In September I was contacted by Kerry from The Katy Piper Foundation. The Foundation supports people living with burns and scars. Kerry was looking for more information on managing online forums. She was particularly interested in moderation strategies and procedures for managing safeguarding and escalation.
We had an initial chat on the phone where we explored different ways an online peer support community could be moderated and managed.
Almost every community I have been involved with has slightly different definitions for members and moderators so it felt important to start by clarifying these roles.
Charities like YouthNet (who were pioneers of online peer support) and Mind (whose Elefriends community grew quickly and organically from a Facebook group) saw their moderation strategy and structure grow and develop with the needs of the community. They were often exploring new ground and didn’t always have examples of how a particular approach had worked in the past. You can see this learning in practice in a post about training community members from 2012.
Now online peer support is offered by many charities. It is easier for those looking to establish a new service to understand and clearly define these roles early on. But it’s always important to make sure that there is room for consultation, change and development as the needs of the community become clearer. The most successful communities are co-designed and developed with community members wherever possible.
My conversations with Kerry highlighted how many different ways current community managers approach their moderation and provide support. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. I thought I’d share some examples.
Moderators can take a purely ‘policing’ role. If a community is ‘post moderated’ (moderation takes place after posts are live) they may delete or hide posts that may be unsafe for the community, identify any safeguarding or escalation needs and contact members privately. If a community is ‘pre moderated’ (posts must go through an approval process before going live) then their role may be to read and approve posts.
In some communities moderators will also post support within the community. This may be support and guidance for members (perhaps on difficult or quiet threads) or focused on encouraging others to provide peer support. Moderators who provide support are likely to need additional training.
Some communities create a moderator character or use one (gender neutral) moderator name. This can be less personal but it helps to prevent community members developing views on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moderators and provides consistency in communication over moderator shift changes. Others community managers choose to allow different moderators to establish their own rapport with community members.
Most communities will keep the role of the moderator separate from that of a community member. Moderators will not also be community members and the support they provide will not be ‘peer support’ as a moderator is not usually considered to be a peer of a community member.
Moderators may be staff, agencies, freelancers or volunteers. Many communities have a mixture to ensure cover. Some choose to have moderators available all the time, some choose to only moderate during certain times of the day. It’s generally considered good practice to have someone on call who can make decisions about safeguarding and possible escalation.
Most communities will have a mechanism by which community members can ‘report’ posts and part of a moderators role will be responding to these reports or concerns.
Some communities establish or develop a role which is more formalised than that of a community member but does not have all the responsibilities of a trained moderator.
A peer supporter may be someone who does not use the community for support themselves but is trained to offer support to community members based on their own experiences. In some cases they may have been community members in the past (it’s worth nothing that this can affect how the rest of the community view them as peer supporters). This kind of role will need additional support from community managers – training and debrief at a minimum.
Some communities may choose to offer additional training to current community members to help them offer support to others. This training may be open to longer term or more engaged members – or may be available to all. While this can help members feel more confident in offering support to others, it can sometimes change how they use the community. It can add an extra (and perhaps unwelcome) feeling of responsibility towards other members.
Some communities choose to give certain community members specific roles – for example deleting spam or acting as a welcome committee for new users. This can help to keep long term members engaged in the community without creating a sense of responsibility for someone in crisis.
Most communities will offer guidance and house rules to community members to help them feel comfortable and encourage them to use the community safely. Community members will be encouraged to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe but will not be offered specific training in providing peer support to others.
Some communities do choose to involve their members in co-design and testing of new features, content and developments to ensure that the community continues to understand and meet the needs of those who use it.
After our initial discussions I was able to review and provide feedback on The Katie Piper Foundation’s escalation strategy, moderator training and forum rules. I also wrote some draft ‘example responses’ for moderators – ensuring these felt personal and understanding, provided emotional support and, where possible, used ‘non-blaming’ language to help members understand how they could post safely.
“I’m really pleased we had the opportunity to get your feedback”
Kerry Montgomery – The Katy Piper Foundation
“Your input has been invaluable and I know you’ve gone above and beyond; we really appreciate this.”
Ezinna Rospigliosi – The Katy Piper Foundation