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Moderating an online community is a human activity that is more of an art than a science. As community members are people with feelings and ego, community interactions may oftentimes get emotional or charged despite the fact that members never see one another face to face. Most of the conversation within an online community occur in text and is distributed to its members by electronic means. This is a relatively new experience to most whose exuberant embrace of the process oftentimes generate excitement, camaraderie, annoyance, distress, abuse and fulfilment all mixed together.
In an Online community, members in discussion create the illusion of a locale and scenery worthy of viewing or joining. As interactions become more complex, and the participants become known to one another, several roles become available for the creator of the community. These roles are filled intuitively; small misunderstandings are smoothened out, new ideas introduced, visitors welcomed and progress summarized and restated. These tasks are taken up by the community convener or initial facilitator, who then becomes the moderator or referee of the interactions and conversations taking place within the community.
What is an online Community?
An online community is a virtual gathering place; the equivalent of a Town hall, Barber shop or Market place for conversation, support, awareness and exchange of banter and ideas. It is a place with a cacophony of voices, some knowledgeable, others not so. Generally speaking the initial facilitator of the community, is the architect that stitch initial members together into the community through invitation. Later, other members, who may not really know one another may be motivated for whatever reason personal to them to join the community.
What makes a compelling and sustainable online community?
The success of a virtual gathering place clearly depends on the energy, creativity and approach of its founder/moderator as it does on the proposed subject matter or theme upon which the online community is founded. The founder(s) and initial participants are the foundation of the community. As a good party depends on who’s there when each guest arrives, so you will want to steadily set the stage of excitement for your Online community by having interesting people “already there” (founder’s invited members) from the moment you open, usually starting with your own vibe as the reason to visit.
If you have an idea for a new gathering place, here are a few questions to ask yourself to help decide on the feasibility of your idea, purpose or theme:
Are you in it for the long haul? It is important to evaluate at the inception of founding your online community whether its theme or subject matter will sustain your interest into the long term. If you have a limited interest in your own idea, you will do well to find a better one, or set up a predetermined closing date (or perhaps a hand-off date) so it won’t just wither away.
Is the theme broad? Is the proposed theme broad enough to attract a wide swath of interactions and conversations? A site that relies heavily on a single issue or topic of discussion can get tiring quickly causing community members to lose interest.
Is there depth to subject matter? A subject matter that generates interest and diversity of knowledge to promote lively participation is more likely to facilitate energy, traffic development and success of an online community than a narrow fanciful topic. Experimentation may be the key to identifying a broad theme with depth of subject matter.
Role of Moderator in Online community
Role definition: Define your role as founding host. If you are unable to convene the online community personally, look for someone who can take on that role.
Administration: Online moderator is more than likely to have administrative privileges for the community. These include (a) creating or modify items community members cannot change; (b) defining community rules for exchanges and norms of social behavior and (b) excluding or censoring community members.
Stimulate participation: Creating an engaging community that is worthy of member interactions and return visit is the main challenge for community moderators. Whether that can best be achieved by active participation in the conversation or by simply staying out of the way is a decision that only the moderator can make. In most cases, shifting between active participation by way of presenting thought-provoking materials on a regular basis for participants to discuss, and backing off to let the community members run with a conversation or provide support to one another, is the best ongoing strategy. It’s not about you; the whole point is to find ways to help the participants share the spotlight.
Maintain topic ideas: It is a good idea to research and maintain a list of discussion topics or subject matter that can be injected into the community in case community goes cold on discussion topics. Recycling of timeless and enduring topics or subject matter may also be a good idea.
Quality matters: Bear in mind that it’s not merely interest in a particular subject or the opportunity to interact that draws people to a conversation, but the quality of that interaction, the scope and setting of it, what kinds of topics are available, how they are introduced, and the tone which is set for the gathering place by the moderator.
Ensure civility and respect: Dealing with people who make up a community, from the shy to the contentious, abrasive, rude, troublesome and marvelous human species online requires good human relations skills. Few general rules of thumb to consider for this purpose are worthy of recounting.
Treat all members with courtesy. Community members are guests of the founder and when treated with courtesy and respect, they will reciprocate in kind and show courtesy to one another.
Make new members feel personally welcome. Consider inviting new community members to introduce themselves to the community or when this is considered intimidating, use private emails or community message board to recognize and welcome new members while encouraging their participation in community exchanges with words like “Welcome, John Doe, nice to see you here!” or “Hello, John Doe! We’ll all love to hear more about your thoughts and experiences”.
Encourage older members to exude welcome. It is important to encourage older community members to extend a sense of welcome to new members by sending greeting, summarizing what’s gone before and nudging them to start new topics or suggest new events.
Encourage members to keep tone of exchanges civil. This can be done by reminding community members to be courteous and at all times and to keep focus of argumentations on ideas and not the person. Members should also be encouraged to use e-mails rather that the community board to take argue personal disputes with one another.
Set rules and or guidelines if believed to be indispensable. For example, you may identify languages, posts, themes and references that are not acceptable to post; or designate materials that are illegal or forbidden to share in the community. Both ways, be consistent in applying the rules/ guideline and abide by them also as moderator.
Establish procedure for handling problems. Here are some suggested approaches:
Always start with the lightest sanctions required to bring a defaulting member to order and only escalate as appropriate.
Use email, IM, etc., to notify an erring member how a comment or response is not within community guidelines and request that such comment or response not be posted again.
Use or request webmaster administrative privileges to “hide” or “deactivate” or “permanently remove” an offending comment and then send email to poster of comment to explain why the comment is hidden or suspended.
If you must, do not hesitate in exercising powers to ban a chronically offending member from posting to the community or suspending membership in the community. This should be a last resort and prior efforts should have been made to make it very clear to the member that s/he is behaving unacceptably and be informed formally of the terms of continued participation before banning.
Co-hosting. If you feel overstretched in your moderator role, it is realistic to source for a co-host or team to share duties with. In such a case and to build a well-oiled collaborative team, parties should (i) establish a chain of command, (ii) identify respective duties and responsibilities to undertake, (iii) know when to touch base with one another, and (iv) establish how to resolve conflicts or concerns.
Tips for Online Community Moderators
Start simply and allow the group process and structure to evolve over time.
Restrain on use of sanction as this does not help members to grow communication skills.
Encourage members to communicate courteously with each other rather lecture to a vague audience or just to the moderator as the leader.
Be mindful, it is not your community, so participate respectfully in community exchanges and encourage other members to do the same.
Foster active debate and support reasonable controversy.
Set and notify clear guidelines to community members but allow community to moderate itself. Know when to step in to maintain civility and order.
Use private messages (e-mail, instant messages, etc.) generously as reminders, and to point to specific items about which you would like feedback, and for positive reinforcement, especially of early entries.
Compliment and praise every community member for their participation and more so the community movers and shakers.
Have a crisis plan in case something goes wrong with your community.