I’ve just had a rather unhappy experience as a WordPress forum member and thought that the best way to make something constructive of it would be to come up with suggestions to improve moderation practices.
Before getting into the subject, I want to make clear that in general the forum is a tremendously helpful vehicle for WordPress users in answering their technical questions and resolving problems they’re having with their installation. I’ve been posting intensively to the forum since I started with WordPress in May and 90% of my interactions have been positive, constructive and helpful. The support volunteers go out of their way usually to extend a hand to those of us who don’t understand technical issues or who need advice about plugins to help us customize our installations.
I want to be clear that I make these suggestions not with a sense of arrogance or animosity. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m implying that I have perfect knowledge of how the forum should work or that I’m being overly critical. My ideas are meant constructively and I hope they’ll be taken that way.
But it’s the 5-10% of interactions I want to deal with here. I’ve noticed that there is a tendency among a few support volunteers to provide “edgy” responses to users. A few seem to have rules either written or unwritten about how they prefer users to post and when someone doesn’t follow those rules there’s usually an “edge” to the volunteer’s posts in that particular thread.
Scott Merrill, in an e mail message, asked me to understand the stresses and frustrations that support volunteers face that might contribute to such reactions. And I do. There might be 1,000 reasons why a particular support volunteer might become frustrated in the boards. But in my experience some volunteers allow that frustration from previous board interactions to leak into threads in which they participate.
Take as an example the member who posts a question asked and answered too many times before by others. I understand how frustrating such a question may be. But if you allow your frustration to seep into the thread does it help either you or the member? Besides the member is likely a newbie and doesn’t know their way around the forum well and doesn’t know how to answer their own question. I have read threads in which volunteers and members have told people that if they only bothered to do a search they wouldn’t have had to post their question in the first place. This statement may be true and I certainly understand why you’d be thinking this thought. But is expressing it in this way helpful? Consider the intimidating effect it might have on someone new to the forum who doesn’t know their way around. And consider that the poster may have done a search and not found what you did. After all, you probably have a better sense of what you’re looking for than they do.
Among some volunteers there is also a tendency not to realize that their level of technical expertise exceeds that of the poster they’re trying to help. Plugin directions or hacks for example often come with little more than php script or code and lack intructions such as where to install, etc. I sometimes wish a volunteer might take a step back and think about how they would explain something to someone with only a basic knowledge of WordPress.
When a member opens a thread by asking a question, I’d strongly urge the volunteer who plans to answer it to do so directly. If you respond to such a question by making a critical reference to the member’s previous posts, then chances are you’re getting off-track AND you’re not answering the actual question. I’d say if your reply isn’t going to directly answer the question then perhaps you shouldn’t be posting to the thread. Perhaps you’re about to let your personal feelings about the member or the question asked get in the way of a constructive interchange.
I’m not saying that there’s never a reason to say something negative in a post. But if you do, I think you should consider the impact it may have not only on the member whose question you’re answering, but on the quality of the thread and on other members who might join the thread after you. Sometimes, a negative post from a volunteer looses the tongues of other members who then add their own negative perspectives on whatever the subject might be. In that case, even though the volunteer has only expressed their own opinion they’ve indirectly set a tone for the rest of the thread. So I’d suggest that in cases like this a volunteer examine other posts which have followed his or hers in the same thread. If they’re also negative, you should reconsider continuing the conversation in the same vein you used in your original reply.
I’d also suggest that a volunteer who feels that perhaps they’re letting their personal feelings about a member get in the way of good moderation should either back off the thread they’re posting to or else (if they feel the thread requires further volunteer participation) ask a fellow volunteer to take over for you. Sometimes the best thing one can do in situations like this is to get some distance from the situation.
Another sign that you may not be using good moderation practices is if you get into a tit for tat argument with a member. If you find that you are looking through a member’s back posts to find ammunition for your point of view in the argument, then you’re probably not being the most constructive moderator you could be. If you use terms like “whine” or “moan” to characterize the poster, then you’ve stopped being a moderator and become an adversary.
I’d also suggest that a volunteer not state in a thread that he doesn’t intend to post again in the thread. First, it comes across as peevish. Second, if you DO post again, then you’re not doing what you said you’d do.
No matter how much you disagree with a poster’s point of view, I don’t think a volunteer should ever be in the business of showing other members how wrong that point of view is. In addition, the WordPress philosophy should be “let a thousand flowers bloom.” A member may wish to customize their intallation in a way you as a support volunteer find totally useless. I’d urge the latter to either not reply in the forum to such a member or else to reply but not expect that it’s your job to point out the utter futility of what they’re trying to do. It should be the volunteer’s job to help and suggest, but not to point out that what a member’s trying to do is foolish.
I also feel that in a forum thread in which there is some level of contention, it’s important to not ratchet up the argument with incendiary or contentious terms. For example, when I posted to the forum asking for methods to curb comments from abusive visitors to my site a volunteer accused me of “censorship.” He’s entitled to his opinion. But how is expressing it within the thread useful or constructive?
I do not feel that negative comments about the CONTENT of a member’s blog have any place in a forum thread. In my case, other posters argued that the content of my blog invited comment abuse. This should be totally irrelevant both to this thread and the forum in general. When you post asking for a technical solution to a problem you should get a technical answer and not one relating to content. I note that one support volunteer participating in this thread did not rule this comment out of order while Scott did in his own later post to the thread. I believe that the first volunteer was too wrapped up in his negative feelings to note that other members were overstepping the bounds of what’s appropriate.
If there are volunteers who moderate in ways I’ve described above, then perhaps threads they participate in should be monitored by other volunteers for a time to make sure the person is “on the right track.”
Finally, I think volunteers should try to remember that one of the main purposes of the forum should be to give everyone a good feeling about WordPress and their experience using it. Moderation that accomplishes that goal is terrific. Moderation that makes a member feel criticized really turns the member and perhaps others reading the thread away from WordPress and that isn’t good for anyone.