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Online moderators suck. We’ve all experienced arbitrary deletions, woefully uneven enforcement of polices, and mods who are just plain raging cunts. But why do they suck such a mouldering bag of dicks? What is it about being a moderator, or the type of person who is attracted to being a moderator, that makes some so unsuited to manage people and communities?

Mods are more often than not just the people who were around at the time, and had enough free time to burn monitoring a forum or comments section in any capacity. The other ways I’ve seen absolutely awful mods be appointed is through friendships and ass-kissing. Quite often, the people who have a large portion of their day to spend sanitizing other people’s posts have very little else in their lives and very few other social outlets. I’ve seen breakdowns in the vein of “This website is all I have” when moderation positions are stripped.

mod insert 1For people who are deeply invested, online communities can be ugly little social pressure cookers full of grudges and egos. In the worst places, who gets the mod position is less a matter of who is capable of doing the job and more about putting a stamp of approval on certain community members who best toe the line and kiss the ass. Once you get a peek behind the scenes in a community it can be distressing to watch; there is a lot of drama and bickering in moderator groups as people jostles for a bigger slice of the tiny sliver of influence they are given.

Almost all moderators are unpaid, so why do they do it? Mods often paint themselves as the selfless ideal of the internet; the thin blue line between chaos and the ever present boogieman of “trolls.” In actuality they do the job for purely selfish reasons. It enables them to shape a small corner of the internet to their will, and crucially it gives them a degree of power over other people. The type of person naturally attracted to being a moderator is often the worst suited to doing the job in a way that serves the community. Being a moderator, especially on a platform like Reddit, is the only modicum of power these people will receive over others.

You can tell the measure of a person by what happens when they gain a taste of power — even illusionary power. We’ve all met the forum mod who thinks they’re hot-shit — the wielder of the Ban Hammer. They mythologize themselves and slap down anyone who points out how ridiculous they look with their little paper crowns and demands of deference. This is the error of putting volunteers in a position of power who may have very little responsibility and control in their own lives. They become tiny dictators of their own grubby little fiefdom, even if they started with the best of intentions.

Some people simply don’t have the temperament to be a moderator; a decent moderator who has enough spare time to regularly be online to enforce the rules fairly is an extreme rarity. If you have a good enough skill set in that area then you’re going to be busy getting paid to manage people. Balanced people with decent temperament simply don’t want to sit on an internet forum all day. The people best suited to being moderators tend to have the least time for it. So we get the power hungry internet tough guys instead more oft than not.

Using your little digital shitpile as the source of your ego makes you an incredibly pathetic person. I cringe to the core of my soul when I see a moderator preen and sneer after banning someone like they just parted the Red Sea. Go warm up another Hot-Pocket and prepare your glorious forum mop for another unpaid day of cleaning the shit and graffiti from the toilet wall of the internet. Who knows, you might get to censor another “harmful opinion” from surfacing on your forum. We can’t have the lowly users disagreeing with you.

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In some places the mods have turned their janitorial duties into a divine mission. Some subreddits on Reddit put up warnings with borderline biblical language. They pontificate from the stickies about “hate speech” and “problematic words” like they are heresy against established dogma. Heretics are cast out and excommunicated for their thought crimes. They take up their positions in the delusion they can be “transformative people” They often really think they are changing the world.

As we saw in the various rounds of Mod Talk Leaks, the higher up mods are in the pecking order the more they seem to have a complete disregard for their users and a deceptive approach to moderation, giving reasons for deletions and bans they know are bullshit. Here the moderator fiefdom mentality extends to outright attacking users or fellow mods who break with the groupthink, going as far as to publish personal information.

There is another selfish motivating factor for mods on higher-profile platforms; cold hard cash. Reddit mods have been known to take bribes, and in the case of the now more contrite and reflective Ian Miles Cheong, outright sell his influence. Our interview with Cheong was a candid and fascinating insight into how moderators can easily get into a position to artificially influence what we see for their personal gain:

“Concerning reddit, while I served as a moderator on frontpage subreddits, I submitted and promoted articles for various organizations for pay. It was very unethical of me to do so and I’d like to apologize […]”

On a large enough platform, the temptation will always be there to sell that tiny bit of power that’s been bestowed upon you.

Thin-skinned content creators also over-moderate their own comments sections, their fragile egos unable to take criticism. Giving power of moderation to someone who treats their writing like their baby is a terrible idea, it ends up with the shutting out of reality. No one can look at their own work objectively, and trusting people not to delete negative posts is naïve.

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I’m a fan of light touch moderation, and trying to limit moderation to as little as possible. If a forum is explicitly labelled for adults then there shouldn’t be much content off the table as long as it sticks within legal bounds. A large part of increased political correctness and the clamping down on major forums and social media platforms is due to advertiser concerns. Money, not decency, is the biggest motivating factor behind how policy is formulated these days.

I see a lot of posts thanking the mods made by website admins or community managers even when they’ve been doing a terrible job. The dirty little secret is power hungry mods are only barely tolerated. “Bad moderation is better than no moderation” is the ethos in many places where the moderators are actively running off users. After all, who else would be willing to undertake unpaid janitorial work on behalf of a site?

Communities and forums are incredibly important to the traffic and appeal of many gaming websites and emerging platforms. Everyone wants a healthy community, but no one wants to put the effort into making one. The easy route is to hand over the keys to a bunch of self-appointed busy-bodies. Worse still, many mods serve as useful idiots to interests of the sites owner or advertisers. I know many online spaces have asinine rules only put there to assuage the fears of a specific type of advertiser.

Pure moderators ultimately have no power. They have no usefulness to the site apart from being its volunteer enforcement arm. They can’t act against the interests of the administers and owners in any way; their influence above an ordinary user is very little. Their relationship is asymmetrical. The mods do all the work and have none of the power.

So hang the moderators, they are neither special nor possess any skill set above the average user. After all, they do it for free. On the internet. They don’t even get hot-pockets. They do it FOR FREE.


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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.