Continuing from my previous post on my decision to step down from various NVDA community positions, I’d like to talk about something that might be sensitive to some: mailing list administration, what it means to love and serve members and willingness to let go.
As I was thinking about death, legacy and future leadership, I was reminded of several definitions of death, both secular and sacred. To some, death is “… the next adventure …” (Albus Dumbledore), “… stepping into eternity …” (various songs) and “… time of judgment …” (Bible). Some have speculated that we end our existence once we die, and others claim that we possess a soul (I fall into the latter camp).
As I was thinking about death and praying about it and my legacy (see the previous blog entry), I also thought about forum administration, leadership position and loving the members of forums. As a person who have served in both roles (member and moderator), I know that moderating a list is a thankless job (I myself enjoy this position) and have witness disintegration of lists due to questionable conduct from members and moderators, I also know that leadership position doesn’t come with free lunch – it requires sacrifice, understanding and so on.
To me, a leader (especially that of an online forum) is one who showers forum members with love and is ready to serve the forum and its members. Showering members with love may take various forms, including researching a question on behalf of a member, arbitrating disputes, protecting members and so on.
However, I’d like to add one more characteristic to this list: willingness to let go. Power is both a helpful and a destructive force. If exercised correctly, power brings stability, prosperity and harmony. If misused, power makes leaders corrupt, causes distrust and disintegrates a community (here, I refer to mailing lists and forums as communities). If the moderator believes (or is compelled by members and outsiders) that they have abused their position or recognize that it is time to move on, a moderator should be willing to let go, knowing that they served their part (too much attachment to a list, as I found out, causes moderators to feel uneasy and stressed over the future).
Another characteristic I’d like to add is recognizing members as equal partners, accountable and answerable to people, and remembering that reputation of a forum rests on them and members. Some moderators say that a mailing list or a forum is the property of the forum owner; that is, an owner can do whatever he or she desires and run a list that best suits them. For example, without consent from the entire list, an owner could close a list, or the owner can expel members simply because they believe members are running rival lists or they don’t like them (without a cause).
I’d like to kindly (and with heavy heart) disagree with this attitude of running this kind of lists (with owners running the show alone):
1. Members should be seen as equal partners in decision-making. It is better to consult members and make informed decisions than jeopardize the reputation of a list through decisions from their own, especially if it was an inappropriate choice.2. Leaders should be recallable. I believe that leaders are there to love and serve the list, and because of this, they should be held accountable and answerable to members, even if it means voting to remove a moderator.
3. Leaders and members should remember that the reputation of a community depends on them. To some, reputation of the user and developer community will draw or alienate them to and from products, especially if a support list has publicly viewable archives. Some would say forum content is the crown jewel of a forum, but I believe the people are also important.
Some people may ask, “is it a good idea to let members criticize leaders?” Some moderators would say “no” because they wish to give outsiders an impression that they can manage a list. Some would say “yes” because they tolerate descent.
I myself think it should be allowed: criticism is a great thing if done correctly (incorrect criticisms include attacks on persons, flaming and so on). Although it is painful to digest in the beginning, it saves moderators from making wrong decisions, and in some cases, allows moderators to revisit their past decisions or compromise with members. It also allows vulnerable side of moderators to come out: genuine criticism allows moderators to think critically about what they’ll say, how they’ll act, why a member or two made this comment and so on.
Going back to the discussion on letting go and related concepts: sometimes, too much attachment to a list changes moderators (and I’m speaking from experience and after thinking about the answers to my prayers). First, it causes moderators to become extra vigilant against attacks on their lists. If a list is attacked (for example, criticisms from outsiders that could be misunderstood as an attack), they’d spend a great deal of energy “fighting” the attackers and often fail (there were cases where it has succeeded). For example, there were numerous debates on BrailleNote and Braille Sense lists regarding the products and the support lists, with folks from HIMS (Braille Sense list) defending the HIMS list (and I myself wrote messages to the BrailleNote list (when I was the chief admin there), saying they should exercise patience).
Second, moderators of lists become defensive when one or more members find themselves a target of attack. Because moderators are passionate about the reputation of a list and they feel at home when they sit on the moderator’s chair, they would believe that they need to be the ones defending their members and going so far as planning a counterstrike. Unfortunately, this is caused by passion, not reason (I found this out the hard way when one of the members of a Windows 10 list told me he was being harassed by someone (outside), then I formulated a plan to go after this person (a head admin on another list) by sending a letter to this person with mixed success; when I appealed to moderators of various lists, they told me that it is better to move on, which was the answer I needed (and they were right; to them I send my gratitude).
Third, moderators (and sometimes members) become so overprotective to a point where they’ll not teach their successors how to run their community. Without means of passing on their knowledge to the next generation, successors (moderators and members) will not find answers on dealing with crises, misbehaving members and so on. The state of NVDA community and the users list I described earlier fits this definition: in an effort to make the next generation suffer less, I have shielded them from how to handle crises to a point where I found myself saying, “I fed them fish all day instead of teaching them to fish.”
Fourth, moderators will exhibit tendency to advertise exclusive expertise. That is, they believe that only they should be the one answering all questions, respond to comments, defend a list and so on. This is prominent on lists where moderators do have reputation for delivering creative content (tutorials, websites, blogs and so on). Some moderators will stipulate that their content should only be sharable by members of his or her list, which is a sign of overprotectiveness and exclusivity (note that I do believe that, in some cases, exclusivity is the only option).
Before I go any further, we need to pause here and think about the following situation: a moderator of a list, who is known for producing helpful tutorials, says to members that his tutorials should not be sharable to outside members. In a way, this is a valid reason, seeing that this moderator would like to protect his publishing rights and in order to conserve bandwidth. However, I think this is a sign of advertising exclusive expertise: only members gets a chance to listen to his explanations, the tutorial set could be downloaded and distributed by anyone who may not give proper attributions (and I did see a case where the moderator did come after someone, thinking that this person post was an exact word to word copy of his tutorials) and so forth. Note that I do respect this moderator for what he does and know that his tutorials are good (no ill feelings here, and if I came across as such, I sincerely apologize).
Lastly, moderators become focused on succession plans. Worried about the future and the reputation of a list, leaders would draw up elaborate succession plans should they become unable to carry out their duties. Succession plan is good to preserve continuity, but focusing too much on that not only drains the energy of moderators, but also puts unseen burdens on moderators, members, the forum itself and outsiders: stress, content clutter, stricter conformity, tendency for members to act as moderators (without appointment or elected) and so on.
As for me committing these, I confess that I’m guilty of them all: overprotective, defensive, drawing up elaborate succession plans and so on. I do know that I did make mistakes such as not consulting list members when making difficult decisions, showing rage when I’m known to be calm and so forth. Only by the grace of God and through encouragement from community members I can lift up my face and say I’m ready to move on.
To members of forums I moderate or have moderated (NVDA International Users List on Groups.IO, Win10 Forum for screen reader users, BrailleNote Users list and others): I’d like to request mercy and forgiveness from you. On behalf of many forum administrators out there, I’d like to sincerely apologize for abuse of power and not considering members as equal partners. I’d like to sincerely apologize for showing contradictory traits at times, not showing love and mercy when I myself said leaders should show love and mercy, being so overprotective when I ought to teach next generation of leaders how to resolve crises and so forth.
To my fellow forum moderators and administrators: I’d like to sincerely appeal to you (from bottom of my heart) to consider members as equal partners in decision-making, not ignoring critics, and showing willingness to let go of your positions when it is time to do so. Please shower members of your forums with love and mercy, show that you too are vulnerable, show humility, and have an attitude of servants (to always serve, not to be served always).
To members of the blindness community, to sighted folks and others (especially CSUN 2016 attendees): I know I’ll get criticized for this (I’ll happily accept them), but this MUST be said (in hopes of starting a dialogue):
I (JOSEPH LEE) DECLARE THAT THE STATE OF MANAGEMENT OF BLINDNESS FORUMS IS IN CRISIS.
Sincerely,Joseph s. Lee
Head list representative, Windows 10 Forum for screen reader users (groups.io/g/win10)
(soon to be former) Moderator, NVDA International Users List (groups.io/g/nvda)
(former) Head admin, BrailleNote Users mailing list (www.freelists.org/list/braillenote)