November 22, 2021

Navigating human emotions in online professional forums

In 2002, I setup a nonprofit organization for regional filmmakers. Over the years it has implemented and taken part in a number of different projects, programs, and productions. Ultimately, its mission has focused on enabling hobbyist filmmakers to transition from being weekend amateurs into becoming working professionals in the film industry. It achieves this mission by encouraging filmmakers to learn and embrace the established standards and best practices of the film industry, guiding them toward training resources and mentorship opportunities, community engagement, and by producing original content

Our primary means of interacting with our local film community is through social media across multiple platforms. Not wanting to be duplicative of the efforts of other individuals and organizations with similar goals, we’ve placed an emphasis on cooperation and cross-promotion—both in terms of fostering interaction and engaging with the community. As an organization, we maintain our official profiles and pages and participate in groups, events, and activities sponsored by others.

In 2011, I was invited to become a moderator for an existing online forum for regional filmmakers. While the forum was started independently from the nonprofit that I had founded, it has since become the official forum of the organization—the forum’s original organizer having since joined our board of directors.

The forum was started—and is still maintained—primarily as a means for filmmakers to connect with each other and to collaborate on projects. When I was first invited to be an admin, the forum had around 2,000 members. Wanting to make it a more valuable resource for filmmakers, I reached out to the professionals among its membership—those who were making their living in the film industry full time—to help me define policies when it came to requests for collaboration, cast & crew job listings, and member interaction. I felt very strongly—and still do—that by letting professionals set the tone, novices and hobbyists would have a clear example to follow. Establishing a professional standard would also allow them to better understand the business of filmmaking, enabling them to find and maintain work, and help the film industry to grow in our region.

Over time, clear policies and basic rules were put into place, starting with the following:

Professionalism is expected in all interactions

This forum welcomes film industry professionals and hobbyists/novices alike but professionalism, integrity, and respect are expected from everyone in all interactions. 

Prospective members are required to agree to the group rules in order for their membership to be approved, the second of which reads:

Members should read and follow all group rules

...Membership indicates agreement to comply with the rules

I don’t feel it necessary to list all the other rules and their descriptions here simply because most of them are supplemental to the first—though I will reference a few specific rules in the course of this essay. In my experience, anyone who takes that first rule of professionalism seriously never needs to be reminded about the majority of the others—because any behaviors proscribed by them are, by their very nature, unprofessional.

There are also rules that encourage forum members to take an active role in its management, like keeping posts on topic, being thoughtful about one’s posts or comments, being respectful, and remembering to “report posts or comments that are off-topic, violate group rules, or ‘raise concerns...’”

The forum continues to be an excellent networking tool for filmmakers, fostering collaboration on artistic and commercial projects. It has also expanded to become an excellent resource for learning, mentorship, and helping filmmakers from all disciplines and levels of the industry to locate and utilize important—and sometimes even obscure—resources.

As of this writing, membership has grown to over 16,800 individuals, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and even government agencies—with over 10,000 active participants! Additional moderators have also been added to help manage the group but when the first rule is an expectation of professionalism, the group largely manages itself. Of course, that does not mean that moderators don’t run into occasional difficulties—regardless of whether a member profile represents a person or a legal entity, they’re all managed by genuine, emotional human beings… At least, I’m pretty sure they are. One of the jokes that I make when referencing the group is that “We have over 16,000 members—most of them: actual people!” I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of keeping the bots out, though I can't say the same thing in regard to trolls.

When it comes to posts that conflict with established rules and policies, moderators have a number of tools at their disposal. If it’s simply a matter of protocol—like the need to include payment and/or contact information in a job post—the solution is often just a friendly reminder in a comment on the post. Off-topic posts, public grievances that name individuals over troubling—but unconfirmed—conduct, or open discussions that turn into heated debates, can result in the ability for members to comment on such posts being disabled. In more extreme circumstances, a post may be deleted altogether.

As for the individuals responsible for posts or comments that draw the attention of moderators, it’s impossible to predict how any of these unique human beings will react. Some of them are actually grateful for suggestions and guidance. This is usually in the case of reminders about things like job posting guidelines because they’ve been developed with a sincere desire to make such posts more effective.

Occasionally, a member will become defensive and/or argumentative with a moderator. If their response is in the form of a private discussion—via direct messages or email—the member is usually given a lot more leeway when it comes to venting any frustrations that they might have. The moderator is also more likely to take additional time to consider their positions or arguments and tailor a more cogent and helpful response since the member has shown them the courtesy of communicating privately. Ultimately, just how helpful this can be is still predicated on the member and the manner in which they choose to interact with the moderator. Sometimes, the actions taken by a member in response to a moderator’s intervention can backfire... spectacularly.

When a member starts a verbal altercation within a comment thread, reminders of the rules regarding professionalism and respect are not usually well-received—no matter how gently they may be worded. This behavior is partly rooted in the failure of some members to understand the role of a moderator—which is to moderate. It can also be simply attributed to personality conflicts. More often than not, squabbles just tend to crop up in mediums where an individual’s tone can be difficult to accurately gauge. Without the aural and visual cues that we often take for granted during in-person conversations—like subtle changes in one’s vocal inflections or body language—and the perception that one needs to engage and respond in real-time, people will just write the first thoughts that come to their minds. They may post comments and replies without taking the time to consider the real feelings that may be coming into play—including their own. It’s also very easy for members and moderators to fail to consider the effect one’s words may have on others in the forum because all they see are avatars and text, not the real human beings on the other side of the interaction.

In an attempt to appeal to members’ personal sense of professionalism, I’ve implored them to treat the forum as they would a professional workplace and to not engage in behavior that would not be tolerated by an employer. Unfortunately, the same people that repeatedly fail to recognize the humanity of other members tend to also be incapable of recognizing metaphors—which can be frustrating all on its own. Combine that lack of awareness with a contentious attitude, accusing moderators of censorship or trying to be thought police, and even lobbing personal insults, and it’s not something that can be easily dismissed for both personal and administrative reasons.

It’s become a well-worn trope that at some time or another, an online moderator is accused of being a megalomaniac, wielding their online authority in service only to their own ego. This is usually couched in terms like, “You’re probably going to kick me out for this…”—the online equivalent of the “double-dog-dare.”

The description of our forum has stated for a number of years that “...moderators reserve the right to delete posts and/or comments [that are] overtly and inordinately disruptive and/or contentious... [and] members responsible for such posts/comments may be temporarily suspended—or removed from the group entirely... at the discretion of the moderators.”

While our moderators operate independently and can remove people at their own discretion, it’s not something that they do absent-mindedly. Most of the time, if removing someone from the group is being considered, the other moderators are consulted for advice and input—even though it's not required.

In the case of the “double-dog-dare,” I’ve never taken the bait. Ultimately, walking away from such schoolyard taunts and leaving their barbs and insults in place for other members to read.

My reasoning: allowing unprofessional people to publicly demonstrate their lack of decorum can potentially cause them harm in much more tangible ways than any action that I could possibly take as a moderator. Getting kicked out of an online forum wouldn’t cost them that much. Letting unprofessional people indulge in their own uncouth behavior in a setting that caters to professionals can potentially cost them a paycheck.

As I’ve tried to explain in my workplace metaphor, arguing with a moderator in the comments is like arguing with one’s employer… at work… in front of the entire staff.

While a moderator isn’t paying members to be there, there are a lot of potential employers in our forum. Employers with access to a lot of discussions, comments, and debates, who can see the myopic insults, blatant disrespect, and lack of basic manners demonstrated by internet trolls calling themselves “professionals.” People who don’t take rules seriously aren’t likely to take their jobs—or their bosses—seriously. This makes it a lot easier for those potential employers to know exactly who not to hire.

Nevertheless, it can be frustrating when the role of a moderator is not taken seriously. I’ve even been the butt of jokes in different forums trying to cater to the same community:

When I first saw this post, I can’t deny that it hurt. I also knew that I needed to take the high road. For most people that would probably mean just ignoring it. For me, it meant addressing it but to do so with humor—despite the fact that it did not put me into a humorous mood.

I followed this by sharing the image in the forum that I moderate.

I suppose I could say that “Operation: Show ‘em I’m a good sport” was a success… but it still affected me personally and painfully, which—until now—I shared only with my family and my fellow moderators.

Another disappointing interaction that I experienced with a group member was the result of sharing a screenshot of a casting notice that I received via email—along with about 14,000 other subscribers to the same mailing list. 

My intention was to engage the group in a discussion about the terms and conditions set by the production for prospective participants and, for the most part, it went as expected. The screenshot did not identify the specific production but many of our forum members are also subscribed to the same mailing list so there was no intention to obfuscate that information, just to focus the discussion on certain specifics. I updated the post with an appeal to local casting directors to do more to address a specific concern—while also acknowledging a minor but noteworthy improvement.

The post had been up for a few days before a comment was made by a local casting director, describing the limitations of their job as they saw it. They did not identify themselves as the casting director responsible for the notice that was being discussed but their point was made and—had they left it at that—I would not be discussing it here.

This person then chose to edit their comment, adding other points to their argument—which was fine, even if I didn’t agree with them. However, their choice to respond further appeared to be driven more by their emotions than a professional perspective of the topic. I surmised as much when they proceeded to attack me personally, claimed that I “targeted” them, and alleged that I was anonymously harassing them. In an ironic twist, they concluded their edited comment by accusing me of “making it personal.”

There was nothing in the original email that identified its author. While I did address local casting directors in my update, I did not name any individual because I was addressing all of them. This person’s initial comment could certainly lead one to infer that they were responsible for the casting notice, and their vitriolic edit to their comment could certainly tip the balance from inference to supposition.

I was taken aback by their response. So much so that the personal attacks didn’t even register in my mind at first. My initial reaction was simply one of confusion. If a problematic email that did not identify its author proved to be problematic for some in the community, why would anyone contribute to a subsequent discussion in a way that could make others think that they, in fact, wrote it? At the time that I saw their comment, it was already late afternoon and I was in the middle of a personal task that I found much more pressing than taking time out of my day to verbally respond. I just gave the comment a “Wow” reaction and went about my business.

It was not until the next day that I sat down to read the comment more carefully and the personal attacks became apparent to me. I responded to it in a manner that I’ve become accustomed to: initially written, reviewed, and edited in an offline application; my words were carefully chosen and measured in an attempt to more precisely convey the ideas I wanted to get across—but I can’t deny my own emotional reaction.

My response started with a reference to one of the forum’s rules—“Talk about problems, not people”—in an effort to point out that my post was about the content of the casting notice and not its author, whose identity was still unknown to me.

They addressed that particular point by saying, “ are taking my work and making it public to over 16,000 of our industry colleagues.”

Supposition, meet confirmation.

Of course, the analytical tools made available to me by the forum’s platform told quite a different and ultimately unimpressive story.

At this point, the notice, its author, and the discussion that followed were no longer relevant. I felt that I needed to respond to their false accusations and bring to their attention the fact that their words “...not only affected me but my family as well…”

Despite the thought that I put into addressing this individual, I suspected that my words would fall onto deaf ears. I still considered the effort worthwhile if, for no other reason, it helped me to process the experience. I also remain hopeful that others will read my words and take them to heart. Especially the following observation:

Whenever someone breaks a group rule—and it’s brought to the attention of a moderator—they are informed of that fact, and appropriate actions are taken. The professionals that experience this, are very understanding. They sometimes reach out with questions and we’re happy to answer them. They appreciate the value that the group has and they want to be sure that their participation in the group contributes to that value.

There are also a handful of individuals—albeit a very small but LOUD handful— that break group rules and lash out at the admins when they’re called out on it. I can’t help but wonder, if they run a red light and get pulled over, if they say to the cop, “I don’t appreciate you targeting me, Officer.”

I will concede, that being held accountable for one’s actions can FEEL like one is being “targeted” but, in reality, that is not what’s happening. The feeling is usually one of embarrassment. Most adults will put those feelings into context and realize that they brought attention to themselves by not following the rules. The professional, grown-up thing to do in that situation is to acknowledge the feeling, understand the situation, learn from it, and move on. (some emphasis added)

Another rule in our forum is a pretty standard policy against “Bullying” which encompasses “belligerence...and degrading posts or comments” but as a moderator, I found myself in an awkward position. I was within my rights to take actions that I felt were warranted based on the behavior of the individual—which I think most people could diplomatically summarize as “unprofessional”—but I could not do so from a place that could be considered objective, since I felt personally affected by the situation and acknowledged as much in my own remarks. So, I consulted with the other forum moderators, saying, “I’m going to recuse myself from dealing with [the group member]... I would like to request that any other admin or moderator please step in and deal with this objectively. I’m enough of an adult and a professional to recognize the need for an unbiased third party.”

One of the other moderators informed me that “[The] most offensive comment has been removed, [the group member] has been notified of a couple of the rules that were violated, and [they were temporarily suspended]. I did send [them] a private message letting [them] know that there is a line of communication if [they] would like to reach out and discuss. I don’t want [them] to think that there was not an opportunity to come back to the group and do so after being reminded of the rules...I was pretty matter-of-fact about it…”

I was relieved to learn that the group member did reach out to the other moderator and they had a thoughtful discussion about the exchange. They expressed regret for having made hurtful remarks and there was no doubt about their sincerity. They also acknowledged that their reaction came from an emotional place—as they do for everyone—rooted in memories of a prior interaction with me. While the specifics of that interaction aren’t really that important—and the details have become hazy over time for all parties involved—the emotions associated with the experience remain vivid and valid. It does not justify their actions but it does present an opportunity to empathize.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the incidents that I’ve related in this article are not the only times that I’ve experienced some emotional and psychological distress in my role as a moderator. To put it in simpler terms, I’ve had my feelings hurt, and it has affected my life outside of my online interactions. As a moderator, I have a responsibility to follow the rules and not to engage in such tête-à-têtes—but as a flawed and emotional human being, it sometimes results in me breaking the rules and I will also get called out on it.

I also have to remind myself that in a forum with over 16,000 members, the worst experiences that I’ve had have been the result of interacting with fewer than a dozen people over a decade—though, in those moments, it can certainly feel like the whole community hates me. In the end, the people that refuse to acknowledge their own culpability and go one as if their online behavior does not apply to their offline lives, are blissfully unaware that they have actually damaged their own professional reputations far worse than they have hurt my personal feelings.