What does a mailing list moderator do? Like the answer to all nontrivial questions, It Depends.
The goal for online discussion groups is usually the same–to nurture up a group of people to share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience with like-minded people for the common good. The question then is what does a mailing list moderator do to further that goal?
First, you have to note that mailing list groups use email. Email has many good qualities, and several severe constraints. Email can be read and written whenever the subscriber has time and where ever the subscriber is. (And it’s still useful and used on smartphones!) That is a big advantage. However, the written text without any additional clues, such as body language or tone of voice, limits the usefulness to pretty much just factual information. It’s difficult to have a nuanced discourse with email. That means sometimes a group needs leadership to interpret, guide, and keep it cohesive.
The means of achieving a cohesive online group can vary considerably. Some moderators keep a tight control on their group. Some practice a hands-off policy. Some are almost non-existent and the group polices itself.
The Hands Off (or Non-existent) Mailing List Moderator
Many mailing list groups run just fine for years with little or no leadership. That is, less is more. Messages from the members go directly to the list, and individual members will speak up when somebody violates the group’s norms. The group leader is for all practical purposes just another member or every member.
The Controlling Moderator
What does this kind of mailing list moderator do? Well, this sort of mod reviews and approves each message to the list. Maybe they want to make sure that each message is on topic and worthy of their member’s time. Or perhaps they want to control the conversations by rejecting thoughts and opinions contrary to their own.
There are a couple of disadvantages when moderating messages this closely. The first is that it introduces a time lag, that is dependent on how quickly the moderator(s) review and approve the messages. Sometimes that time lag is not important and other times it is. The second problem is that some people are reluctant to post messages, because of either the perception or past experience, that the list moderator will reject their message.
The Commentator Moderator
Some group moderators provide commentary on some of the posts. For example, by providing background information to help people understand the situation. Or providing a counterpoint for the members to consider.
Almost all group leaders control the membership by reviewing new subscribers, and on occasion, removing subscribers that are unable to conduct themselves in a cooperative spirit. Many group leaders also strive to expand their group with new and qualified people using their online and offline networking skills.
In my experience, I have always enjoyed a lightly run group where messages are not moderated, and everybody is treated as equals.
What sort of experiences have you had with your mailing list moderators?
Curious about a similar job, the community manager? Are you a moderator who’s more curious about how to setup and run your electronic mailing list?