Shouting into the Void: Hang the Moderators

Online moderators suck. We’ve all experienced arbitrary deletions, woefully uneven enforcement of polices, and mods who are just plain raging cunts. But why?

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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.


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
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.
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