Moderate in Moderation

19 Nov
2009

debateI can’t imagine anyone who is a community management practitioner and hasn’t heard about what happened over at Stltoday.com. If you haven’t been following this story, here’s a brief synopsis. Last Friday, STLToday.com did their daily word of the day section of the blog, where readers are encouraged to participate in a light-hearted discussion. In this case it was “The strangest food you ever ate.” So one guy posted a 4 letter word that starts with a “C” and means a part of a woman’s anatomy. The moderator Kurt Greenbaum, who is also the director of social media for STLToday.com, removed the comment. The commenter then posted his comment again, after which Greenbaum went snooping into WordPress, retrieved the IP address, figured it was a school, and then proceeded to contact the school. The school officials decided to crucify the poor guy (remember, it’s the super conservative Midwest we are talking about), figured out who it was, confronted him on the spot, leading to the guy’s resignation. Then Greenbaum posts on his personal blog and then reposts on STLToday.com this achievement, with a bit of a gloating undertone.

(Note: I use moderator and community manager interchangeably in this post. However, it’s important to realize that moderation is just a part of what a community manager does, and not every moderator is a community manager).

Let’s explore what happened:

Wow… I checked the date after I read this, just to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. Seriously? Ok, let’s attacked the issues one by one. First of all, there’s the issue of it being a school. Last time I checked, we had more serious problems in our public schools than a 4 letter word. Many things to get fired over, take your pick: child molestation, violence, teen violence in school, bigotry, hate groups. If someone posted “I’m gonna pop a cap in this a-hole’s knee”, and it came from a school (or anywhere really), that’s cause for alarm. If someone from a school posted something about a teacher having sex with a student, then I would understand tracking the IP address to find the perpetrator. But a 4-letter word? Granted it’s a profanity, so what? There’s no harm to self or others or threatening to kill the President, and those are the only examples that I can think of when it’s reasonable and legal to attract the right authorities. On this point, I conclude that the reaction was totally overblown.

Secondly, there’s the issue of expressing your views in public, and how anything you write can be used against you. Ok, fine, I buy that you need to be careful about what you say online and should never say or email anything that you wouldn’t want on the front page of NY Times. However, we ALL slip up every once in a while, and to judge someone on a profanity is going too far. I would judge more harshly if the comment contained profanity in a libelous sense. On this point, I also think the moderator overreacted.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of the guy using his work computer to post a profanity in public. So he is not that smart, and deserves a slap on the wrist. If he logged on as “Public School #3” and then issued the profanity in public, then I can understand firing the guy. But if you don’t have access to the internal WordPress controls, you would never know where it came from. This behavior deserves a stern reminder from a supervisor that using a work computer for personal stuff is bad. We’ve all heard that speech before, and I’m yet to meet someone who’s never done that. Let’s get real. The “C” word is bad, but not worthy of this punishment. Seems to me that this particular moderator was out of line, perhaps grinding a personal axe and decided to make an example out of someone. I think Kurt Greenbaum should be fired for abusing his power, immaturity, and what can be considered libel (although he never publicly disclosed the name).

And finally, here’s the kicker (thanks to the commenters on the STLToday.com post itself): he violated his own privacy policy: “We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information. In some cases, however, we may provide information to legal officials as described in ‘Compliance with Legal Process’”. If he doesn’t get fired after this, I would be very surprised. I also see a lawsuit coming, and imagine quite a few lawyers would take this case pro bono or on a % of winnings basis.

Now what?

So what would you do? What would I do as a community manager? The moderator was right to remove the comment. After he removed it, he should’ve contacted this person privately, cited the TOS, and asked him to stop with a strong warning (which is why you need to REQUIRE email addresses and have very strong TOS’s on every discussion forum and blog). If the comment reappeared, the moderator should’ve blocked this email address or IP address, however their platform is structured. Can the abuser write from another email or IP? Sure! But at some point, he will run out of machines, will get bored, and it will be over. Contact him, remove him, block him, but don’t engage the troll in public, and he will go away eventually.

If I was the moderator, I would’ve issued a strong public reminder of the TOS’s and reminded members that profanities aren’t tolerated. Depending on whether they have premoderation tools (seems that they don’t), I may consider adding  them. I personally don’t like premoderation, but if keeping offensive comments out is a primary goal, then the moderator should think about it. On my own blog, I wouldn’t do that, but I also wouldn’t get this wound up if someone said the “C” word. Then again, I am liberal and live in liberal cities like NYC and San Fran.

And this is a key takeaway: the structure of your community, moderation and premoderation tools should be there for a purpose, and aligned with your business objectives. Do you need to keep things very professional and family friendly? Turn on premoderation. Do you want to inspire unfettered conversation and idea exchange? Do you (or the brand you represent) welcome friendly debate? Then the less controls you have, the better. But whatever you do, you should still have strong community flagging features, so the community can police itself.

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  • http://twitter.com/SueOnTheWeb Sue

    Maria, I completely agree with you. The moderator stepped over the line, and should himself consider whether he should hang onto his position as a moderator. To breach a person's privacy in that manner, over a swear word, is inexcusable. As a CM myself I treat the information of our members like a doctor does his patient. We do not share that information with others. A swear word is a swear word, nothing more, nothing less. Remove it, ask the person politely not to use it again and move on. If that same person comes back and does it again then they should be banned from the community.

    At all times a CM needs to behave professionally and rise above issues like this. To then go ahead and post it about it in such a manner is rubbing salt into a wound that should never have been allowed to get that big in the first place.

    As always Maria, your posts are thought provoking and current. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://maria.me themaria

    Sue, thanks for contributing such thoughtful comments! I can always count on you to share your wisdom :)

    I completely agree, and I really love your analogy of doctor / patient relationship. I think privacy is huge, and many users are already worried about putting themselves “out there”. Examples like these certainly don't help to solidify users' trust in social media and community platforms. So it's up to us, the conscientious CM's and social media folks, to spearhead high ethics and morals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robertstanke Bob Stanke

    Great story/post. I totally agree with your wrap-up at the end and that is how I would have handled it exactly. At Life Time Fitness, I even have the ability to completely cancel a member's membership if they continually violate TOS for the online community, but I would never go as far as contacting employers through IP addresses. He needs more to do if you ask me!

    Bob Stanke
    http://robertstanke.com

  • http://twitter.com/SueOnTheWeb Sue

    Maria, I completely agree with you. The moderator stepped over the line, and should himself consider whether he should hang onto his position as a moderator. To breach a person’s privacy in that manner, over a swear word, is inexcusable. As a CM myself I treat the information of our members like a doctor does his patient. We do not share that information with others. A swear word is a swear word, nothing more, nothing less. Remove it, ask the person politely not to use it again and move on. If that same person comes back and does it again then they should be banned from the community.

    At all times a CM needs to behave professionally and rise above issues like this. To then go ahead and post it about it in such a manner is rubbing salt into a wound that should never have been allowed to get that big in the first place.

    As always Maria, your posts are thought provoking and current. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://themaria.me/ themaria

      Sue, thanks for contributing such thoughtful comments! I can always count on you to share your wisdom :)

      I completely agree, and I really love your analogy of doctor / patient relationship. I think privacy is huge, and many users are already worried about putting themselves “out there”. Examples like these certainly don’t help to solidify users’ trust in social media and community platforms. So it’s up to us, the conscientious CM’s and social media folks, to spearhead high ethics and morals.

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  • http://robertstanke.com/ Bob Stanke

    Great story/post. I totally agree with your wrap-up at the end and that is how I would have handled it exactly. At Life Time Fitness, I even have the ability to completely cancel a member’s membership if they continually violate TOS for the online community, but I would never go as far as contacting employers through IP addresses. He needs more to do if you ask me!

    Bob Stanke
    http://robertstanke.com

  • http://twitter.com/communitygirl Angela Connor

    I've been sharing this with people as well. I don't agree with the steps taken and expressed that on his blog. I do hope to hear from him in return. As a community manager myself, I tend to contact people directly on some cases but most times revoking their posting privileges is enough. Just ban them. That is all that was needed in this case unless there is a serious back story that we do not know.
    Good post. I enjoyed your perspective.

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  • http://twitter.com/communitygirl Angela Connor

    I’ve been sharing this with people as well. I don’t agree with the steps taken and expressed that on his blog. I do hope to hear from him in return. As a community manager myself, I tend to contact people directly on some cases but most times revoking their posting privileges is enough. Just ban them. That is all that was needed in this case unless there is a serious back story that we do not know.
    Good post. I enjoyed your perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/communitygirl Angela Connor

    I've been sharing this with people as well. I don't agree with the steps taken and expressed that on his blog. I do hope to hear from him in return. As a community manager myself, I tend to contact people directly on some cases but most times revoking their posting privileges is enough. Just ban them. That is all that was needed in this case unless there is a serious back story that we do not know.
    Good post. I enjoyed your perspective.

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