[Paper] Metaphors in Moderation

765 words papers,

How do moderators of online communities see their roles? As a firefighter, as police, as a gardener, as a mediator? This paper explores the metaphors that volunteer moderators use to make sense of their roles.

Authors: Joseph Seering, Geoff Kaufman, Stevie Chancellor

Link: PDF, in New Media and Society


Everything is a content moderation issue, writes law professor Evelyn Douek. Content moderation—often run by volunteers—keeps online platforms running. The nature of the work that volunteer moderators do is less understood.

Moderators often play several different roles. These roles might come into conflict with each other. The authors understand these roles as metaphors:

In this paper we use analysis of metaphors to answer whether, as the technical landscape of moderation and online communities has evolved, the corresponding conceptual landscape of how moderators and community administrators view their roles has also changed.

A metaphor is useful in part because it’s an expression of some values. Metaphors can help someone to think about a concept or job differently. Here, metaphors include things like “moderator as gardener” and “moderator as police.” They contain three pieces of information:

(1) The social role a moderator believes that they hold in the community; (2) An implicit set of values for what they believe their community should be like; and (3) An implied set of heuristics that shape how they make each moderation decision.

And what do we hope to learn from all of this? Mostly how to support moderators:

These metaphors can also help platforms develop tools and spaces that support moderators far beyond the oversimplified but widely-presumed role of content removal and instead focus on their values, social preferences, and approaches to community support and management.

Interview study

The researchers interviewed 56 volunteer moderators from Twitch, Reddit, and Facebook. They did a first round of interviews with all of them, and followed up with 23 two years later. The follow-ups were to understand how moderators felt their roles evolved over time, as platforms added new features and changed policies.

They uncovered five categories of metaphors. Interviewees helped in building this taxonomy. This table is drawn from their Figure 1:

Category Example metaphors
Nurturing and supporting Curator, custodian, gardener, janitor, teacher
Overseeing and facilitating Adult in the room, facilitator, mediator, police
Governing and regulating Dictator, governor, judge
Managing Manager, networker, representative, team member
Fighting for Combatant, protector, target, piñata

How moderators see their role impacts what kinds of decisions they make.

Moderators whose roles are described in the Nurturing and Supporting Communities category envision a community that is clean, trained, and often evolving over time. Correspondingly, these metaphors describe heuristics for moderation decisions based on their vision for the community.

A Curator, for example, works based off a vision for what they want their community to be like. A Janitor moderator knows what they don’t want their community to be.

Some moderators considered themselves to be facilitators (for “discourse groups” on Facebook or discussion-based communities on Reddit). Others (Fighting for Communities) saw moderation as a battle filled with active conflict—being beaten up by their community or having to take harsh feedback from community members.

My thoughts

I think this paper does a great job at uncovering the nuance behind moderation. We often think of moderation in terms of content removal, but this work reveals how complex it really is:

removal is only one piece of a deeper social process of nurturing, overseeing, intervening, fighting, managing, governing, enduring, and stewarding communities.

I would have loved to learn more about how platform design and community design influence how moderators see their roles. The authors discussed this (talking about how live chat on Twitch is different from async conversation on Reddit, or how politics make Facebook messy), but I think it’d be interesting to study further.

I had other questions, too. How do moderation metaphors vary across the same platform? /r/cats and /r/HadesTheGame are very different subreddits, and I imagine the moderators see their roles differently. How can platforms build different moderation tools for moderators who see themselves in different roles? Interviewing people who moderate different communities might be revealing.

Do moderators ever switch between roles? What happens if two roles come into conflict? Do community members have the same perceptions of moderator roles?

It’s not a bad thing that I had more questions; that means this paper made me think a lot. I think online communities are such an interesting space for future work, as more of our lives happens online. I’ve personally found a sense of community in several (places)[https://tusharc.dev/posts/password_tool_6.html] on the internet, and researching the dynamics of online communities is great.