The challenges of moderating a /huge/ website, and how to overcome them.
By Ethan Puskas
So, first off, something about me: I'm one of the senior moderators (theres two of us 'senior/super' moderators and then the Community Manager, of which i'm posting this with her permission/endorsement) on a educational website, http://brainly.com - We manage a team of about ~60 or ~70 (74 total in the list, but that includes some programmers so we'll say the list of real mods is between 60 or 70 - Still a astronomically high number). We are (at least, I am, in that it's hands down the biggest project I've ever had say in) constantly challenged in the management and upkeep of both the community itself and (mostly where I am) the moderation team.
Keeping all of these factors in mind, and doing some of the math, it does seem kind of amazing how we keep it all together with a 20 to 1 ratio for mods to 'senior' mods (or the CM) and a 60 to 1 ratio for mods with the real Community Manager, so we'll go over some issues we've encountered and how to deal with them.
As with just about any website, activity is always a issue, but moreso when I run you down the demographic of the moderation team: Roughly 80-90% of the moderators we have are under the age of 16 or 15. It sounds rather young, but when you consider the demographic of a K-12 educational website, it makes sense. I actually enjoy working with a lot of these guys; age has never really been a defining factor on if they are mature or not for me and a lot of these guys have proven us all wrong on how well they can handle a situation. They certainly deserve much more praise than myself for grinding reports all day (I usually am sitting around and handling the 'problem solving' issues.)
That said, when we're dealing with such large numbers, and we now take into account it's summer in the United States, activity is going to now be a huge issue more than ever. We've been taking several approaches to this:
The actual moderating + escalation of situations
- The website 'gamifies', as much as possible, the actions of the website. This includes Moderation, so we have a 'Top Moderators' type system. It gives natural incentive to be active when you can appear to be 'the best'.
- Playing on this, we've (once or twice, during slooooowww weeks) offered incentives to Moderators for being on top, last time it was a $25 ITunes giftcard. This is absolutely a way to speak to the younger audience we work with and get them motivated, though I obviously wouldn't suggest doing it all the time
- Have fun - This is something we've been trying to push, and I think a lot of other (particularly kid themed) websites are doing, too. We need to be reminded we are in a lot of cases working with kids and we need to appeal to them, particularly here when they're donating there manhours to help us out. We do things like mess around, play games, ect, and idea like a 'Moderator award show' have been floated.
- (Finally) for individual moderator activity is spam the spreadsheets. - We have a lot of micromanagement involved (obviously) in a large team, so there is a rather large 'activity spreadsheet' that the CM maintains, and attempts to contact people repeatedly before removing them, via email, in game PM, ect. We give it time and have a systematic approach to it, because it prevents people slipping through the cracks and unjustly demoting people, all while removing inactive members.
As anyone who's been on a kids site will tell you, moderating isn't easy. A lot of sites do maintain full time paid moderators, but we do it differently with our volunteer staff, so it presents a set of challenges in doing things:
So, let's run things down.
- How much power do we give volunteer staff, most of which are around the same age as the people they'd be punishing?
- How do we have checks on that authority?
- How do we enable smooth communication and enable proper escalation of incidents to those with higher authority?
- How do we keep the users being warned/punished engaged and involved when the system requires us to be quick and fast-paced in moderation?
The way we do it is this, the main body of moderators (60 or so, as previously mentioned) have some basic powers, such as answer deletion, temporary 'tutorial' bans, warning, and removing proifle pictures/profile fields. They do not have any sizeable ban authority or account deletion. This is done because (as much as we know and love them) there is a lot of liability in giving such a large amount of people that much power, particularly when they are A) volunteers and B) (most likely) kids. We have a proper escalation system for people that need a higher form of punishment, which I'll go into later.
Even with the current authority given, there are still issues. We do have proper logs of moderator actions and look them over, but we try and be proactive; for situations moderators are unsure about on the rules or situations, we openly encourage discussion and debate on the question/answer within the chat system we use (more on that next). This can be for a website/forum large or small, but you do NOT want a system that discourages/mocks/ect people who just ask questions, particularly in a private 'mod only' setting. I'd understand a public image to be maintained, but behind closed doors discussion should always be nice and cordial; You really do not (believe me, we know) want interpersonal rivalries getting in the way of moderation.
We use Slack (http://slack.com/) for our real time communications, and i'd encourage it to anyone with a 'large' team to manage but it's obviously not free. Honestly you could get effectively the same thing with a IRC channel for a smaller budget team, or even a skype chat, or even TeamSpeak, ect, but I can not remotely express how important real time communication is. We have moderators escalate issues requiring our attention directly to us here, and it's by far the fastest and easiest way to sort any situation, but the same should be the case for any major website: Real time comms makes a real difference, and I'd even push for them to be offsite from your main website because it enables communication even during site outages and large amounts of traffic.
We encourage a situation of PMing users. On paper, there is a stock 'Warn' function (as with just about any of your websites/forums, I'm sure), but it really isn't remotely as personalized. We want to correct the behavior, not issue a standard 'slap on the wrist' and move on. It's difficult when we're dealing with such large numbers (There are 1,075 reported items right now, to give you a idea) but we do still try and keep it personalized and answer any questions they have, and keep them engaged; If they get to ask you what they did wrong and you can properly correct it right then and there, it's still less effort then if they keep breaking the rule.
I honestly did not notice how much of a essay I made this into I got here, heh. Regardless, I hope you enjoy the reading on my personal interpretations on things and how we as a team have been combatting these issues. I'll be free to answer any questions here if curious.