfortably settle in with. The uncomfortable feeling they get at the beginning may be enough of a negative first impression to make them move on to a different community that feels more inviting.

Pitfall #2b: Moderator Drought

Many Moderators are at least subconsciously aware of Label Identity, Moderator Flood, and the other possible negative effect their authoritative presence can have on a conversation. It’s when the Moderators are aware of this that you may experience the inverse of Moderator Flood: Moderator Drought.

“I’ve noticed a lot of servers that have those markings on their moderators, their moderators don’t do a lot of that communicating simply because they don’t want to flood the chat with that color, even though they were previously one of their most active members!” —Ane of /r/GabrielDropout

Moderator Drought is when a Moderator refrains from talking as much as they’d like out of fear of stifling conversation. This is problematic as the people who volunteered to be Moderators are often the most passionate about the community and they likely received the role because of their previous activity and dedication. They stepped up and volunteered to help maintain the community they want to be a part of. They are the power players in the community, potential Culture Agents, and losing them to this completely avoidable pitfall would be regrettable.

Pitfall #3: Lack of Separation of Powers

Finally, a Lack of Separation of Powers is another place where the double-edged sword of authority strikes. One of the most harmful things to a community is when the Administrators take it upon themselves to perform Moderator responsibilities in public alongside the Moderators. If your boss reprimanding you makes you nervous, imagine the CEO of the company doing it.

Administrators enacting punishment or corrective action in public can cause two problems depending on the dynamics of the team and hierarchy.

First, it can undermine the authority entrusted to the Moderators. You saying “I trust that you can do this” to someone and then stepping in at every chance preventing that person from doing what you entrusted them with tells them through action that you don’t actually trust them. Actions speak louder than words.

Second, it tells the community that an even higher authority with more power is watching. Hawthorne Effect x2. Additionally, this authority has no one to keep it in check, particularly if they are the owner of the Discord server.

As a bonus, if the Administrator doesn’t have an intimate or friendly presence in the community—which is reasonable given that they are probably busy with behind-the-scenes administrative tasks—they may be a wildcard that nobody knows how to act around. This may lead to the “admins are awake” syndrome wherein the community withdraws when they feel that the heavy-handed admin is watching. To add insult to injury, it will be even worse if the members feel that most of the Administrator’s involvement in the community is dishing out pain (punishment).

Avoiding the Trap

Label Identity, Moderator Floor / Drought, and Lack of Separation of Powers. These three phenomena show us that we should be wary about putting authority on display when we want people to be comfortable. A community wants interactions between members to be as fluid and unhindered as possible which is only possible when they are comfortable.

So then, what can you do to avoid these? An answer that works in practice is in Ane’s words at the beginning of this section: treat the moderators as you would a regular member.

2 of the 3 pitfalls are a result of Moderators having a uniform in the shade of a role color that sets them uniformly apart from the rest of the community. So give Moderators the color(s) of regular members. Since Discord roles do not require a color, you can hoist the Moderators on the member list with a colorless role making it easy to find them but not drawing undue attention to them in the heat of text chat.

You can also choose to adopt Ane’s view on the Moderator role:

“If anything, my expectation for moderators is less actively moderating and more actively being a part of the community. Because they sort of represent the community itself and what people can expect from the community.” —Ane of /r/GabrielDropout

What Ane describes here is the idea of a Culture Agent. By educating members and then giving them agency in the community, these members can communicate the culture in your stead. As Amayami from Absolution-Minuet pointed out, “you could be the best [person] to hang out with on the planet, but [you] can’t be around all the time”.

A Moderator in Ane’s community is more of a super community member rather than an authoritative figure. They represent the community first and enforce rules second. Without the stigma of authority, both Moderators and regular community members feel more freedom when engaging in conversation.

As for the third and final pitfall, here are two ways to go about it.

First and often in the case of smaller communities, you can have a culture where the Administrator in question is known to actively moderate. The caveat is that it’s best if this person regularly contributes to conversations. That way the community knows them and knows what to expect from them—there’s no uncertainty.

Second, in the case where there are enough staff on hand, let the Moderators fulfill their role and instead assume the position of supervisor and counsel. Speak to them behind closed doors about areas of opportunity and improvement and allow them to grow (and don’t forget to recognize the good through the bad). This doubly allows you to focus on your time-consuming administrative tasks, a win for everyone involved!

In Closing

Being able to moderate conflict, steer a community in a healthy direction, and address concerns is a necessity for all communities. Community builders most often do this through rules and people to enforce them. Authority serves a necessary purpose and is unavoidable. What you can avoid is the negative side-effects of authority explained in this article using the solutions above. Keep an eye on the power dynamics in your community and keep your ear to the ground by listening to the concerns of your members. If it appears that the authority is suffocating your members or team, that will be your first sign that a change is in order.

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Landeau McDade

Landeau McDade

Co-founder and developer of https://statbot.net

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