I’ve been curating a global social learning space for a large group of mentors and mentees. Over the last few weeks, something strange has happened: there’e been an explosion of interaction. It’s as though we’ve been cranking the engine for a couple of months and suddenly it’s caught. Indeed, there is so much discussion taking place, i can barely keep up with it. My role has changed.
In the early days of a new community, the role is often about trying to generate engagement, trying to pull people in and get them to talk. As the community takes off, that role changes. You’re still trying to draw people in, but not the active and talkative section. The role changes to one of nurturing the disengaged. It also becomes a role of shaping and supporting conversation rather than driving it.
The moderator is the ‘official‘ presence within a social learning space. They are the voice of authority, trying not to be authoritarian. Whilst the actual role of the moderator may include certain operational facets, such as helping people with technical issues, the stylistic approach they take is very much within your control. We can choose what stance we will take for moderation. It may be that our primary concern is ensuring no confidential data is shared, it may be that our main thought is about how to get lively conversation going, or to stop people swearing. It may be that our main business is to help keep lively conversation vaguely related to the subject at hand. It may be all or none of these things, but whatever it is, we need to carefully define it and work to uphold it.
The moderator starts out as a key facilitator: you will generally find that part of any population engages readily. These active adopters will be experienced web users, will have an axe to grind, will drive initial conversations. At this stage in the lifecycle of the community, our primary aim is to broaden the number of engaged individuals, to develop the breadth of the community.
This can be done not just in the forum space, but by speaking to people of-line: asking why they are not engaged. Sometimes the results can be obvious (‘it’s not relevant’), sometimes, less obvious (they may not realise what is being talked about, English may not be a first language, or they may have IT problems meaning the experience is slow or devalued). We need to reach out into the group to determine their reality.
When the forum is active, as the learning space matures, often the role of the moderator is to shape discussion. As with all good conversations, the topics can wander. How much wandering you want is part of the stance you take. We may decide that the whole point of a social learning community is to do exactly this: to explore wider realities, or we may want to pull conversation back towards core topics. In any event, the moderator is curating the dialogue and we may want to look at how we train them with these particular skills.
Steering the conversation without killing it is an art, especially when we add in the complexities of groups where English (or whatever language you are running it in) is not the primary language of all participants.
As conversation matures, we may want to harvest a story out of it, to capture the narrative of the learning. This is an often neglected part of moderation: threads tend to catch fire, become lively, but not be rounded off. With a mature conversation, the moderator can draw the threads together to help generate the collaborative story that the group has told.
I realise that this is not a definitive description of the role of the moderator, but the point i wanted to make is that the activities and approach will vary: between organisations, between topics and over the life of the group or conversation. Therefore, the skills we need in a moderator are broad.
It’s a nice challenge to face: huge volumes of conversations covering broad areas, high engagement and enthusiasm. Our challenge is to ensure that the conversations are adding value and that people are able to jump on (or off) the roller-coaster safely, and that we build a legacy out of the activity.