Forum moderators are the unsung heroes of the internet, but a lot of the time, they're treated more like high school hall monitors than skilled workers. For no money and little thanks, moderators sift out the festering, useless gunk of online culture from the amazing shit that got us hooked on the internet in the first place.
A lot of the time, they spend over a dozen hours doing it a week. You'd think that droves of them would be banging on forum owners' doors, demanding cash compensation. Actually, a lot of them are just fine getting paid in popularity and respect.
Last week, most of the moderators of the behemoth gaming forum NeoGAF resigned from their posts in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against the site's owner.
Until that point, they had been culling the forums for off-topic, malicious or harmful posts, punishing bad posters with suspensions or bans.
A major frustration, three of them told me, was that they didn't have a lot of control over the forum's governing laws, despite their role as its enforcers. Without pay or any sense of real, tangible ownership, a lot of these mods said that the allegations against Malka served as a tipping point.
NeoGAF's stringent and discerning cast of moderators were what made the forum's culture so appealing to gamers who weren't seduced by harsher forum climates. If forums are businesses, and moderators are essential to their function, shouldn't they be viewed more as employees than volunteers, and receive cash compensation?
That's been my thought process over the past few days, and I set out to write a piece declaring that forum moderators should be paid a fair wage for their labour. But as I started talking to moderators and reporting out this story, I ran into an unexpected twist: Not many of them actually want to get paid.
One SomethingAwful.com moderator, who did not want to be named, said that their volunteer work is volunteer work, end of story. "I don't want compensation for my service. I do it because I've been a member of the community for a long time and want to give back to the community that I feel strongly about," they told me.
A modicum of respect or appreciation, they said, suffices.
One long-time NeoGAF moderator, Besada, agreed that moderation qualifies as work, but said that a Christmas gift or, at best, a tiny share in profits would be ideal. Others I spoke with confirmed that even having enough spare time to moderate forums often means living a more luxurious life than people who might have to string together a few part-time gigs to stay afloat. A few extra bucks extracted from a gaming forum's coffers wouldn't add much to their quality of life, many moderators told me.
"For most of the moderators, the level of pay wouldn't make much of a difference," said Besada, who said he spent anywhere from 15 to 30 hours moderating NeoGAF a week on top of his IT career. "Most of us were professionals with good jobs."
In the days after NeoGAF's demise, thousands of its users moved to a new forum called Resetera. When reached by email, Resetera's project lead, Cerium, wouldn't answer questions about compensating mods, adding, "It's something I think should be debated and considered. We've arrived at no conclusions at this time."
One current moderator there, Rowlf, told me that the vast majority of his kind "do it because we want to and not out of any expectation of payment. It's giving back time to a community that you've taken so much from."
This isn't a new conversation. Back in 2002, a handful of former AOL moderators filed a lawsuit against the then-internet giant, with their lawyer arguing that they were volunteers of a "cyber sweatshop."
Those moderators approached the Department of Labour to ask whether AOL, a for-profit business, owed them back wages for the dozens of hours weekly they put into hosting chats, curating message boards and banning users.
After the Department of Labour didn't investigate, they took it to a federal court. Their lawyer alleged that functionally, they were more like employees than volunteers, even though some of their time was compensated with free internet service.
"We are tired of seeing others, like ourselves, being treated like employees of America Online," they wrote on Observers.net.
"We believe that AOL treats its volunteer staff as a paid staff, forcing timecards, scheduled shifts, reports, and minimum hours onto these remote staff individuals." Two thousand volunteers participated in the lawsuit. In 2009, AOL settled with a reported $US15 ($20) million, including attorneys' fees.
There aren't lots of hammered-out business models for forums that pay moderators. Katherine Lo, a PhD student in the Informatics department at University of California, Irvine and a long-time moderator for Reddit and Facebook groups, pointed out that tech companies' decisions are often informed by metrics.
And, she said, unlike engineering, "Moderation labour doesn't reflect well in metrics. We have metrics around engagement and user numbers, but we haven't really developed sophisticated metrics around forum sentiment. Community health — how do you evaluate it? There isn't a lot of effort to do that formally and connect it with profitability," she added.
It's not easy to design working standards for moderators that would help guide salary decisions. One former NeoGAF moderator, who also wasn't totally sold on the idea of being paid, said, "When you convert the activity to a paid one you also change the expectations pretty significantly".
Instead of popping in and out whenever they're taking lunch at work, they'd have to be more vigilant. And also, what would that vigilance look like? Paying moderators by how many posters they ban is pretty fraught, and might give them an incentive to ban innocent people. Paying them by how many posts they close down presents the same problem.
There's a lot of invisible labour that goes into modding a forum: How would a forum supervisor measure how many posts a moderator read and deemed perfectly fine?
One practice that's proven to be successful is paying moderators out of a donation pool. Community weblog MetaFilter.com, which offers very active forums, is ahead of the curve on this. MetaFilter.com receives money in exchange for running ads on the site, but generous user donations are a big help.
MetaFilter's six full-time mods work in dedicated, eight-hour shifts, which site owner (and moderator) Josh Millard says is why they're so responsive to user emails and flagged posts. "Everyone on the team makes a solid living wage," Millard told me over email.
"Nobody's getting rich working for MetaFilter, but they're getting paid well for a job that requires skill and attention and a long-term commitment to maintaining a large and sometimes complicated community." The work isn't just skilled — it's "emotionally costly," in Millard's terms. He continued:
"I think it's incumbent on any site owner or community manager to look hard at what they're expecting volunteer moderators to do, and find ways to either shift their budget to make paid moderation possible or change what they're doing to reduce the need for unpaid or underpaid moderation labour.
It's important to not exploit the goodwill of your community members by asking them to do unreasonable amounts of uncompensated labour. And it's important on the flip side to recognise that if you can't, in an ethically sound manner, provide sufficient moderation for a discussion space to keep it thoughtful and non-toxic, running a discussion space may simply be a bad decision."
Of course, Millard's perspective doesn't account for the question of whether moderators even want to be paid. Asked about that, he said that a lot of moderators might not be comfortable asking for money, especially since the optics of paying moderators could spur criticism over money-driven bias.
With the rise of community managers at gaming and tech companies, salaried, full-time moderation is closer to being considered a job. A lot of it is online brand advocacy, but managing social channels and the people who lurk on them is part of the job description, too.
Community management job postings often require a Communications or Marketing degree. That level of professionalism isn't often expected from moderators for subreddits or medium-sized gaming forums.
Long-time denizens of the internet know that anonymity is pretty crucial for moderators — people who are banned tend to get upset about it — and compromising safety with personally identifying information can be a risk.
Resetera, which attracted thousands of users when it launched earlier this week, could serve as a model for good digital labour practices. The people behind it say they're focusing on coming up with good and righteous standards for moderation. With the site launched so quickly, its leads hadn't carved out firm monetisation plans.
Early on, Resetera's team decided that donation wasn't an option. Cerium is afraid it would create "conflicts of interest as regards moderation," or inspire preferential treatment. The moderator Rowlf doesn't seem to be upset. He just wants to give back to the community.