Of all the things that I like to pretend I’m knowledgeable about, there is at least one thing I can claim I have direct experience of – forum moderation. I’ve been dealing with occasionally hair-rasing moderation on NOTBBC since 2003, and moderating Ganymede & Titan’s forum since 2007. (There’s also been a fair amount of comment moderation, but that can be a slightly different art, depending on the site – when comments are attached to an article, I think it’s reasonable to have a slightly firmer hand.)
Now, I’m not proud of every single decision made on those sites over the last few years; sometimes when moderating in a group, you go with the majority opinion. Other times, you simply fuck it up. (There are situations where I wish I’d intervened… and others where I wish I’d left well alone.) In general, though, I think a feel a light touch works best; unless things are going seriously wrong, it’s usually best for a forum to find its own equilibrium. Guide the discussion through your own posts, not by needlessly interfering with other people’s.
Which brings me to a horror I’m witnessing on a certain forum I read at the moment – the Incredible Disappearing Forum Thread. The model goes as follows:
- Somebody starts a thread on a subject.
- People discuss the said subject.
- An argument starts up. Sometimes the argument is fairly useless, but other times some fascinating opinions are exchanged, and it turns into a massively interesting forum thread.
- The thread magically disappears entirely a day or so later.
- Rinse and repeat, about two weeks later, on an entirely different subject.
Now, obviously, legally sometimes things have to be removed. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE the kinds of things some people think are acceptable to post on somebody else’s forum. No, accusing well-known comedians of missing shows because of a cocaine overdose is not acceptable.) There’s also an argument for simply removing blatantly trolling posts; I generally favour other methods for dealing with those, but it’s a legitimate option. And yes, when the same argument keeps happening over and over again, there is a case for more heavy-handed moderation.
My objection is simply to the removal of any thread that looks like it may be slightly contentious. Almost as if people are scared about having discussion on a discussion forum. And when you remove an entire thread, plenty of people’s well-considered opinions go flying out of the window. Posts that people have spent time on. An entire discussion destroyed, because a moderator can’t deal with a bit of heated debate.
There is little else that is likely to bring a bigger disconnect between a forum and its members. In some ways, despite the internet being more prevelant than ever, communities these days are harder to forge than in the first half of the 00s – there’s so much else out there on the net vying for their attention. Making a community scared of disagreeing with each other, or worried that the post they’ve spent time writing may disappear into the ether, is counter-productive. Besides, how can a forum be interesting and relevant, if every time something contentious is expressed, the thread is deleted? LIFE is contentious. And the lifeblood of a forum is the exchanging of views.
Moreover, when you delete a forum thread, you leave no place for explanation. Which further undermines a forum’s moderation – if there is no reasoning from the admin team as to why they have taken a certain action, it’s difficult to know how to behave on a forum yourself… and leaves you less confident about an admin team’s abilities. It makes moderation decisions feel entirely random.
Writing this, I feel exactly the same way as I did when I wrote my Websites For ‘Em piece back in 2006, on redundant forums. (Yes, I used that headline joke then, too. I like it, shut up.) It feels like an exercise is stating the bleedin’ obvious. And yet it’s amazing how many moderators seem think it’s sensible behaviour, when there are so many other tools at their disposal.
It isn’t. Stop it.