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Forum moderation – a thankless task?

As I’m sure regular visitors to my blog or the http://www.survivalskills.co.uk website will know, I’m a mod on the Survival Skills section over on Visordown.

It’s not actually a job I asked for, originally Admin (Ben) asked me if I would look after and contribute to the section when he was first setting Visordown up. So I said yes, and the SS section over there has gone from strength to strength over the last 7, nearly 8 years.

I had no experience of mod’ing so had to learn as I went along, but my main premise was always that the section should act as a clearing house for information about riding techniques and safer riding in general.

I’d guess that like any content-based forum, there are times that ‘common sense’, opinion and speculation collide head-on with demonstrable fact. That’s not to say personal experience and anecdotal evidence don’t count too. The problem has been finding a balance between the two extremes. In my opinion at least, in general, we’ve done fairly well at that.

OK, there have been quite a few people who’ve dropped in, posted, found the views challenged for one reason and another and have retired hurt because they weren’t instantly agreed with. But quite a few more have stuck around for the long ride and have contributed usefully. I’ve shared what I know, and I’ve learned stuff too – quite a lot! I’d guess that’s about par for other forums (fora?) too.

But like any mod, I get criticised. I’m certainly not above criticism and I know a few times I’ve not dealt with clashes on the forum well. Sometimes criticism happens in public, sometimes in private but if it’s to my face then any response is in private. I like to think that even if we agree to disagree, at least we are civilised and polite enough to discuss the matter between us.

So I was a bit disappointed to find this public criticism posted on another forum discussing moderation:

“One thing I’ve objected to before is the idea of forum ‘ownership’ – moderators should moderate what people want to say, not play ‘my way or the highway’ supported by a few members of similar persuasion. It was that aspect that ticked me off most about Survival Skills, Spin, **** and **** operating in tandem to stamp on alternative views. (I’ve said as much to Spin before so I’m not ‘bleating after the fact’ as it were).”

As I said, I’m not above criticism and obviously the poster is entitled to his point of view, but as moderator and contributor so am I and I think that comment is mightily unfair. As a forum member in the broader sense I also think it’s also inaccurate and entirely misleading.

First… I don’t “operate in tandem” with anyone on VD, but the fact that I usually hold similar viewpoints with other instructors should suggest something; that the common stand is usually based on “best practice” at least as we instructors know it. But even amongst ourselves, we don’t always agree – as I write, I’m in the middle of a debate about the use or non-use of the clutch on tight turns.

Second… I don’t “stamp on alternative views”. If I did that, they wouldn’t be on the board in full view of anyone who wants to make an informed choice, would they? My own “platform” is here in my blog and on my website, where I can post what I want with no argument, and people can take it or leave it as they wish.

However, once on the forum, advice from ANYONE including myself is up for debate. People can post what they want so long as the advice is not dangerous.

If someone posts information that’s incomplete or inaccurate, then it’s open to correction – if someone else doesn’t do it, then I’ll correct it to the best of my own knowledge. If it’s an opinion and thus a matter for debate, then I’ll debate it if I have an opinion, or knowledge that might influence other readers.

But… if it IS dangerous in MY opinion, then I WILL take action – because I AM the mod on the board, and I believe I have at very least a moral duty of care to ensure that information that comes from the forum is safe.

But in either case, I personally am open to pursuasion, either by bringing new information that I didn’t know about to my attention or by superior logic, then I’ll yield. It does happen, but not that often. OK, that might make me seem smug or overbearing at times, but it’s no good being a weathercock if you claim to be an expert on a subject is it?

Thirdly, on a broader level as a forum member, one of the things that I did fairly early on when there were complaints about the way the forum section was operated was to ask the users what they wanted, and how they wanted it run. The result was distilled (not by me, I hasten to point out – I merely tidied up the clarity, spelling and grammar) into a list of guidelines for the forum use. I’ve copied the main ones here: Note that these guidelines have been formulated by discussion, contribution and common consent of the people who use this forum, within the wider bounds of the Visordown forum rules in general.

PURPOSE OF THE FORUM

The forum exists as a place where riders can come and discuss riding issues, further their knowledge and improve their riding. It is open to all levels from non-rider to professional.

FORUM ETIQUETTE

1. These are not rules, but guidelines.

2. The purpose of this forum is to better ourselves as riders and at the same time enjoy the banter which goes with it. It’s worth thinking of the forum as a night down the pub. When you first walk in, you probably won’t know anyone, but stick around and you’ll make friends, discover who irritates you, as well as find out who the wind-up merchants are.

3. Feel free to request advice. Many of the long-standing members of SS are extremely knowledgable and are more than happy to answer questions and debate issues, regardless of experience/age/bike/skill level etc of the poster. However, don’t ask for it and then criticise what has been offered. Ask more questions by all means, but remember you are getting free advice, often from professionals responding in their own time and at their own expense.

4. Please respect the qualifications, knowledge, opinions and experience of ALL contributors. We’re not here not to score points over one another.

5. If you post something and find it questioned, ask yourself why, no matter what your own qualifications are. Please don’t take offence if challenged. Accept that there might be alternatives sources of knowledge or techniques that you aren’t aware of, and take the learning opportunity offered. If you can’t answer “why?” yourself, maybe you need to rethink your own beliefs.

6. When making an ‘expert’ statement of any kind, particularly in subjects that ‘experts’ often take for granted, expect people to disagree or question it. You may be challenged to verify facts, provide research or links to back up your claim in a professional manner. Please don’t be surprised if your reply is analysed and taken apart meticulously. Simply saying “that’s the way it’s always been done” or “it’s in the book” will simpy encourage others to say “why?”. Categorical statements using words like “must” and “always” will nearly always be challenged because the ethic here is to get to the root of the issue. So if you make any firm claims you should be prepared to be questioned and be able to back them up.

7. Please don’t be afraid to post an opinion, but do expect it to be debated. Don’t expect everyone to agree with you, rather enjoy the challenge of trying to persuade them.

8. If you post opinion as fact, no matter how highly skilled, qualified or experienced you are, expect it to be debated. And be warned, debate can often be robust since members are extremely good at debating, and you may be letting yourself in for some serious fun!

9. Most of all – have fun! Please keep robust debate from becoming personal argument. A simple apology for a misunderstanding will nearly always defuse a potential row.

and finally:

RULE 10. When the hole’s deep enough, throw out the shovel.

There is another page of more detailed advice to posters, but I think the guidelines say enough about the forum and the way I and the people who helped formulate them wanted it to work. And as I’ve said, I think as a community we’ve operated within those guidelines quite well.

I suppose it may seem like bitching to respond publically to personal criticism, but with 14,000 posts on the board it’s not surprising that, to paraphrase a well known saying:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

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