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17. How to deal with your readership

17. How to deal with your readership

Moderators need to take the time to figure out how they wish their newsgroup to be perceived on the net. Some of this is forced upon the moderator by the group's charter but much of it is up to the moderator. Are you planning on being proactive in keeping discussions going and on track ? Do you see yourself only as a filter for the group hoping to keep yourself totally in the shadows ? Or do you plan to be somewhere in the middle of the two ? And how will you deal with the submitters ? Much of the perceived success in being a moderator is how your deal with your group's readership.

17.1. Personality of your group

This is up to you as the moderator to determine.

The whole point of having a moderator is to act as a filter, so you don't get 20 copies of the origin of “foobar” all posted. In general, you decide:

  • Which submissions are appropriate for the newsgroup,
  • What format to post them in,
  • What order to post things in,
  • Whether to edit the submissions,
  • How, or in what directions to steer the discussion.

For example: because of the very restrictive charter of news.announce.important, submissions accepted and posted to the group should be articles that are SO important that nearly everyone on Usenet should read them. For this reason almost all postings are rejected. The moderator often suggests to the submitter that the submission instead belongs in another group, such as news.misc.

However, for most discussion newsgroups, you'll probably want to let almost everything through; otherwise you can get a reputation as a tyrant or censor. Most moderators try to help the author say what they really meant; if the original submission isn't clear you can suggest changes, or suggest a different place where it might belong. If you get duplicates, pick the best one and post it, perhaps along with an editorial note thanking A, B and C for their similar answer.

If you get a high noise/signal ratio, you can delete some of the noise (like extra mail headers or signature lines). If the poster asks a question that you know the answer to, it's common to post the question and give the answer right there in an editorial note [such notes are generally in brackets, like this - MRH.]

Other common editorial practices are to remove excessive quoted material, and to reformat paragraphs to be under 80 columns per line. (Some moderators return articles to the author for such reformatting, though.)

If you want to have a lively discussion (or discussions) going, you might group related notes (possibly into a digest) and pass almost everything through. If your goal is to improve the quality of the newsgroup (like rec.humor.funny does for rec.humor) you might be very selective.

17.2. Deciding a course of action

There are times when you may not know the best way to handle an issue or policy. You cannot always be sure what the newsgroup's readership actually wants to see happen. When a significant question or controversy arises, you should consider running a survey of the readers to determine the appropriate course of action. Surveys can be extremely useful, not only for determining what people want to happen on a specific issue, but for the other benefits they can provide:

  • Once it is documented what the readers want, it is much easier to explain to the malcontents why you need to reject their submissions.
  • Readers feel the moderator is listening, and allowing them to help improve the group.
  • Often you receive other comments that are not a part of the issue on the table that you find useful to incorporate into your group's moderation.

17.3. Commonly perceived problems with moderation

Censorship - People are afraid they won't be able to get their idea out to the masses if the moderator doesn't like it. You are strongly discouraged from ever telling someone “I don't think this should be posted to the net” when you get a submission. It's almost always possible to say “toplevel.mygroup isn't the right place, have you considered net.framus?”

We should also emphasize that only the moderated groups are affected, the unmoderated groups will still exist for those who want total freedom and lower quality or higher volume. (Hopefully you'll be able to take some of these high volume newsgroups and reduce their volume to a manageable level, along with increased organization.) This is only true for groups that are paralleled by unmoderated groups.

Time delays - When someone posts something to an unmoderated group, most of the net sees it within two days. When submitted to a moderator, you introduce a delay, and you submit to the net from a different place which might introduce an additional delay. Depending on the nature of your group, it may be very important that you process submissions promptly. A lively discussion will die out if turnaround is worse than about one day. On the other hand, groups such as comp.sources.* and rec.humor.funny probably can easily tolerate more delays. There have been moderators who've gotten way behind on traffic; the result has been bad feelings toward the moderator, and in extreme cases, a newsgroup that dies out.

17.4. Vocal minority

As moderator of a newsgroup, prepare to be flamed by a vocal minority. Assuming you do your job reasonably well, most of the satisfied readers will remain silent. Whether you deserve it or not, you will receive annoyed criticism from readers typically of the form:

  • Why did you reject my article?
  • Who made you God?
  • How dare you get sick/go on vacation/neglect the newsgroup for your real life?

Remaining calm in the face of this sort of criticism is the best defense. If there are actual facts under the heated rhetoric, address those calmly and ignore the tone of the criticism. Apart from that, your best defense is just to ignore the poster especially if the complainer seems to be the only one whining. Resist the temptation to have the last word in an argument, even if the argument is in public. Drawn out bickering will only serve to undermine respect for you and your role.

It helps to have form letters to deal with some of these questions, particularly the first two. [See Appendix B.] Keep the charter of the newsgroup handy too.

17.5. Anonymous postings

On some newsgroups, the moderator will facilitate anonymous postings by stripping identifying headers from submissions, if so requested. On other newsgroups, the moderator requires that all submissions be from identified accounts, going so far as to reject all postings submitted through anonymous remailers. In choosing your policy, you should be aware that even 'identified' accounts may have very little connection to a real person. For all practical purposes, most user accounts on large commercial network providers such as earthlink.com and aol.com are anonymous - the user chooses what, if any, identifying information is visible.

No matter what policy you choose for your newsgroup, it should be documented clearly in the group's periodic policy posting. It might also be wise to let the group's readership decide the policy, by holding a vote.

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