Title: Guidelines for facilitation of Electronic Discussion Groups
By: Farrell J. McGovern
For a over a decade PODSnet dealt with discussions that could
easily spread to flame wars. Be it Christians that came to try and preach to
us, to discussions about abortion to politics and even to Heinlein...we were
able hold rational discussions because we had two overlapping sets of rules.
So I have combined these with my 20 years of experience in creating,
contributing to and moderating electronic discussion groups on many
different platforms ranging from BBS systems to Canadian Government Policy
discussion forums. Special thanx has to go to J. Brad Hicks, creator of the
Magicknet Echo out of which PODSnet grew; the various administrators of
PODSnet - Paul Seymour, Chuck Haynes, Jay Loveless (And their significant
others!); and all the Moderators of Echos on PODSnet. It is upon their
shoulders that I now stand:
For the better part of two decades, I have been involved with email
based discussion forums, from Fidonet "echos", to usenet "newsgropus" and
today's "mailing lists" I have participated in literally Gigabytes of email
of discussions. I have done this both as a hobby, as part of Fidonet and
various spin-off networks, to the Government of Canada, and Fortune 500
companies. These rules I have come up with are based upon that experience,
and the wisdom of many who have shared their thoughts with me over the
years. For the most part, I come up with two sets of rules that work in
concert with each other. The first is more of the attitude that is needed in
participating and facilitating on-line conversations through email. The
second set is more of the nitty gritty.
Here are the two overlapping rule sets:
1) Be Nice
2) Be Nice
3) Try and be nice
I hope that this first set is self explanatory, if not, just give
It is in the in the interests of the members of the group and the
moderator to work out guidelines beyond the first set to help keep the flow
of conversation lively without stifling it, to keep the discussion
on-topic, and relevant to the focus of the group.
Each discussion group should have a moderator whose job it is to
both spark conversation when there is none, and to act as a guiding hand
when things get a little hot. The moderator has the final say in what is
on-topic in a discussion group, and what isn't. To help them in this they
have the right to issue warnings to people who are "off topic" and to give
"time outs" to people who cannot stay on topic after repeated warnings. The
moderator has the option to allow topics to wander as long as they feel it
is of interest to the members of the group. (Moderators...remember Chat
Happens! It is only excessive chat that is a problem)
A moderator is a person who guides the conversation. They are not
editors, like in the classic moderation function of Mailing list managers
where they decide if a post goes to the list or not. The people who write
the posts are fully responsible for what they write, the moderator is not
there to censor people. Think of it as being invited over to the moderator's
home for a discussion about some subject. If you constantly go on about the
weather, you will soon be asked to shut up, and eventually to leave. No one
is preventing you from having your say, but if you want to talk about the
weather, you have to find somewhere else to do so.
Moderation should be done with a light touch, because if you end up
banning lots of people, they will simply go elsewhere to have their
discussion. And remember the First Set of rules!
Here are a few guidelines that tend to work as a base set of what
should be considered off-topic:
1) Flaming is always off-topic
2) Spam is always off-topic
Only commercial posts that are *directly* relevant to the topic of
the group might be considered on-topic. Moderator's discretion, of
3) Proselytizing is always off-topic
There is nothing worse that having some Fundamentalist frothing at
the mouth telling the list that they are all going to hell because
they are discussing some topic they consider evil...and only by
converting to whatever religious group they are from will save you.
4) Subject line drift
It is very frustrating to read a message with a subject line about
something that you are really interested in only to find out that
the actual content has nothing to do with the subject line!
5) Personal Attacks
Challenge a person's ideas, not the person themselves.
As other subjects are discovered that seriously impede the flow of
conversation, be they frequently asked questions, or subjects that
automatically start flame wars, they can be added to the list of things that
are automatically off-topic, and thus warrant action by the moderator, be it
a reminder or a official warning.
One thing that is not really "off topic", but is annoying is
excessive quoting...if you want to respond to a message and quote a relevant
section, make sure and delete the rest of it...nothing is worse than having
a 5 line message, with 40 lines of junk after the signature!
For the benefit of new members, a document covering established
off-topic subjects, and how to act, as well as posting guidelines (such as no
attachments allowed, etc.) and a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ)
should be compiled and send to new members upon subscribing to the list.
Ideally, a reply to the moderator stating they will conform to the list's
rules should be made before they are allowed on the list, but that is an
ideal case only.
When a moderator decides a posting to be off topic, they can ignore
it, post to the list stating that the subject is now considered off-topic,
or issue a warning to the poster. In extreme cases, the moderator may even
ban, or "time out" a poster...but this is only for very extreme cases.
The moderator also has the option of issuing unofficial warnings.
These can simply be a post to the list, or to the person warning them that
next time it goes on the record. Remember, the "Be Nice" rule extends to
An official warning is warranted when a person continues to post
about a subject after it has been declared off-topic, or they have already
received a official warning about posting about said off-topic subject. The
moderator may directly issue an official warning to someone about a subject
if they feel quick, strong response is warranted to prevent a disruption in
the flow of communication on the list.
If a person receives numerous official warnings, they should be
given a "time out" to consider their actions, and maybe stopping the
escalation of off-topic posts and/or a flame war.
A good set of guidelines in terms of how to issue warnings:
Three strikes and you are out! (you are given a "time out" from the list)
1st offense: They get a private email stating what they are doing wrong,
and could they please stop it.
2nd offense: They get a private email stating what they are doing wrong,
and they should immediately stop it. A similar email is
posted to the list to let other know as well. A copy of the
rules of the discussion group are also attached to the
3rd offense: Same procedure at the second offense, except they are given
a "time out" from the list for a certain period.
A "time out" is when a person is not allowed to post to the list. It
can be voluntary, (ie, the person agrees not to post for the period of the
"time out"), or enforced by the software used for the list. Ideally, the
person should be able to read the list, but not post to it...but this may
not work depending on your software.
In addition to the time outs, the moderator has the option of
banning the person from the list. This should only be done in the most
extreme cases. As a way to make sure that it is warranted, we recommend the
Three strikes and you are out! (banned from the discussion group)
1st Time Out: A week in duration.
2nd Time Out: A month in duration. Must make a written (email) request to
the moderator to be allowed back in promising to conform to
the rules of the list. And if accepted, must post an apology
to the list once they are reinstated.
3rd Time Out: Subject must wait at *least* three months before they apply
to the moderator to be re-instated. Moderator must seriously
consider the application remembering that said person has
already broken their promise to behave before. Moderator may
consider the Third Time Out to final. Must also apologize
to the list if reinstated.
As you can see, a person will have to be quite a nuisance before
they get banned from a discussion group. This helps prevent moderators
abusing their power...the amount of "paperwork" to get rid of a person is
Some Additional notes on a Moderator:
A moderator must be active in the group to monitor things. They may
appoint or fire sub-moderators to help them, or have co-moderators and work
via consensus or vote. They should be knowledgeable about the subject, and
thick skinned, so that they don't take offense easily. They should be aware
of the responsibility they have both to spark conversations and help cool
things when they get heated. If the moderator finds they don't have enough
time to properly devote to their job, they should either appoint
sub-moderators to help, find co-moderators to help, or find someone to
replace them. Ideally, a moderator should be elected by the members of the
discussion group. Regular yearly elections are a good thing, allowing for
the growth and change in a list over the years. Elections are also a good
way to get rid of a moderator who is not doing their job, or because of
circumstances, disappeared from the list, or just quit. Ultimately, the
members of the group will vote with their feet if they have no say in the
list, and they don't agree with the way it is being run. So moderators
should keep that in mind...it is easy these days to start another list.
Although this set of rules is not set in stone, they do make up a
good working base for a complete set of rules to assist in the free flow of
information in an electronic discussion forum, be it a mailing list, Usenet
group or FidoTech Echo which inspired them.
If you have any questions, or things you would like to contribute to
this document..or would just like to chat about it, you can email me at: