My friend Patrick has written a great book about managing online forum communities. I’ve talked about him and his book quite a bit lately so I wanted to grab him for a 10 questions interview.
1. You clearly have a fascination with forum management. How come? (and how did the book come out of this)
I’ve been managing online forums for about eight years. It started with the site I placed on the first domain name that I ever registered – iFroggy.com. I really liked Yahoo! and I still do and, at that time, I tried to create my own Yahoo!, basically. I did as many things as I could, had as many content sections as I was able. And, in developing the site, it seemed like a natural progression to have forums so that people could not just read the site, but also interact with the people that wrote it as well as one another. Those were my first forums.
From there, I have launched a number of different forums and it’s something that I’m passionate about. I don’t know if I can pinpoint why, exactly. It’s something that I got into, enjoyed and kept doing. And here we are, eight years later.
I’m also a writer, having written content, articles and editorials online for years and years. Putting the two passions together, I decided to try to write a book on the subject. At first, I wasn’t sure if I could. I began by taking notes, detailing things I could talk about. I would literally be managing my forums and then think, “hey, that’s interesting, I should talk about that” and then I’d write it down. Eventually, that list of notes got pretty long. I organized them into chapters and wrote them out.
2. If someone comes to you and says theyíd like to start a community, how would you determine if a forum is a smart choice?
Forums are a good choice for anyone who wants to encourage people to interact with one another directly, to bring up the topics they’d like to bring up and to do things without necessarily interacting with the people who own the site. Whereas the new topics on blogs are generally controlled by one writer or a team of writers, anyone who registers can generally create a topic on forums. This allows for more free and rapidly progressing discussion, assistance and interaction.
3. Where do forums fit into this whole wave of blogs and social networking and sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Utterz and the rest?
A friend of mine and yours, Lee LeFever, provided advance praise for the book. In it, he said that “online forums make up the very foundation of the social web.” I think that’s a good way to put it. But, at the same time, forums are also very current. When you are talking about a buzz brand right now like a MySpace or a Facebook or a YouTube, the functionality of forums – whether in full or in part – is a part of the functionality of these websites.
This question relates to another question I have been asked a few times, which is something along the lines of “what is the future of forums?” What changes in forums is the features and innovation – what will stay the same is the interaction. It’s hard for me to picture a time when we won’t want to discuss something, get help or better ourselves by interacting with someone else in a text based manner online. So, it’s hard for me to picture a time when forums will not have a place.
4. How do you define “Community Management”? How do see yourself fitting into that definition?
Community management is… er… managing all aspects of the community. Seriously, to get into detail a bit, there are many different areas of management when it comes to forums and communities. You have to manage people. This includes your members, but also your staff. Being in public, being a good example for others to follow – holding yourself to a higher standard. I believe in leading by example in every definition. I converse on my forums in a way that I’d like to see members conversing. I act as a staff member in a way I’d want my staff members to act.
Drafting and enforcing guidelines is a part of management. Removing posts, contacting members and informing them as to what went wrong. Answering questions from members and staff. Making decisions when decisions must be made. Dealing with threats to the community. Being comfortable with being looked at as the bad guy and making decisions that make some people detest you. Not having to be popular and being willing to share credit, issue praise and thank people for being a part of the community. I feel it important for communities to have vision and to have goals and to ensure that everything that they do places them in a better position to accomplish these. And that means that not everyone will like you.
5. What value do you see in building a robust moderation plan? What does such a plan include?
A system of moderation is vital to a community with a focus, with goals, with vision. Whatever your community is, whatever it does – chances are that there is some content you don’t want to allow. And, yet, people will post this content anyway, even if you have guidelines forbidding it. That’s life. But, that’s also why you need to have a manner in which these posts are handled. So that things stay on track and that you are heading in the desired direction.
There’s a system I talk about a lot and I like it because it’s simple, it works and any forum software will allow you to do it. There are four steps to it. The first part is recognizing a violation. That’s self explanatory. Second, we have removal of said violation. I have a private, staff member only forum called the “Trash Bin”. This is where we move any post that violates our guidelines. We don’t edit posts as it makes for sloppy documentation, harder mistake correction and moderators being looked at as proofreaders, among other things. Having a post, untouched, as the poster made it with their IP and other data attached is a very valuable piece of documentation.
The third part of it is documenting the violation. We have a second private, staff member only forum we call “Problem Users”. In this forum, every member we have ever had to contact or take any sort of action in regard to has a thread. The thread is titled with the user’s exact username. And then anything related to that member is added as a reply. This can range from things that aren’t inherently bad, like username changes, to things that are, like disrespectful and inappropriate comments. I also document any private message or e-mail conversation I have with a member that is in any way notable. This helps to ensure that me and my staff are always on the same page, even when I have to make a decision based on something that the member may not have done in the public forums.
Documenting a violation like vulgar language would mean including a link to the removed post in the Trash Bin and then mentioning what was wrong with it (“Vulgar”) and the action that was taken (most commonly “PM sent” for private message sent, but sometimes “Banned”). This is followed by a quote of the post, highlighting the violation.
Finally, we have the actual action. If a member is to be contacted via private message, we have a system of contact templates which are pre-written template messages that can be made to fit most every violation that can be made on our forums. This helps ensure consistent, respectful communication from staff member to staff member.
This system can be adapted into other feature sets, as well, of course. But, it must be comprehensive, permanent, searchable and you must be able to tell when there is new activity, so that it can be reviewed.
6. How do you select your moderators on your forums?
Generally, moderators are selected from the memberbase of the forums. You want your moderators to be your ideal members. People who are already contributing in a kind and helpful fashion. People who are already participating in a way that you encourage in your user guidelines. It’s imperative that your staff members be great examples of your community that everyone can follow. There are definitely private aspects to being a moderator, like removing posts, but the public aspects are just as important.
When we identify someone we want to promote, we contact them and let them know how much we appreciate their contributions and demeanor and, because of that, we’d like to invite them to join the staff. I include a copy of the staff guidelines as well as any requirements, so that they know up front what is to be expected. I also encourage them to ask questions.
With a new community, where I may not have an established base of members, I will try to find staff members from people that I believe to be reliable and also have an interest in the subject that the community is based around.
7. Many business people don’t like the idea of turning away users from a forum, even if those users are not a positive influence. How do you approach this issue?
I believe that, as an administrator or staff, you are really charged with molding a culture or an environment on your community. What that is, you will decide. And how you manage your forums will have a direct impact on what your atmosphere is like. I have specific ideas in mind for my communities. My communities are based very firmly upon respect to an extreme. We also try to be family and work friendly as much as we can be within our subject matter. Posts that violate our guidelines will be removed. People that show a lack of respect for our community, guidelines and staff will be prevented from accessing the forums.
I have a saying. I don’t ban people – people ban themselves. I mean that – people make me ban them. I don’t want to, but I have to, in order to maintain the respect and the environment on my community. I don’t approach things from the “I want as much traffic” or “I want as many posts as possible” perspective. I do want as much traffic as I can get with a qualifier. That qualifier being that we maintain a certain level of quality in our environment. I’ve banned the top poster on my forums before. And I’ll do it again – if I have to. I don’t believe in being held hostage by veteran members just because they are veteran members. Again, I don’t want to have to prevent anyone from accessing the site – but, our guidelines will be enforced and our atmosphere will be preserved.
8. What are the most difficult issues you have to deal with as a moderator?
As a moderator, a lot of the things I do (and we do) are down to a process. Violations are, for the most part, cut and dry. What’s vulgar is vulgar, what’s advertising is advertising. It’s not fun to tell otherwise great members that they did something wrong, but it has to be done. There are some issues that are borderline and, of course, those decisions aren’t always fun to make. Removing posts isn’t something I enjoy – and yet, it’s something I have to do. I recognize what our responsibilities are and ensure that they are fulfilled, even if criticism awaits.
9. In the book, you talk about a lot of real, specific and sometimes funny situations youíve had to deal with. What is a recent funny story that you can share?
There is this community that is based around a similar subject to one of mine. The person behind it, quite a while ago, signed up and created a thread to mention it on my forums. This was removed, of course. Not that big a deal. But, after that, a staffer from the site signed up, made 25 junk posts (so that they could use our private message system) and then PM spammed a bunch of my members advertising the site. I’ve blocked the site from being mentioned on my community.
I don’t know that the guy behind the site is inherently bad – just possibly bad at managing forums or at trusting certain people. The forums are a cesspool of slime balls who have been banned from my site and, as such, hold me in a certain, special regard. Anyway, the person behind the site recently contacted me, asking if he could advertise on my site. That’s not gonna happen. Worse yet, when I took a look, they’d stolen our rank images! And then when I requested they be removed, he made his forums private! A DMCA notice waiting to happen. Some people just don’t get it.
10. Do you have any parting words or something else that youíd like to share?
One thing I would like to say about the book is that it is based, very firmly and completely on real life experience. These aren’t hypothetical or made up things I am talking about – these are real things that I have done. Things that I have seen and how I have dealt with them. I manage my communities everyday and what I talk about in the book is what I am doing, day in and day out, on my forums. I really feel this is one of the book’s biggest benefits – if not it’s biggest. This is real stuff.