Should moderators have some sort of notation on their profile that indicates the user is a moderator? What reasons could a site have for keeping the identities of its moderators a secret versus publicly displaying them as moderators?
There's a distinction to be made between identifying a user account as a moderator and identifying an individual. For the purposes of this answer, I'll interpret you as asking whether individuals with moderator privileges should necessarily be identified.
My answer to the first question is simply “it depends” – on the community, the medium (e.g., software platform) and the leadership style of whoever’s making the policy.
I'll try to clarify that and illustrate some reasons a site might have to hide a moderator's identity at the same time, by sharing my own experience as a hidden moderator.
Some years ago (circa 2006), I was very active on a message board created for fans of a particular online game. This board had a userbase on the order of 10,000 registered users, all current or former gamers, many of them fairly young (teens and pre-teens). There was a fair amount of conflict, some of it inspired by rivalries in the game, and moderation was a contentious and difficult chore. I had a normal user account and a separate moderator account; the only person who knew they were the same person was the site administrator (and possibly one or two other mods – my memory’s a bit fuzzy on that count).
Other moderators on the same board used one account for everything, identified in the standard PHPBB manner (colored username, membership in a usergroup called “moderators”). When the administrator invited me to be a moderator I knew I was being invited to help with an unrewarding chore (not being given a gold star) and I specifically requested an anonymous moderator account. He knew me pretty well from other interactions we’d had, but on the board in general I had a reputation for being flippant and argumentative. Making me a moderator would have been pretty controversial and I felt strongly that I would have to clean up my act in order to be any sort of credible moderator. I was 21 years old, playing games and having fun; although I could be serious when I wanted to be, this board was where I went to relax and blow off steam; I didn’t want to lose that.
Since it was a deal-breaker for me, he said fine, as long as I didn't let the cat out of the bag. He introduced the new moderator as a friend of his from some other community who was coming in purely to help with moderation and wasn't a player in the game. We gave the account a handle that was a riff on the administrator's own username and I logged in to it whenever I needed to use moderator tools or make any sort of official statement. I was careful to always use an impartial, matter-of fact tone when posting from the moderator account. In hindsight it was pretty deceptive and there was a lot of potential for abuse – I’m not advocating this by any means as a normal practice – but in a sense, the moderator account was simply a role that I played, like putting on a judge’s robe and being called “Your Honor” and calling other people “Sir” and “Ma’am.” In this particular circumstance, starting with a blank slate made me much more effective than I would have been otherwise. In this role, I gained a reputation for being direct, impartial, no-nonsense, and – most importantly – insulated from the conflicts and rivalries that existed between players in the related online game.
So, my identity was hidden because:
- Interactions with users off-site, in a competitive game environment, would have negatively influenced the way users responded to me as a moderator;
- Being able to clearly separate the moderator role from my normal role in the community allowed me to relax and enjoy a casual, entertainment-oriented community without my personal opinions and relationships negatively affecting my ability to enforce community standards.
I’ve also been a user on a forum for about 7 years (on the order of 500,000 registered users) that has a “secret” moderator, indistinguishable from a normal user. The team also doesn’t generally admit publicly that he’s a mod. I’m not sure to what extent it’s a practical joke, or whether he had some concerns of his own. I’ve got a lot of personal connections on that board so I’m biased, but in all that time I’m not aware of any problems caused by this hidden moderator.
As far as why it works, I’d point to two things I perceived as common to both situations:
- Accountability in the form of identified leadership representatives. Users need someone they can go for clarification, dispute resolution, etc., and this person needs to have an identity within the community. Nobody really likes to be told what to do by someone they perceive as an outsider, so the owner/administrator/staff needs to participate if they want to be hands-on. Otherwise, they can delegate this responsibility to individuals who have that insider credibility.
- Consistency within the leadership team. In both cases, moderators were hand-picked by the site owner and/or the existing moderation team, with a mind to not only their individual levels of activity and maturity but also whether they would be compatible with the existing team and policies. As long as the full team supports any action by one of its members, there’s really no need to identify the individual who pulled the trigger.
It should go without saying that no community member should be given authority over others in the community without first showing a level of maturity and integrity appropriate for that position. Hiding the identity of a moderator does create additional opportunities for abuse, but moderation is by definition an opportunity for abuse. A user who would abuse their position as a hidden moderator shouldn't be any sort of moderator in the first place.