Stack moderators are amazing people. The degree of total selflessness that mods invest in our shared goal of creating and protecting a safe, collaborative space for people to share knowledge is immeasurable. When we first put out a call for volunteers to help us keep our earliest sites running, we were stunned by the dedication and care that folks brought to the table. And as we work to help our sites continue to evolve and welcome in even more new users, our moderators are the ones on the front lines, ensuring all users who want to contribute can be a part of the community.
When people talk about “mods on Stack Overflow,” they’re often really referring to power users. This confusion comes from the fact that users who contribute large amounts of knowledge on our sites are trusted to do a lot of things that would be mod powers on other websites, like edit other people’s posts, or sometimes put questions on hold until topic issues can be resolved. In this post, we’re specifically talking about our elected or appointed community moderators, folks that assume a very high level of accountability and resolve situations that even power users simply can’t. Their primary role is to ensure that when bad things happen, they’re dealt with, so our communities can continue to be places where folks can come to learn in a civil, welcoming environment.
I’d like to tell you that we carefully crafted the perfect approach to moderation, but the truth is that all we really ever got right was seeking out passionate people, giving them support and then getting out of their way. We never set a bar for what being a good moderator looks like, our moderators did. Based on their initial success, we published our theory of moderation. It was inspired by what we learned by doing very little but watching great people take ownership of a new frontier while we tried to figure out where the magic was. Mostly in the hope that we didn’t break it. Today, many of our 600+ moderators donate their time for over 10 hours a week – and some of them much longer – asking for nothing in return but the opportunity to know they’ve made it possible for learning communities like ours to continue to thrive.
As we continue to grow – Can you believe we’re ten? – one of our most important responsibilities is to support our moderators, and allow them to continue to train the new generations of mods who join the ranks each year. Here’s how we think about our obligations to the hundreds of incredible people elected by our community:
Trust. Support. Agency. Accountability. Autonomy.
- Trust people. Nothing else works if you don’t have trust. You can’t grant autonomy if you don’t trust folks, and they won’t be accountable if they don’t trust you.
- Supporting people should be your default reaction. This is essential to maintaining trust. We haven’t always held this ideal as highly as we should, but we’re focused on doing a better job going forward. Sometimes supporting people means teaching them what they didn’t see, or how they could have explained their position better. What matters is, when you show up, their default reaction is phew, things just got better.
- Give people as much agency as you can. The people closest to the issues tend to be the ones that are best suited to make the best decisions.
- Require accountability as a tool for success. When you think of accountability, you might think of blame, and that means you’re probably a victim of bad management. Positive accountability means you’ve created a space where trust, support and agency run freely and people understand what’s their role is, and what success looks like. This means teaching people to learn to embrace mistakes as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
- Autonomy is critical to a sense of ownership. Folks need high-level direction in order to thrive, but even more essential is the space to interpret goals and distill them out into a strategy that they can act on in their own very unique circumstances. Some people need more help than others, but not getting in someone’s way while serving as a guard rail and a mentor can be really, really, really hard.
Have you seen us run afoul of these principles? Sure, you have – plenty of times. But we work at them, and we’re writing ’em down, to make sure these five points remain a core and active part of our commitment to our moderators going forward.
Trusting your communities to elect and support smart leaders with a lot of agency and little oversight is downright terrifying if you stop and think about everything that could possibly go wrong, but we owe a huge part of our success to an early realization that many fears are irrational. And that trusting people is usually the best path to success. And to be honest, the few times this system showed cracks, it was because we’d lost track of some of those five bullets as we grew.
Someone wise once said that if you write it down, you’re less likely to forget. And um… that seems pretty clearly correct. So, to all 600+ of the people that make our sites work every single day – thanks for everything you’ve taught us, and for everything you do every day.