Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

If you moderate any sort of online forum, I have a suggestion for you: ban all snarking about “well if you’d bothered to search the forum before posting you would’ve found the answer to that” and “why don’t you just Google it.”

The damage done to a community by people sometimes posting easily-googleable 101 questions is far outweighed by the damage done by the silencing effect that occurs when people are scared of being ridiculed for asking a damn question.

Yes, it is annoying when someone posts a question that’s been answered tons of times in the forum. It’s annoying when someone posts a question that’s considered too basic for the purposes of that particular space. But is being annoyed a good enough reason to make people afraid to ask questions?

Theoretically, the way this sort of shaming is supposed to work is that everyone realizes that they should search the forum/check the FAQ before posting. If it worked that way, that’d be nice, although you’d still be using nastiness and ridicule to make people comply, which is a dubious way to build community. But practically, that’s not what happens. Instead, people (especially people who have not been socialized to be confident) do Google, and do check the FAQ, and then think, “Well, I’m probably missing something, and I don’t want them to yell at me for not searching well enough.”

And then they don’t post. And then they don’t get their question answered and they don’t learn more about the topic. And then they quietly disengage from the community, and you never even notice that they’re gone, and you never even know that you’re missing their unique perspective and talent. Instead, your group is overrun with people whining about each others’ poor google skills and making fun of each other–and not in a friendly way.

But then how can we stop people from posting repeat questions?

As a moderator, you can never completely prevent people from doing something you don’t want in your space, but you can make it less likely and you can control what happens afterward.

  • Include “search first” in your rules.
  • Encourage other members to respond to 101 questions with reminders, not ridicule. (“Hey [name], this question has already been answered in this forum. Please use the search feature. Thanks!”)
  • Create a FAQ and make it easily visible and accessible. Forum search features are often crappy and not everyone has the time or energy to wade through pages of irrelevant search results.
  • Simply delete posts and ban users who post these types of questions. It’s kind of extreme, but it may be most appropriate for something like a safe space for marginalized folks or a 300-level social justice space where basic questions really detract from the group’s purpose.

Here’s the thing–if you don’t want your forum to focus on answering questions that have already been answered or that are considered too low-level for the purposes of that space, the last thing you should want is for those questions’ threads to fill up with snark and ridicule of the poster’s lack of Google skills. All that does is promote continued engagement on that post (and a toxic form of engagement at that, although that’s just my opinion) and keep the post at the top of the group feed. It contributes to the exact problem that the snark and ridicule is supposedly meant to prevent.

Except, of course, that’s not really what it’s meant to do at all. In my experience, people who get something out of ridiculing others frequently come up with all sorts of post-hoc justifications for their behavior, but what they’re mostly doing is venting emotions without much forethought. You feel annoyed or angry, so you lash out. Only later do you produce rationalizations like “Well, they’re ruining the purpose of this space by posting those questions and I want them to stop.” I’m skeptical that very many of these people thought, upon encountering the offending post, “Huh, I wonder what would be the best way of stopping posts like this from happening.”

But it’s annoying!

Yeah, as I said, I’m not arguing that it’s not. But I think that a big part of the reason it feels so annoying is because of the assumptions we make about others’ motivations–assumptions that we usually have no evidence for.

Many people see a repeat question and think, “Wow, this person respects me and my time so little that they would make me re-answer something that’s already been answered.” Sure, that could be it. Or it could be that they did try searching but didn’t use the exact right search terms (a common issue for topics as diverse as social justice and coding). It could be that they’re in a hurry to get the answer and figured someone would be willing to point them in the right direction. It could be that they’re on their phone and the search box isn’t even visible in the mobile version of the page and they figured there wasn’t one. Look, it could really be anything. It doesn’t have to mean laziness and disrespect.

But they’re forcing me to answer their basic questions and I don’t want to/don’t have the spoons/can’t be everyone’s free [subject] tutor!

I’ve already written about this dynamic as it applies to social justice conversations online. But I think some of that applies much more broadly, in that many people mistake a statement about a need for a demand that that need be met–or, worse, an obligation to meet that need.

When someone asks a question, it’s safe to assume that they want an answer to that question. (Ok, fine, unless it’s a rhetorical question. Let’s not get technical.) They may even need an answer to that question. They may even feel entitled to an answer to that question from you–yes, you specifically.

But usually we don’t know what a stranger on the internet feels entitled to versus what they would simply like to have, if possible. And sometimes we assume that they feel entitled because that’s what we’re used to, or because we’re not fully confident about our own boundaries or our own ability to maintain them.

Much of this difficulty comes from Guess Culture, which we all struggle with to various extents. In Guess Culture, a question can indeed be an implicit demand for an answer, and in Guess Culture, ignoring someone’s question (even if posted on a public forum) can be a Wrong Thing To Do.

Probably the most common way people deal with situations where they feel like someone is demanding something from them that they can’t provide is to try to invalidate that person’s (perceived) need. After all, if their need is wrong or if they are wrong for asking for it to be met, then we’re not wrong for refusing to meet it.

So, you’re in a forum and someone posts a question that’s already been answered a hundred times, or is obviously too basic a question for this forum, and you’re just exhausted of answering these questions, and you resent being (implicitly) demanded to do it, and how could they expect this constant free tutoring from you–so clearly they’re in the wrong for posting it, and that means it’s okay to lash out at them and make fun of them, because after all they hurt you first.

I think what would help avoid these toxic cycles is to remember that the fact that someone has a need doesn’t obligate you to meet it, and the fact that you can’t meet someone’s need doesn’t make it invalid.

So, if you’re exhausted by these questions and they make you feel resentful and used, ignore them. Hide them from your feed. Block the people who posted them. If you think that someone has a pattern of misusing a group by trying to extract an unfair amount of intellectual labor from its members, talk to the mods about maybe banning that person. Mods, pay attention to those patterns; just because someone means well doesn’t mean they aren’t turning your group into a toxic space.

And that goes just the same for the people who think it their personal mission to comment “well if you’d bothered to use the search feature–” on every other post. Mods, ask yourselves what kind of group environment this contributes to and what it accomplishes. Do you want a group where everyone’s ridiculing each other all the time, or a group where shit gets done, whatever that means for your particular space?

In short, I see all sorts of cons and no pros to allowing this sort of interaction to happen in online forums. (Besides maybe some nebulous commitment to Free Speech and Anything Goes, but I don’t see much value in that when it comes to closed online spaces.) My advice as a longtime group moderator and participant is to ban this toxic and useless behavior.


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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation
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