Don’t Leave Your Volunteer Moderators Lonely, Either

Community managers play important roles in keeping the structure of an online community strong—particularly in ensuring that volunteers know they have support in what can be a thankless job. A recent saga on Reddit highlights how harmful a poorly handled staff transition can be for these volunteers.

The internet’s largest community has had a pretty tough month.

Reddit, a social network known for driving the internet’s wider conversation by surfacing interesting links and embracing myriad subcultures, has increasingly found its management practices in question—first, by its decision to ban controversial communities, or subreddits, from the site due to harassment concerns; and second, by firing a popular communications manager who helped keep the some of the site’s most popular communities manageable for volunteers.

The former plays into the social network’s culture of freedom at all costs, which isn’t so much an issue for the association community, so I’ll give that a backseat for now. But the other issue, which touches upon the way online communities support their volunteers, is a pretty significant one for associations in particular.

What Happened?

To explain the issue for people that don’t use Reddit on the regular, it happened kinda like this: On Thursday, the site’s communications manager, Victoria Taylor, was fired from her role somewhat out of the blue, with little explanation. The moderators of the IAMA subreddit, which hosts the network’s many ask-me-anything chats with celebrities and interesting people, were upset about this because she had played an important role in managing and confirming these chats are actually being done by the person in question.

“The admins didn’t realize how much we rely on Victoria. Part of it is proof, of course: We know it’s legitimate when she’s sitting right there next to the person and can make them provide proof,” the moderator karmanaut explained last week. “We’ve had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that … down immediately. We can’t do that anymore.”

So the moderators temporarily shut the subreddit down, and a number of other moderators shut their subreddits down in solidarity. The result was that one of the most popular sites on the internet was basically unusable for an entire day. (IAMA eventually returned, but announced it would no longer work with Reddit staff to manage these conversations.)

While it hasn’t been confirmed, some redditors believe the firing may have occurred as the result of a botched ask-me-anything chat with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in which the political figure had answered questions confusingly—including one that insinuated that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. (To say the least, bad for the company’s image.)

Not helping matters was the fact that the site’s leadership, including cofounder Alexis Ohanian and CEO Ellen Pao, seemed somewhat unresponsive to these concerns. (A petition, requesting that Pao be fired, has gained major momentum in recent days.)

A Rocky Transition

The saga got significant media coverage on an otherwise-slow holiday weekend, which is clearly bad news.

But whatever happened, it became enough of an issue that it showed a severe schism between the community and its moderators.

Moderation is an often-thankless job, especially at the wide scale of a subreddit with millions of individual users, where you’re trying to keep the community on message, while avoiding spam and ensuring rules are being followed.

Which means that transitioning someone out of a front-facing role like that—for any reason—should be done with great care.

When it comes down to it, an online community is about people, not just technology. And keeping that trust between community managers and the community at large is hugely important.

It appears that Reddit’s Ohanian and Pao are learning this the hard way.

“I’m sorry we let our community down yesterday,” Pao told The New York Times on Friday. “We should have informed our community moderators about the transition and worked through it with them.”

Volunteer moderators hold huge amounts of control, despite not getting a paycheck. They deserve to know what’s going on, and you have to keep them happy.

Respect Your Volunteers

A few weeks back, my colleague Joe Rominiecki made the case that we need to show that we’re supporting our community managers, who may be playing an important role without a ton of support.

“For those that host online communities for their members, the new front-line staff may very well be the person managing the online community,” he explained before hopping into The Community Roundtable’s latest “State of Community Management” report.

Here’s a real-world example that highlights what’s at risk with the poor treatment of a community manager. It’s clear here that reddit—a site that is pretty much nothing but community—faces the same kinds of disconnects between executives and ground-level support that happen in associations where communities are only small parts of the total member offerings.

The ripple effects of what happened to Taylor only highlight this. Because of the role people near the front lines play in keeping a community moving, they often have tribes of their own, and those tribes may instill a high level of passion among your most active community members—your moderators.

That’s a big organizational problem for Reddit, Re/Code‘s Noah Kulwin notes.

“Reddit doesn’t have much, if any, leverage, because they don’t actually employ moderators, which means it has no control over people who effectively run key, public-facing parts of the company,” Kulwin writes. “Everything about which Reddit talks a big game—curbing abuse, protecting free speech, being the ‘front page of the Internet’—is directly tied to a model of content curation over which the company has little authority.”

In other words, volunteer moderators hold huge amounts of control, despite not getting a paycheck. They deserve to know what’s going on, and you have to keep them happy.

Are you giving them the respect they deserve?

(Eva Blue/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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