Democracy for Online Communities

When I first started with the DevDiv Customer Connection team, Josh gave me the thirty-second elevator speech about his goals for the forums. The phrase "self-sustaining community" was used more than once. The idea was that just creating the forums or getting Microsofties into the forums would make them a true success. The forums would be only be successful when Josh and I could both get hit by a Microsoft shuttle and the forums would still not miss a beat. The answer rate would remain the same, and the forums could continue to grow, evolve, and operate with our intervention.

The forums aren't there yet. I've been acting as benevolent dictator in the forums for over a year now—creating new forums, monitoring answer rates, sending "Community Mail" updates to the division, and moderating disputes between moderators. The community has grown and evolved, but I'm still not confident that we have the proper mechanisms in place to allow the forums to be self-sustaining. That's because for the forums to be self-sustaining, the forums need to be democratic.

The top community members involved in the forums are the moderators, and they do a great job bringing issues to my attention and ensuring that I'm staying on top of issues in the forums, but they themselves are unable to make any changes. I'd love to see a system where the moderators are able to make decisions autonomously, especially in the following scenarios. What do you think? Would this work, or would it turn into a bad episode of Survivor? Can true democracy work for an online community?

Creating a New Forum – The only way to make a new forum right now is through a little applet that sits on my desktop. Typically, a product team has to send me an email and ask for a new forum to be created. This is bad—there are dozens of opportunities for new forums that would help developers right now that the moderators are likely aware of, although I'm not. Why not let moderators propose a new forum? If 25% of the active moderators confirmed that they could help moderate the new forum, the new forum request would automatically go through and be made on the site.

Monitoring Answer Rates – I send a biweekly mail out to Developer Division that contains how every team is doing in their community efforts, including the 2 and 7 day answer rates on each team's forums. The purpose is to be a not-so-subtle reminder—please remember to pay attention to your forums and help out your customers. The community should have access to the same information. What forums are unhealthy and need more attention? Which are doing great? Which ones need more Microsoft help? The moderators should be able to ping Microsoft and request more participation in certain forums were the answer rates are below the ideal.

Adding New Moderators – We are also looking for good community members who are answering a decent volume of questions with thoughtful answers—they are usually our next moderators. Currently, we rely on other moderators to send mail and nominate other users to be moderators. Once again, let's take out the middleman. Any moderator could nominate a user to be a moderator. If 10 moderators voted positively (and less than 2 voted against), the user would automatically join the ranks of moderators.

Removing Moderation Rights – Unfortunately, even moderators sometimes need checks and balances, and it might be necessary to remove moderator rights from another user. Once again, a moderator could nominate somebody to lose their rights, and if ten people vote in the affirmative (and less than 2 in the negative), then that user would be demoted.

Banning a Spamming User – Spam users should be dealt with as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that sometimes involves sending me email asking me to ban somebody. The moderators should be able to nominate and vote to ban a user from the forums for spamming.

Nominate a User for a Commendation – We don't really have any great awards in the forums now, but wouldn't it be great if the moderators could nominate exceptional users for "Most Helpful Answerer" awards? It could appear as a small avatar next to their names. Once again, the moderators could nominate and vote.

Any other ideas?

Comments (4)

  1. Drew says:

    Yeah, I totally love that idea.  Extrapolate that idea forward about 50 years.  I’d like a federal government that works that way.  I want to be able to be part of my "virtual" community and vote on issues and make my voice heard.  But I’m a dreamer.  I’d bet that most people wouldn’t get it.

  2. Peter Ritchie says:

    I don’t think a democracy is what you want with the Forums.  The Forums are a service provided by Microsoft with specific goals and a specific focus.  A democracy would imply that all the users ultimately have final say about everything (and have a choice to participate in votes).  With your experience with just the moderators, I’m sure you don’t want to manage that sort of interaction (creating, maintaining, moderating and tracking votes for everything related to the Forums).

    You’re probably looking more at a republican model where a select group of people vote, or decide by committee, on all issues.  Likely, you’re looking more at a hybrid monarchy (or dictatorship)/republican model where select issues aren’t voted upon by anyone outside of Microsoft…

    I do think delegating some of the responsibilities to community members–like the moderators–is a good idea.  Clearly the resources to perform all the necessary tasks aren’t being provided by Microsoft and you have more than a willing army of moderators to perform some of the other work.  The work would be accepted more if there were easier ways of performing the work, as you’ve noted.

  3. Brian Hsi says:

    thanks, Joe.  As promised, a few thoughts on all of this can be found at my blog.  And Peter makes a great pt about a republican model, as opposed to a direct democracy one as well…

  4. OmegaMan says:

    The old quote certainly applies here:

    "What may be right…may not be popular.

    What may be popular…may not be right."

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