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Pitfalls of Newsgroup Moderation (or Things You Wished You'd Thought Of Before You Started) Maintained by Russ Allbery <firstname.lastname@example.org> So you want to propose a moderated newsgroup. Or perhaps you want to moderate one, or maybe someone's just proposing a moderated newsgroup for a topic you're interested in (or even proposing moderating a group that you read). You may want to read this before you go further. Let me be clear about my bias up-front. I'm an advocate of moderation for a lot of situations. I think it's a great way of improving the quality of a newsgroup under some circumstances. I'm also the moderator of several newsgroups myself. But a lot of people are quite fond of the concept and results of moderation without being aware of the work and problems that come with it. This document is an attempt to teach you about that part. This is not an attempt to persuade you that moderation is a bad idea, although it may have that effect. (And if it does, moderation probably *is* a bad idea for your particular problem. Moderation is rather far from a cure-all.) This is an attempt to get you thinking about some issues that you may not be aware of or may be tempted to discount. This is not a how-to on how to moderate, nor is this a primer on what a moderated group is. If you don't know that already, you're not in the target audience for this post. If you haven't already, please familiarize yourself with the means and methods of moderation; a good place to start is with the old Moderator's Handbook, available at: <http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/usefor/other/moderators-handbook> This document is divided into three parts. Each part is a list of pitfalls and problems that arise with moderated groups, things you should be thinking of, and things that others have wished they had thought of earlier. The first section is aimed at proponents of moderated groups, the second at prospective (or current) moderators, and the third at readers of and posters to moderated groups. For proponents: * Are you aware that your group is going to depend entirely on the moderators? Have you really thought about what that means? A regular newsgroup can, if push comes to shove, survive on a few die-hard posters until interest picks up again. A moderated group without active moderators is dead. It doesn't matter how many posters there are, how good of an idea the group is, how many people are interested, or how many sites carry it; if no one is moderating it, the group is dead. And once it dies, it can be very hard to revive again. * Are you sure your newsgroup needs to be moderated? It will be easier on you and everyone else if you can get away without needing moderation. Unmoderated groups largely run themselves. Moderated groups require some group of people to regularly invest their time in the newsgroup, day in and day out, for as long as the newsgroup exists. Don't underestimate how hard this is! This goes treble for discussion groups; announcement groups can handle occasional idle periods when a moderator goes on vacation, but discussion groups can't (at least very often). They need to be working all the time, and that means finding a moderation team that can manage that. (A lot of it can be automated, but if everyone goes on vacation that will be when the automation will break and spew thousands of posts all over Usenet.) * Are you trying to moderate an existing newsgroup? If so, is there anyone, and I mean *anyone*, who wants it left alone? If not, wow, that's really rare. Congratulations. If so, please, for the sake of all of our blood pressures, seriously consider creating a new moderated group rather than moderating the old one. If people will continue to use the unmoderated group, it won't be a waste, and you will not believe the number of flamewars it will preserve you from. Providing a new choice is drastically easier to defend than restricting something that already exists. * Do you have a team of moderators already lined up? Yes, a team. One moderator is not recommended, even if they think they'll have plenty of time. (They may have plenty of time, but remember, a Usenet newsgroup is going to last for years.) Past experience shows both that finding moderators is the hardest part of this and that groups with one moderator are very prone to dying off. Make sure you have backup moderators! * Do you have someone on the moderation team who's already very familiar with how Usenet and moderated newsgroups work? Learning on the job is a great idea for part of the team (the backup moderators can probably do that). If the primary moderator is learning too, your group is likely to be in for a rough start. At least make sure you have an advisor, a technical contact, or someone in the loop who has a goodly bit of experience with getting moderated newsgroups working. * Did you think that the work of getting the newsgroup created would end with the vote? We all wish that were true, but it's not. Particularly with a moderated group. A lot of sites (it'll feel like most sites) just won't create the group. They'll ignore the newgroup. You'll have to mail them individually. Then they'll create the newsgroup unmoderated instead, and you'll have to mail them again. Then they'll get the submission address wrong. Then they'll lose it again. Expect it to take a few months to get the newsgroup up and mostly running. Get very used to saying "please mail your news administrator and ask them to fix the newsgroup at your site." For moderators: * Do you have backups? Yes, I just said that above, but it's important. Even if you think you can handle this all by yourself now, what happens when you want to go on vacation in Tibet? What happens when there's an illness in your family? What happens when you just plain run out of time? Having a backup moderator is not a one-time arrangement; it's an ongoing commitment to keep another person (or group of people!) up to speed with how the group is being moderated so that they can take over in the event of an emergency of some sort. That means making sure they have current copies of the scripts, current instructions, current copies of any supporting data files, and so on. * Can you find some way to run the group as a team? I can't recommend this strongly enough. You have no idea how much it helps (unless you've already done it). It means you don't have to jump at everything, since there are other people to bear the load. It means that there are people to talk to and get second opinions from. It means there are other people you can blow off steam with who will understand. And it takes care of the backup problem. * Do you know exactly how you're going to moderate the newsgroup, the entire process from receiving the message in e-mail to posting it to the newsgroup and making sure it propagates? If not, work it out *now*. Test it. Your readers may tolerate a bit of setup time after the group is created, but not very much. Make sure you're just working out kinks. Don't suddenly realize that the group actually passed and now you have to work out an entire moderation system in five days. * Are you converting an existing unmoderated newsgroup into a moderated newsgroup? In that case, forget any leeway mentioned above. The entire moderation system has to be working immediately when the newgroup message goes out, or the group is going to break and everyone is going to blame you. If you don't already have this entire moderation thing down cold, don't get involved in moderating an existing unmoderated group! This is not for beginners at moderation. * Do you know how to "program," at least to the extent of setting up macros and scripts for the tools that you use to automate common tasks? Do you know someone who does and can help you? If not, don't try to moderate a high, or even medium, volume newsgroup. Moderating a newsgroup that gets more than a few articles a day requires either some level of programming, at least to the degree of writing procmail scripts, or a lot of free time to spend on moderating the group. There are free tools out there to help you, but they're going to require customization for your group. Other people may be willing to help you, but make sure you have them lined up in advance and make sure you're already working on your moderation system. It will be harder to set up and will take more time than you expect. * Do you have multiple injection points? Your server is going to crash. People will expect the group to continue working even when your server has crashed. Furthermore, sometimes your server crashes in ways that make it look like your posts are being posted, but they're not actually going anywhere. If you inject the same post via multiple servers using the same message ID, there won't be any duplicates, and you get redundancy. (If you run the news server you'll be injecting posts into, you don't have to worry as much about this. In that case, when the news server breaks, you'll be able to fix it, and keeping it running will be part of keeping the entire moderation system working. Your existing multiple peers will be your multiple injection points. But make sure you have some warning of when it's broken!) There's a lot of help available for this from other moderators. Ask on the moderators list (subscription requests to email@example.com). * Are you ready to be responsible for the newsgroup? If you're the moderator, then anything that goes wrong with the newsgroup is going to be your fault. Even if it isn't. You're going to get to diagnose bizarre problems with news systems all over the world. You're going to get to deal with the fact that there are a lot of really poorly managed Usenet sites out there, and they're going to get the submission address or even the moderation status of your group wrong. All of the posters and readers are going to look to you to fix it. (Make sure you provide a way for posters to e-mail posts directly to you when their news servers don't let them post correctly. That's a really common problem.) * Are you able to be infallibly polite? Or at least know when you need to cool off a bit before responding? Remember, people expect anything they post to be approved, and you're going to have to reject some of it. They're going to be upset about that. Quite frequently they're going to be angry. Sometimes very angry. You don't get the luxury of losing your temper. You are the Moderator. While you're wearing the moderator hat, you need to be calm, cool, unbiased, and consistent. Even if you're running a robomoderated group, don't expect to be able to disappear into the background. You still will be the person everyone will ask when anything doesn't work like they expected. * Do you have backup plans? What happens when your home computer dies? What happens when your ISP dies? What happens when you lose power for an extended period, are called away unexpectedly, get buried in work, get stranded somewhere, or otherwise lose network access temporarily? What happens if you decide you don't want to do this any more? The newsgroup is now something you're going to have to think about in situations like that. If you should suddenly drop off the earth, can the newsgroup continue on without you? Do the other moderators (you do have other moderators, right?) have your home and work phone numbers? * Do you have a nigh-permanent submission address? As much as we all try to get everyone to use the moderation relay sites, somehow the actual submission address gets into people's configuration files, and some servers will keep sending posts to the submission address from five years ago. You really want those posts to still reach you. * Are you hooking a mailing list to a newsgroup? This involves special issues of its own: the mailing list tends to get a lot of spam unless it's also moderated, contributors to the mailing list may be worried about their addresses being harvested from the newsgroup, and people contributing to the mailing list may be using software that doesn't generate things like References that news software wants. Make sure you've discussed this thoroughly with both the list members and the newsgroup users. It's generally not a good idea to try to combine something that's unmoderated with something that's moderated; gatewaying an unmoderated newsgroup into a moderated mailing list or vice versa is just asking for trouble. For readers and posters: * Are you willing to tolerate delays? Your articles won't show up as fast as they do with an unmoderated newsgroup, from your perspective. If the moderation site is very well-connected and the newsgroup is robomoderated, they may show up faster for most of the net, but they still won't instantly be available from your local server. And despite everyone's planning and best intentions, things will go wrong and the group will occasionally be down for a while. * Are you willing to put up with your posts occasionally getting lost? Your ISP will misplace them. There will be a broken moderation relay. There will be a mail problem somewhere. Guaranteed, sooner or later, a post just won't show up. You'll have to resend it, and may have to bug your local administrators to fix something. * Are you willing to help get the newsgroup going? As mentioned above, lots of sites just won't get this right at first. The newsgroup won't be created, it'll be created unmoderated... there will be problems. The only way to get those problems fixed is generally for some user of a site with problems to contact the news administrators and ask them to fix it; the moderators can ask, but ISPs respond much more quickly to (polite) requests from paying customers than from random moderators. * Do you trust the moderators? Because if they don't want to be replaced, you're going to have a hell of a time replacing them. No matter what you put in the newsgroup charter, moderators effectively control the newsgroups they moderate, and no one's going to take the newsgroup away from them unless they do something egregious. And even then, it will be months of fighting over it. Pick people you trust! If you don't trust the moderators, don't vote for the newsgroup, no matter how good it sounds. * Are you willing to have your posts be rejected? No matter what the moderation criteria for the newsgroup, even if it's just strict robomoderation against crossposts, sooner or later you're going to want to post something that the moderators are going to reject. You might be able to talk them around, but you're probably going to just have to swallow your rejections and put up with it. Moderators reject posts. That's the whole point of a moderated group. Don't think it's never going to be you too. If you have anything else to add to this post, or any suggestions about it, don't hesitate to mail me. Thanks to Gary Johnson for his encouragement and to Tim Ottinger for the initial framework of this post. Thanks also to many news.groups readers for suggestions and feedback.