Selection and accountability for forum moderators and leaders

Some time ago, we did a beta test of community leaders and I’ve finally come about to propose a bit more formalized process for choosing leaders and their accountability. At the suggestion of @mitzimorris and after consultations with the @SGB, I’ve extended the proposal to forum moderators, administrators and my own role - the community manager.

My goal was to keep the positions accountable and transparent while minimizing hassle. This is a proposal, that has not yet come into effect and I’ll be glad to hear the community’s feedback.

Scope

The following appointments are currently in place:

  • Adminstrators: can do basically anything on the site, including reading private messages between other users, editing content and impersonating users. Currently appointed admins
  • Moderators: Can edit content and moderate (flags, suspending users, …), but can’t read private messages (except when those are flagged for moderator attention) and can’t edit site setting (currently only @mitzimorris is a Moderator)
  • Leaders: (also known as “TL 4”) are somewhat between moderators and users - can change tags/titles on a topic, can edit posts by others (this is currently used primarily to format code/math) and can reorganize (split/merge) topics - see the docs for trust levels for more details. List of current Leaders
  • Community manager: actively managing the community, looking for ways to improve the experience on forums. This role is not directly tied to privileges on Discourse, but I am currently Admin (due to the need to adjust Discourse settings) and it is expected that Community Manager will be at least a Moderator. The position is currently paid and held by me.

I will refer to these four groups of users as privileged users in the following text.

Expectations

All privileged users are expected to:

  • Follow CoC + Discourse guidelines (once they are made), be an example of good behavior (i.e. higher standard is expected than for regular members)
  • Be active on the forums (at minimum respond in timely manner when tagged / messaged and engage in some other way at least semi-regularly)
    • This is not intended to be very strict, but we also don’t want to give advanced privileges to people who are hardly around as having too many people with privileges reduces transparency/accountability.

Leaders are expected to help with the day-to-day forum business as their capacity allow, in particular

  • Look for unanswered questions and answer them or tag people
  • Edit post titles, move post to appropriate categories, add/remove (in)appropriate tags
  • Edit posts from new users for formatting (and reminding users of the formatting features in a friendly way)
  • Mark posts as “Solution” if the OP didn’t do so
  • Notify the Community Manager of any potentially problematic behavior
  • Make people feel welcome (e.g. be generous with likes)

Moderators and admins are expected to:

  • Respond to flags and other moderation events in a timely manner.
  • If possible, help with running the forums (similarly to Leaders).

Community manager is expected to held the responsibilities of Leaders and Moderators, and also to:

  • Proactively seek ways to improve the Discourse experience
  • Notice newly active members of the community and get in touch with them.
  • Monitor site stats and continually asses the “mood” of the forums.

Appointment

  • SGB chooses Admins/Moderators and the Community manager
  • Community manager chooses Leaders (SGB can also choose Leaders directly)
  • Nominating others or oneself for a role is encouraged, but not necessary - everybody can nominate another user (but the user has to agree to take the role).
  • Community manager actively looks out for active members of the community to offer Leader privileges.
  • Appointments are announced publicly on the forums (preferably together with yearly wrap-up, see below)

Accountability, Termination

  • SGB provides guidance and feedback for the Admins/Moderators/Community manager
  • Community manager provides guidance and feedback to Leaders and other Admins/Moderators.
  • Community manager regularly monitors admin actions (edits to posts etc.)
  • Once a year (I propose this to be in October), there is a yearly wrap-up for privileged users.
  • Once appointed, privileged users are expected to stay in the role at least until next yearly wrap-up.
  • During yearly wrap-up, Community Manager starts a topic where everybody who currently has a privileged role briefly states if they wish to continue in their role (and hence want to devote time/energy to the community). It is encouraged - but not necessary - to also share past accomplishments/experiences and plans/visions for the future of the forum, especially for newly appointed members.
    • Everybody can give feedback to role holders in the yearly-wrap up
    • It is generally expected that people who wish to continue will continue in their roles, but the final decision is always with whoever appointed them.
    • The yearly wrap up ends with the Community Manager summarising the current appointments for privileged roles.
  • Community manager is expected to give updates more frequently
  • SGB/Community Manager can also revoke privileges they have given at any time, if the person failed to uphold their responsibilities. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, this is accompanied with a public post explaining what happened.
  • Any concerns/feedback about behavior of Leaders can be raised to the Community manager / SGB, concerns about behavior of Admins/Moderators/Community manager should be addressed directly to SGB.

I.e., there are no elections, but at least once a year there is a topic where you can see who holds which role and what they intend to do with it. Removal from roles is primarily by the role holder choosing not to commit to another year of service. Everybody currently holding advanced priviliges will be expected to re-commit in the next yearly wrap-up or give the priviliges up.

This post is long overdue, sorry. Looking forward to what you have to say.

18 Likes

Martin,

First off thanks for being community manager and doing it well. You have taken it seriously and evolved what is needed. Just great.

I think the admin position should be more like a system administrator that keeps discourse running and makes changes at the direction of the community manager and others. While they can read personal messages because that is what admins need to be able to do they should not do so without direction of the SGB. Feels like a big privacy violation. Same for impersonating users.

Rest of the structure looks fine.

Annual redeclaration of intent to continue the role seems like a good idea.

Revoking privileges should be private unless there is a good reason to make the decision public. Public humiliation should not be a part of being fired from a volunteer position.

Community manager should be first point of contact for any issues/complaints with anyone other than the community manager. Why would the SGB get involved with leaders? Too heavy.

Community manager original job description which you were hired under below for context: https://discourse.mc-stan.org/t/discourse-community-manager-paid-job/10839:

I am posting to ‘General’ because this is a part time position that might appeal to those not looking in ‘Jobs’.

Job: Discourse community manager

Compensation: $10,000/year, $2,500 paid quarterly as independent contractor, prorated to time worked.

Supervisor: Executive Director of the SGB is responsible for hiring/firing.

Responsibilities:The Stan forums (https://discourse.mc-stan.org/ 3 3https://discourse.mc-stan.org/ 3) are where most new users encounter the Stan community for the first time. The majority of those interactions are read-only but the content and demeanor of the forums are very important for both first impressions and for continued interactions. The manager is responsible, potentially by delegation, for:

Removing spam.

Scanning for inappropriate communications that violate our discourse guidelines

Developing and maintaining discourse guidelines.

Ensuring that questions get answered by answering the question themselves or seeking a relevant person to help.

Overall be a helpful voice on the forums.

Other responsibilities to be determined as the role matures.

I will wait until the Stan general meeting (Thursday Sept 12, 11am EDT) for the initial pool of applicants. The position will remain open until filled or withdrawn. The SGB will approve the candidate.

Email breck@mc-stan.org if you are interested. Just an expression of interest is fine. I’ll follow up with what further information I need.

thanks

Breck

2 Likes

@martinmodrak: Please remove me as an administrator. I didn’t realize I had access to messages users may have thought were private and I don’t want access to them going forward.

For the sake of our users’ privacy, it would be nice to warn users every time they send a message they may think is private that any current or future administrators will have access to it.

4 Likes

Just so it’s 100% clear, we didn’t decide to give admins access to everything, that decision was made by Discourse. I don’t like it either (and I don’t think admins should ever read any private messages, perhaps with the exception of an extreme case like somebody getting harassed via private messages), but I also wouldn’t recommend anyone trust private messages on a forum with sensitive information. I barely trust putting sensitive information in emails.

Yeah that would be nice but I don’t see how we could do that. @martinmodrak Do you know if that’s possible.

3 Likes

Thanks for the input some further reactions:

Admins

Good points about the admins - I didn’t write this with admins in mind, but probably adding something along the lines of

  • While administrators are technically allowed to read and alter any data on the site, they will not access private information without explicit approval from the affected user or - under exceptional circumstances - from the SGB

Alternatively we can say this is implied by the CoC.

Also I’ll note that admins can (by installing plugins) execute arbitrary code on the server. This is probably inevitable, so the possibility to access private stuff was always there. The design choice by Discourse to make it easy to access private messages via the GUI is however a bit weird.

Additionally we probably should require everybody who is admin to have 2FA. Or even require people to have separate accounts for admin work, so that in my day-to-day activities on the forums I don’t accidentaly use some admin power…

Done, Bob is no longer admin.

This should be possible, Discourse provides a lot of places where we can plug custom code/content, so I would expect there is one for private messages. I slightly doubt this is necessary - the fact that system admin can read anything is IMHO implied in any system that doesn’t boast cryptography features and we certainly don’t want admins to read the messages as a matter of internal policy… I’ve never done it and I expect other admins didn’t either (I think it was @mitzimorris who highlighted the possibility to me, and it is also documented in Discourse docs).

I also think admin access is implied ToS and/OR privacy policy - private messages would probably be considered as just another “Content”. Once again, since we probably want to have a strict policy of not accessing the private messages, I think we are basically in the same boat as any webmail service (who usually don’t display such warnings, despite at least some of their admins being - at least in principle - able to read everything)

Revoking privileges

Good point - this should be removed. My original intent was that we shouldn’t be quiet if there is some terrible overreach by a privileged user, but a) such situation would be a CoC violation and the CoC already covers the possibility of going public and b) most revocation would probably be because people will just phase out, which definitely doesn’t need a public notice.

Responsibility of SGB

I agree the community manager should be the first point of contact, but I think the ability to contact someone “higher” is needed.(maybe this could be the CoC committee) It is IMHO to be expected (and definitely is true at the moment) that the community manager is not neutral towards leaders - the leaders were chosen by them for a reason. So in case of some problematic behavior a user might justifiably worry that the community manager will not be impartial, hence I find the possibility to contact someone else directly important.

Next steps

If there won’t be additional contentious points, I would like to make a final version available with a start of a first “yearly wrap-up” this October.

Just to be sure everybody who will be affected by this has an opportunity to react, I am tagging all admins/modretors/leaders who didn’t react (like/reply) yet:

@syclik, @ariddell, @seantalts, @rybern, @lauren, @nhuurre, @ducoveen, @vianeylb, @andre.pfeuffer, @arya, @serban-nicusor, @Adam_Haber, @mcol, @tadej, @drezap, @enetsee, @roualdes, @mgorinova, @jrnold, @robertgrant, @Marcus_Brubaker, @Erik_Strumbelj, @stevebronder, @andrjohns, @Matthijs, @yizhang, @paul.buerkner, @betanalpha

And by the way, thanks you all for your work on the forums - it is a lot of people who keep the site running, inquiries resolved and good discussions held.

3 Likes

I had no idea I’ve got privileged user status on the forum! Frankly, I’m not very active, so don’t think I deserve it. Possibly another reason for keeping the positions more transparent / accountable. Thanks @martinmodrak for the post!

1 Like

This all sounds great. Thanks for putting this together. I especially like that privileged users’ expected activity, at least semi-regularly, is balanced with yearly wrap-ups where there’s an opportunity feedback and changes.

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Agree with the discussion here. While I don’t expect that messages sent over the internet are private (there’s always someone who can access them in engineering if not sys admin), I am VERY surprised that our own community admin have access to them - this is not standard for other social media platforms I think!

The current draft of the CoC should allow for this - local moderation by the community manager with support/access and reporting to the CoC committee as needed. :)

2 Likes

I’m happy to keep moderating spam and other flagged posts. I’ll keep an eye out for mistagged posts.

I agree with what people have said about the privacy of personal messages. Seems like we should be able to add a warning message somewhere (e.g., when someone starts writing a personal message). If this isn’t possible, it seems like a bug against discourse.

1 Like

I was also surprised when I found that out but I did a bit of research and it’s actually not uncommon on forums and other similar sites. For example admins can read private channels on Slack and also on many other types of forums. Regardless, I don’t think this is something we can change as it’s a Discourse policy, but it would definitely be good if we could warn about it!

2 Likes

The issue is partly that the higher-level privileges are very coarse grained: for a bunch of pretty harmless stuff I do somewhat regularly (change tag settings, modify properties of categories, change wording of some messages displayed to users etc.) you need admin rights, but those give you all sorts of superpowers you may not really need (totally understand why it makes sense for Discourse devs to keep it simple this way).

Anyway, I’ll look into possibilities of making this clear to the users, thanks for bringing this up.

1 Like

Apologies for the lack of replies on here. My email on here was closed (from my previous position) and I didn’t notice I hadn’t updated it until recently.

This next year (Sept - Sept) I have time to foster Stan Ecology, and reply to posts once in a while on here. Max Joseph, Max Farrell and I have been planning a few events and discussing how to best foster the community, and plan to launch some things in January (that’ll run regularly throughout the year). This is likely what I can firmly commit to, but will try to contribute more when I have pockets of time. I’m not concerned with what my official role is on the Stan discourse page.

2 Likes

I don’t have much to add other than I think that (1) roles should be explicitly opt-in instead of opt-out (2) the privileges of each role should be easily publicly available (including shared when new users register) and (3) the users in each role should be publicly listed somewhere so that users can know who has what privileges where.

5 Likes

I’d like to opt out as a forum moderator, but I have some code and docs I’d like to contribute so I’d appreciated the privileges on the GitHub pages. Current Stan projects have been on hold for other work.

Thank you.

1 Like