Don’t launch a communication tool without a moderation plan

A woman facing away from the camera holding a bullhorn to her mouth.

In open source projects — and the tech sector more broadly — we have a tendency to start small and build from there. This is generally a good thing. It allows us to iterate on ideas. We can get real-world feedback and improve our design as we go. This applies to teams, processes, and tooling — not just to the code we write. It’s why I recommend building teams by starting with an MVP. But there’s one case when you want to start with a fully-formed plan: communication tools.

As I said in the appendix to Program Management for Open Source Projects:

For any form of communication tool, you first need to consider trust and safety. Your community hopefully has a code of conduct that defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior, but not everyone will follow that.

Any platform that allows people from the Internet to enter text will eventually have to deal with spam. And there are some people who won’t behave themselves in your project’s communication, so you’ll need to address trust and safety. Having the essential trust and safety features isn’t enough. You need policies in place to use them and a team of people empowered to take action.

This is not something that you want to wait to address. When an issue arises, it can be a Very Big Deal to the people on the wrong end of it. You don’t want to have to first figure out how you’re going to handle the situation, you want to already know.

And it’s not just the capital-A abuse you have to think about. Most moderation doesn’t rise to that level. The bulk of moderation issues are simple things like discussions veering off topic, posting to the wrong venue, etc. Even though handling these is routine administrivia, it can result in offense if you’re not careful (and sometimes even if you are).

Especially during contentious discussion, people may feel like you’re trying to silence them if you move their valid-but-off-topic post to a different thread, for example. You want to have well-understood and consistent practices about how you handle these things. That goes a long way toward reducing hard feelings. And importantly, you want to make sure you’re not on the hook for all moderation. That’s an unsustainable burden for you to bear.

This post’s featured photo by Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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