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I am currently developing a site basically from scratch; the only third-party tools I'm using are web development libraries like jQuery and Kohana. This means I have full control over user permissions, even moreso than established web software like phpBB or vBulletin might give.

The – somewhat philosophical – question is: What's the difference between an administrator and a moderator?

I'm generally used to users with administration privileges also having moderator privileges, but of course that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. A strict division of User-Moderator-Admin also isn't the only option; I can definitely have more permission levels or fewer, and any user can have any set of permission levels. (For example, you need User permission to log in, Admin permission to access admin controls, and Moderator permission to access moderator controls. My basic test account on the development site has all three permissions, while the "Anonymous" user account has none.)

While the question generally applies to any website, my specific use-case is a site for Magic: the Gathering card game players building decks for the Commander format. The decks are graded and categorized, and users comment on one-another's decks and get help from one another. The deck grading is crowdsourced to the users, performed manually until a "consensus" is reached, and performed automatically after that.

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3 Answers 3

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In my experience a moderator is there to facilitate the smooth running of the community. They are there to solve disputes, clean up off topic content and generally oversee the day-to-day activities of users on the website. Most platforms give them a set of tools to help them with this job, ranging from simply modifying, moving or deleting content to correct inaccuracies or remove material that breaches the rules, all the way to punitive measures on accounts, e.g. temporary bans, warnings, strike systems etc.

On the other hand administrators are there to define the website and its basic content. Be that by creating the layout of the site and any static content, creating forums or categories, assigning groups and moderators. Their choices affect how the site works and, depending on the platform, control who can see and do what on the website.

For some sites there might be a third level, or you might combine this with administrator. This is the developer, someone who actually codes the platform and tools that the administrators and moderators use. In custom jobs they will define the look of the whole website. If your using an off the shelf platform like phpbb then the developers won't be part of your community. In your case you are the developer, and if your the only administrator you may roll the developer role into the administrator role.

It's not uncommon in a lot of communities for administrators to have moderator access as well. It comes with the powers of the administrator. In smaller communities they may be the only moderators. As sites grow and administration tasks grow more demanding then that's when dedicated moderators are sought from within the community to help with the workload. The bigger the site, the less administrators will do and generally leave it to the dedicated moderators.

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In my experience, the line is drawn just after the manipulation of user access and user content. A moderator can manipulate any user generated content on the site. They can edit, delete, move, lock, or close any of this content. Higher levels of moderators can also manipulate some user access as well. This means they can suspend a user's access to the site.

An administrator has full access to all content on the site. This means they can manipulate the design, templates, and general layout of the the site. They have full access to user information, including any non-public information that was collected during registration and any system configuration settings. They have the ability to delete (not just suspend) a user, completely from the site. I would also say that an administrator has full control over the back end of the system. They have the ability to query the database, view access logs, and run commands on the server directly. They have the ability to perform system upgrades and maintenance.

A moderator's job is to be the administrator's eyes and ears in regards to the user content. If delegated to do so, they are also the "first line of support" for user management as well. They are the ones they perform account bans and spam removal.

On smaller communities, it is not uncommon for the administrator to share moderator duties. But, the content manipulation is usually done under the guise of a moderator not an administrator. In fact, on PHPBB, the ability to manipulate a post is on the "Moderator Control Panel" not on the "Administration Control Panel". Within the ACP, you have system settings and user manipulation. While the administrator can delete user posts, the only option provided is to delete all of a user's posts when deleting a user. It's not fine grained control over single posts.

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Good answer. I'd add that the administrator can grant privileges to moderators, but not the other way around. –  Jenny D Sep 3 at 9:28

In my experience, an administrator sets the policies, a moderator enforces them. Moderators may help in the formation of policies, but ultimately, it is normally an administrator who sets up that framework. The administrator also often is responsible for the technical operation of the community or making sure that the technical needs are met. They may also handle business sides of things as well.

Typically, an administrator will also have the ability to do moderation actions, but moderators focus is on the community itself and making sure that the community runs smoothly and consistently with the policies of the community.

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