'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Online communities form around shared interests – popular culture, musical acts, politics, gaming – but that commonality often gets lost amidst community members' disputes and disagreements. Moderators have the responsibility of sorting out those problems and that, along with their other work, is essential to keeping online communities functional. As Anika Gupta reminds us in How to Handle a Crowd, the most effective moderators are often those whose work is invisible – and that makes this insightful and thoughtful book even more relevant. In Gupta's words, "moderation decisions shape community identity."

How to Handle a Crowd is based on Gupta's master's thesis in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, and it's a tribute to her skills that the book is both a credible academic study and an engaging read. In researching the jobs of online moderators and the people who do those jobs, Gupta set criteria for the online communities she studied. The community had to have many-to-many communication, as opposed to individual one-on-one conversations; be partially or completely online; and be moderated, formally or informally. She interviewed moderators from a range of online communities, from small hyper-local groups (Sister Circle, for Black women living in or around Sacramento, California) to international forums with millions of users (Reddit, World of Warcraft).

Some of these communities, such as Make America Dinner Again, started as face-to-face groups that moved online to scale up their operations; others have always been online, with a few, like FetLife, originating in the era of dial-up modems. But all of these communities have gone through periods of self-reflection about their purpose, their size, their members, and their boundaries, and moderators are deeply involved in all of these transitions.

The moderators that Gupta interviewed came to their work in a variety of ways. The operators of some online communities find new moderators by asking active members of the community to take on that role. In other communities, prospective moderators have to apply for the job and undergo formal training if they are selected. Several of the communities that Gupta studied also have tiers of moderation. Entry-level moderators do more straightforward facilitation and monitoring, and more experienced moderators have the authority to take more significant actions, such as managing discussion threads that become too hostile or unfocused.

But despite the vastly different purposes and scopes of the communities, there are common themes in the moderators' reflections on their work. Effective moderation involves a delicate balancing act of when to be supportive and facilitative, and when to invoke the rules. Most of the online communities Gupta discusses have collectively developed behavioural norms, although in some newer communities the administrators set rules at the outset.

The most obvious example of this approach in How to Handle a Crowd is Real Talk, a Facebook-based group established by women of color who formerly participated in the Pantsuit Nation online community. They were frustrated with what they saw as superficial discussion of racial issues, even in a supposedly politically progressive group, and they wanted "action and dialogue". Real Talk participants use their real names, and white women who want to participate in the community have to complete a two-week program of "allyship training". Real Talk's founders acknowledge that this carefully managed process may not work for every online community. But they wanted to "work deep [and] not have a surface-level experience", and Real Talk's rules and structure are designed to achieve that outcome.

When online discussions deterioriate into personal attacks and extremism, moderators also need to know how to intervene. Deleting posts or banning participants, even if the post was offensive or the user has a "history", is most effective as a final step, not a first step; a ban or deletion can fuel further conflict if other participants don't share the moderators' negative perceptions of the material in question.The moderators that Gupta interviewed also emphasize the importance of preventative action. Potential blow-ups can often be avoided by private communication with a participant, to explain why posts or actions are problematic. Some moderators describe this part of their role as "coaching", which is certainly a different way of thinking of moderation than as the stereotype of the heavy-handed discussion police.

For most moderators, a noticeable amount of their work involves dealing with new participants. This demographic, it seems, are especially likely to not have read the site's guidelines, or to claim that as newcomers the rules don't apply to them, or to yell that removing a post violates their right to free speech. (To which the standard mod response is along the lines of "You're free to say it, but this is a private platform and we don't have to listen to it.") Moderators also learn from and support each other, sharing techniques such as using "sticky posts" and FAQs to collectively answer the most common participant queries.

Most of the moderators Gupta interviewed are unpaid volunteers. Some of them struggle with the amount of time they put into moderating for no financial reward; others, especially those who moderate communities on revenue-generating platforms like Facebook and Reddit, believe they should be paid for their work in facilitating their communities. Yet others, including several who have been moderating for decades, feel that their reward is helping others become part of a friendly and supportive community, and keeping the community running that way. "Cowhideman", a FetLife moderator who is also one of the site's long-term participants, cites his reason for moderating as "a sense of personal responsibility, a desire to pay it forward", especially for an online community whose participants may be marginalized in other contexts.

Despite the "How To" title, How to Handle a Crowd is not structured as a step-by-step guide to effective moderation - although anyone seeking ideas on that topic would certainly learn a lot here. Instead, it functions as a fascinating peek into a largely overlooked part of the online world. Gupta's work casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.