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Most communities across the Internet have always denoted moderators in some way. Forums very commonly use different colors for the usernames to indicate they are a moderator, or what level of moderator they might be. Some use images to alter their title. Here at Stack Exchange, the display name is followed by a diamond character.

I ran across one community, however, that did not have any such notations. One day I had gotten into a lengthy discussion with another user and we happened to get onto the topic of moderator, more specifically about the use of avatars and what was deemed appropriate. After quite a discussion, he eventually revealed to me that he was a moderator on that site, and had dealt with issues such as these many times before.

I, myself, was quite surprised. You're a moderator? Shouldn't you be marked as such in some way? I'm not saying it was a bad thing, but it really threw me off, as a user. I wasn't expecting that. I didn't even know the site had moderators. I thought the employees just handled everything. But sure enough, they do have a group of moderators that most people would never even know about.

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?

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    A situation that can emerge if mods are NOT clearly differentiated: What should I do with a user pretending to be a moderator? – Matt Giltaji Jul 30 '14 at 22:55
  • On most of anonymous imageboards moderators only choose to reveal themselves while taking moderator actions. Normally they remain anonymous along with the rest of users. – SF. Jul 30 '14 at 23:19
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Before there were web fora/Q&A sites/etc, there were mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups, some of which were (are) moderated. On a mailing list or newsgroup there's generally no way to automatically mark users' status; at best a moderator might identify himself in the signature block of his messages.

This managed to work anyway, so it seems it could work on a web-based community too. When weighing the decision of whether to label moderators, you have to decide which of the following two considerations is more important for your site:

  • If your moderators are not automatically marked as such, then when they are speaking officially they need to say so. This is what happens on moderated mailing lists when a moderator needs to announce some policy matter.

  • If your moderators are automatically marked, they will sometimes need to specify when they are speaking unofficially. I have seen this concern on Stack Exchange, where a moderator's diamond follows him everywhere (including into history).

On a web site you have the option of identifying but not automatically labeling moderators, by having a page that lists who the moderators are. This means people can find out if they want to, but moderator status need not affect day-to-day activity on the site.

A site might want to protect its moderators from harassment from disgruntled users, either on-site or off-site (e.g. email bombardments). It is possible to do this without keeping moderator identity secret, however; just funnel contact through a "contact us" link instead of publishing email addresses. For on-site harassment, whatever measures are in place to deal with user-to-user problems would also apply for user-to-moderator problems. I cannot think of a reason other than preventing unwanted contact for a site to want to conceal who its moderators are. (Other answers may proceed to prove me wrong. :-) )

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On an IRC server I use, the general suggestion about channel moderation is to not OP up (show mod status) until necessary. When a user joins the channel, he would typically just see the list of users in the channel, instead of seeing which users have OP (mod) status. This is beneficial for several reasons:

  • The channel operators can communicate freely in the channel without their operator status following them everywhere. Their thoughts and opinions are theirs, not a view from the operator team.
  • When a channel moderator decides to OP up, this displays authority. Immediately, a shift can be noticed in a user's behavior, as now they are aware that there may be consequences if they don't follow the rules. (It almost serves as a warning to them as well)
  • Since everyone is on the same level, this encourages users to self-moderate the channel, instead of needing someone of authority to do it. (This user may even be an operator, too)
  • Since it is rare to see an operator in action, there is less asking to be a moderator by new users and the users may feel as if there isn't any need to want to be a operator, since they appear the same anyways.

This is from a chat room perspective, which may be different from your situation. However, many of these factors can still be applied to a variety of communities. I have noticed that a lot more self-moderation when there is no visual moderator status, however, it will often depend on the community.

7

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.

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The main problem with not having a differentiation between non-moderators and moderators is that without that, it'd be much easier to impersonate one (especially if the site can have non-unique usernames) and tell users to do potentially destructive actions ("I'm a moderator here, delete your question or get banned.") to the community.

It also makes telling people what to do have more weight. If you don't know if someone is a moderator, and they tell you to do something without showing that they are speaking as a mod, it'll be easier for the user to say "whatever, you can't tell me what to do".

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It depends what your paltform is. With the platform the culture changes.

In it depends, which IRC-network you are using. In some of them, moderators ("operators") are usually marked with an @ or an other sign. In other networks, moderators are marked as the regular users, maybe privileged with + (voice) and only "take op" if they need them or want to show their power. Sometimes, they don't take op at all and just ask the network/channel bot to kick or ban people. Of course, they need for this the sufficient rights.

In a "classical" forum, the culture is different. Users expect, that moderators are there and they are visible. They want them to be there. If a forum is really active but no moderator/administrator is there, the forum "feel" dead and they are grumbling, where the management team is. In general, it's not a problem for an moderator to speak as a private person.

In addition to this, it may sense, that a moderator in a forum has the ability to highlight his post in a unique way. This style should only be able to a moderator. I prefer changing the background of the post, this is something you can't do usually with bulletin board code or similar.

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