Crap, Community Moderation, and Glorious Purpose

Crap, Crap Everywhere

These days the largest, most popular sites on the internet are places where users produce content for other users to consume. The reason for this is simple - producing quality content is hard. It's time consuming. I've spent the last 6 months creating content with the hopes of making money. Let me tell you, investing time or paying experts to generate interesting things is expensive relative to the "worth" of the people viewing those things.

Thus, user-generated content is a huge part of many of the largest websites on the internet today. It scales well with your audience size - the more people participating, the more content there is. It's also more or less free.

The business plan writes itself!

  1. Set up user generated content system - bonus points for buzzwords like "social" and "gamification"
  2. Attain critical mass (insert hand waving about social media and viral marketing here)
  3. Watch as views spiral upwards exponentially. Make sure there's graph with a line pointing upwards.
  4. Sell ad space or something? Merch? Subscriptions? shrug

But whoa, hold on now, let's not break out the caviar just yet. The problem with user generated content is Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crap. If you've ever spent any time on the internet, you know that the internet is a tremendous repository for all things craptacular. Give a (wo)man anonymity and a text entry field and (s)he will fill it will terrible, vile, awful things.

Cleaning The Toilets

Thus, even if your site isn't producing the dynamic bits of the experience, you still need to police it. Failing to monitor and weed out the "bad" bits of content yields a cesspool of a site, where it's impossible to find anything quality amongst the spam and trolls.

There are several methods of tackling this "content police" problem.

One is to hire people to do this, sort of a human "quality assurance filter" for internet content. This is a terrible job to have, though, as this New York Times article points out.. Staring into the gaping black maw of the worst things people can possibly imagine is not something for the faint of heart. Turnover is high, and mental scarring is an occupational hazard.

Another idea is to implement some sort of automated system for screening your content. This is an extremely difficult problem to tackle, however. The line between "acceptable" and "garbage" is a tough one to determine even for experienced humans. Moreover, false positives from such an algorithm tend to yield cries of censorship. Just look at the recent YouTube Content ID issues for an example.

The third method, which is by far the most common, is to recruit members of your community to police the content for you.

Volunteer Janitorial Staff

It seems logical, right? We've already established that user-generated content works so well because it scales with your audience. So, too, does community moderation. Plus, who better to separate the good from the bad but the people who use your site the most?

The problem here is that we've already established that this is a terrible job. It's hard to pay people to do it, given the amount of work involved and the exposure to the aforementioned unrestricted flow of internet evilness. You're not even offering these people money, so there will need to be some other form of motivation.

For some people, the authority that comes along with a job such as this is incentive enough. Being the boss and wielding power, no matter how tiny or unimportant, feels good. For others, there is a desire to engage in conflict and drama. For them, being involved in a system that involves subjective decisions and passionate debate is a positive motivator. While it's tempting to hand the reigns to these folks and let them run with them, it's not particularly productive to do so. Constant warring and struggle over power or for the sake of struggle within the core of a community is toxic.

It's important to attract balanced, thoughtful, intelligent people instead. To do so, we must give them some type of healty motivation. In Dan Pink's 2009 TED talk and in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he claims that there are three things that provide this necessary intrinsic motivation. They are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy for internet content police volunteers is a given. After all, if they didn't want to participate, they wouldn't be volunteers. Similarly, mastery is easy to select for, since most of these systems grant privileges based on some metric related to the amount of time or effort that the person has invested.

That leaves purpose, which Dan defines as "the the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves." Purpose is where the fun starts.

Plunging With Purpose

Purpose is a powerful motivator. I've been a part of several communities, and held several of these "janitorial" positions within them. Most that I've seen have a bold, simple mission statement. Stack Exchange's current one is:

Make the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions.

Wow. Make The Internet A Better Place! And you there! Yes, You! You can be a part of this!

Edge Gamers Organization, a former clan I helped lead for a few years, sets out their purpose thusly:

This clan's foundation rests on honor, loyalty, and integrity. There is a heavy emphasis on maturity, fair play, helping others and having a fun and competitive gaming experience that all can enjoy.

Honor. Loyalty. Integrity. They are the Few, The Proud, The Admins Of A Few Counter-Strike Servers.

They sound silly when taken like this, and if you weren't a member of these communities, you'd probably just think it was marketing copy or something that nobody takes seriously. However, among the hardcore community, and especially among the volunteers, these statements are the Gospel Truth.

I have watched arguments over the intent of a particular line item in a FAQ cause screaming matches between people. I've spent hours and hours trying to get people to back down, calm down, and realize that they are bickering over minutiae or pedantry. I have seen quotes from community founders paraded about as if they were passages from a religious text. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between these dedicated volunteers and members of religious organizations.

It's a scary place to be if you don't have the ability to distance yourself from it and make rational decisions. Even given my 15-odd years of experience, I've still found myself awake at night, obsessing over some silly disagreement or how I was going to put so-and-so in their place.

I'm ashamed most of the time to discuss it with anyone not involved in the community or who hasn't been a part of something like this before. To any rational, normal person, this whole thing seems dumb and positively silly.

The Takeaway For Community Owners

Community-led moderation seems like a slam dunk. However, it's fraught with peril. Those within your community who are motivated by power or drama are going to gravitate to positions of authority. The ones that you actually want to be in charge are going to need motivation, and they're likely to seek it out through a sense of purpose.

Purpose is a dangerous, deadly thing. Purpose starts wars. Wars are bad for communities.

Be very, very careful what you say and how you put forth your statements to the community. These things are taken very seriously. If you're a jerk, or you look down on people, you can believe that your volunteers are going to take that as license to be jerks to one another and to your users. You want your users to feel welcome, and not assaulted at every turn.

The Takeaway for Volunteer Moderators

(On the Stack Exchange network, there are "elected moderators" and "users given moderator privileges via their reputation" - both are "volunteer moderators" in my estimation)

I find the thing that helps me the most is to realize how trivial I am, and how little my contribution really matters. I know, I know, that sounds depressing. However, I've retired from several communities over the years, and most are still going strong even without my further contributions - even contributions that I would have deemed essential when I was making them.

In the heat of the moment, it can feel like you are all that stands between the community and total annihilation. Unless you are running on a wheel to generate power for the servers, chances are that's not the case.

It also helps to put the purpose in perspective. No, you are not changing the world. You are producing and/or policing content for some company to make money off of. Maybe that makes somebody's life better - maybe you're helping them or just amusing them. Make the people the center of your motivation, rather than some lofty goal invented by the community relations department to get you to mop the floors for free.

Finally, remember that as a volunteer, you are doing this of your own volition during what should be your free time - time you have to spend doing things that are fun. Is what you are doing fun? If it isn't, maybe you should give some thought to what you could be doing instead.