Is it time to leave?
May 22, 2020 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Should I give up moderating in an online community because of one obnoxious person?

I am a moderator in an online forum. The head of the community has grown his platform from a solo venture to a half dozen different small groups using it throughout the week, including crowdfunding initiatives and multi-day charity events. I initially enjoyed this community because it was so different from other online communities that I am a part of - it skews a bit older and not quite so toxic. Approximately 3 years ago a person whom I'll call Joe joined the group. I actually remember the day he appeared because I remember him being obnoxious and demanding of the community head's attention, but didn't think too much of it because people who are like that tend to either mellow out, go elsewhere in search of more attention, or end up crossing a line that gets them forcibly removed.

However, Joe has stayed and made himself a major fixture of life on the forum including its satellite components such as the community head's Discord and Patreon, and donating generously to events and projects. He is always Doing The Most, as the kids say. He does the most chatting (not to fellow chatters, just to the community head or for the sake of chatting about himself and his interests), seems to compete against actual moderators in performing administrative tasks (like posting links to be shared with other community members quickly), and will order moderators to do things that he cannot himself do. Telling Joe things like "hey, we're the mods, we can handle it," and "please don't spam, let others participate" have fallen on utterly deaf ears. He shares constantly about his life to a degree that no one else in the community save maybe the community head does and freely posts daily updates about certain things happening in his life, unbidden. If another community member thanks the community head for something, Joe thanks him more effusively. If the community head has brought peaceful, fun moments into a community member's life, the community head saved Joe from depression and suicide.

I cannot stand Joe. I have privately explained why to other moderators and the community head on the two occasions when the question of making him a moderator has been brought up, something that it is nakedly obvious he wants to be (he is not satisfied by being merely honored as a community VIP). He has no heart of service, no goal other than to receive as much attention as possible and as much praise from the community head as possible, no interest in being inclusive. At least a few other moderators have expressed the same concerns, and we asked at that time for the community head to make some forum commands to be used only by moderators. The community head's response has been to not make him a moderator, but also to not ask him to curb his own behavior in the forum and to not make forum commands for moderator use only. He agrees with our assessments of Joe's behavior but has only concluded that there's lots for him to think about.

Meanwhile, nothing seems to have actually changed, except for my gradual tapering of involvement in the platform. Sometimes I'll reappear and things will be the way they used to be, but then Joe will appear and focus conversation on himself, and then I will become disgusted and leave. I would prefer to be somewhere where Joe isn't, something that I've acknowledged with regret to the other moderators and community head, whom I'm surprised hasn't finally removed my moderator status and replaced me with someone else. To myself, I feel like Joe has defeated me, because I can't figure out how to be effective and not let his behavior bother me, and what I want more than anything is to tell him off and ban him, which I assume would not receive the community head's support and would be perceived as an abuse of power.

My therapist has encouraged me to invest less monetarily in this forum, which makes sense since I'm not spending as much time there as I used to, but makes me wonder: shouldn't I just leave? I'm barely participating now and by definition not being a good moderator, so why pretend I'm still a part of the community? So my question is, is there something I could be doing differently in dealing or coping with Joe so I can enjoy and participate the platform again, or should I chalk it up to things changing over time and break with the forum formally?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Quit and don't look back.
posted by slkinsey at 12:51 PM on May 22 [21 favorites]

Something that's not quite clear from your post is whether the other moderators feel the same way you do about Joe (and, if they feel the same way, if they feel it to the same degree). I guess what I'm asking is does Joe annoy you more than average, or does he annoy everyone equally but you're the only one who's stepping up?

Do you think that Joe is negatively affecting the community in a way that's driving people (other than you) away from it? Do you have any evidence that this is true? If so, maybe just make one last plea to the founder expressing how Joe is making the community worse. Even if he's not outright breaking rules, the founder and moderators can still decide you don't want him in the community.

If, however, Joe is mostly negatively affecting you and the other community members are OK with him (or maybe even value his contributions), then you just have to let it go and step away. It's not the community for you any more.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:55 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]

Things change over time, that's kind of the nature of most things, it's OK for you to leave if the changes aren't for you. I, an internet stranger give you permission to go "fuck it' and leave, sometimes the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.
posted by wwax at 12:56 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

I serve in a leadership role for an all-volunteer organization that can be a lot of work. We regularly ask each other "Are you still having fun?" to gauge whether it's time to either change the way the organization does things or resign. It sounds like you can't change your organization.

Are you still having fun?
posted by adamrice at 1:06 PM on May 22 [19 favorites]

If the person in charge isn't willing to limit Joe's involvement, your options are yo continue with the community knowing that Joe will continue to Joe, or use that information to feed your departure. Maybe you can come back later if he ever leaves, but a toxic person will ultimately always kill the community they're part of unless someone steers them away. I'm sure you're not the only one who feels this way; can you create another space that you can control where people who share your feelings can join you?
posted by spindrifter at 1:07 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]

Yes, I think it's time for you to move on. Joe sounds awful, but his behavior isn't actually antisocial. If you were getting more from the group it would be easier to ignore him. I'd look for another community where a person like Joe would lose interest, or it would be easier for you to ignore them because there's plenty of good to focus on instead.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:08 PM on May 22

posted by Thorzdad at 1:21 PM on May 22

He agrees with our assessments of Joe's behavior but has only concluded that there's lots for him to think about.

Yes, leave, not because of Joe, but because the community head isn't doing anything about Joe. Joe sounds like a missing stair. The problem is more so with the community head, less so with Joe (as big as a PITA that Joe is). Maybe by leaving the community head will get the hint, but even if he doesn't, life's too short to have to deal with Joe.
posted by foxjacket at 1:26 PM on May 22 [23 favorites]

You should leave and you should frame leaving not as being "defeated by Joe," but as "making a positive choice to only spend my time and money in spaces that provide me with more value."

This is not you failing. This is the failure of the head of community to set and enforce norms that are welcoming and inclusive. They know Joe's actions are, on balance, having a negative impact and are choosing not to do anything about it.

It is sad to leave something you once loved behind, but I'm sure you can find another community that fills the void you will feel.
posted by brookeb at 1:26 PM on May 22 [30 favorites]

I'm tempted to suggest that before you leave, you privately tell the owner that you're leaving and tell him why. There's a chance that he'd make some changes to keep from losing you, and you might as well find out.

But yeah, if he won't budge, or if the changes he's willing to make are too little too late, then it's time to go.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:27 PM on May 22 [10 favorites]

The community head sounds like as much of the Joe problem as Joe, and it’s so unlikely that you can change the head that... yeah, leave. I’m sorry.

Strategically, consider a `other life things prevent my doing a good job' tactful semiretirement, in the minuscule chance that Joe will become intolerable and ejected and you can return.
posted by clew at 1:29 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]

I don't think it's possible for you to ignore Joe. Joe rules everything around you. Joe is in ur face. Joe is everywhere. Joe needs constant praise and attention.

Yup, time to quit if you are sick of Joe and the head won't let him go. I do like the idea of saying WHY you are quitting, but it probably won't have any effect because the Joes of the world outlast everyone.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:51 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Your other option is to step away from moderating and just be a regular member. That way, you can still be part of the forum if you feel like it, but you aren't under any obligation to be there. Then, if you find yourself spending less and less time there, you'll be in a better position to say "maybe it's time I leave for good." Conversely, you might find yourself missing your moderating duties and have a desire to come back to them refreshed and with renewed enthusiasm.

Stepping back doesn't have to be a big deal. You/another mod/the forum owner can simply post that "anon will no longer be serving as a moderator." If you feel the need to address the issue with an explanation (to head off all sorts of people asking questions) the post can qualify it with something like "due to real life commitments and time constraints...we'd like to thank anon for all of the hard work s/he put in moderating our beloved community and welcome his/her continued participation in the forum." That way, if you do decide to fade away, you'll just seem too busy with your real-life commitments and time constraints, no fuss, no drama.
posted by sardonyx at 1:54 PM on May 22 [7 favorites]

The thing that is hard to see and harder to admit as a community leader is that the blast radius of a toxic contributor is huge and mostly invisible. It’s not just the people who leave; it’s all the people who see what your community tolerates and walk away without your ever knowing they were there, forever. It’s the people who stay self-selecting themselves into a culture that tolerates abusive behaviour.

The worst thing that your community leaders walk past is what your community becomes, and community that can’t bring themselves to set and enforce minimum standards gets exactly the community that negligence earns them.

I’m happy to talk about this if you’d like to memail me - a big part of my job is remediating teams or communities that are struggling with this, and I’m pretty good at it. But it’s up you you to decide if it’s worth it to try, and absent a desire to change from the community leaders you mention, it may not be.
posted by mhoye at 1:59 PM on May 22 [29 favorites]

It's time to go. Joe is toxic and is allowed to be. As the kids say, kbyee.
posted by toastedbeagle at 2:20 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

What is there for you? What are you gaining from it?

Joe is lonely AF, has no clue how to manage, gets attention there. You or another mod could help Joe find other outlets, learn social skills. What gets rewarded gets repeated. If he posts too much, delete it. Ignore him a *lot*. Reduce, by huge amount, discussion with him. Use canned phrases We've talked about you posting so much. Let's let other members have a chance.

Of Course do not invest money, and structure it so your time is formally reduced. If you're getting any benefit, stay. If not, leave.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]

This question made me go look up the Geek Social Fallacies piece from 2003:

[...] nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If [Geek Social Fallacy 1, i.e. "Ostracizers are evil"] exists in sufficient concentration – and it usually does – it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. GSF1 protocol permits you not to invite someone you don't like to a given event, but if someone spills the beans and our hypothetical Cat Piss Man invites himself, there is no recourse.

Unfortunately, Michael Suileabhain-Wilson doesn't go on to give detailed advice on how to deal with this phenomenon, but points out that it helps to be aware of it, and to try to deconstruct it rather than let it damage otherwise worthwhile social groups.
posted by zadcat at 2:40 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]

I belong to a congregation of 350 people and an English department. For what it is worth, there is a person like this in both groups.
posted by mecran01 at 3:15 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]

Leave. Based on your post, there's no compelling reason to stay. Take your time, energy, and money and use them for things that bring you happiness and satisfaction. That does not mean Joe has won. Joe wins if everyone sticks around for his behavior. You win by taking care of yourself and not remaining in an environment that has become toxic.
posted by bunderful at 5:05 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]

Is there another person who is contributing almost as much, or asking for almost as much attention? Could someone ask Joe, as a favor, to talk to that person?

He has value to contribute -- the challenge is figuring out how to focus that energy and time. It's hard! There may not be the resources available from the people who understand people better! But he does have a lot to contribute.

If he's not actively mean, could he possibly run his own community? Would anybody join it? That could take a good part of his time.

Alternatively, might there be some kind of charitable effort involving calling/writing/talking to people and coordinating something that he would be good for?

I'm not saying that _you_ are responsible for figuring this out. Clearly, you are done, and you should not be forced to interact with someone who is going to affect your good disposition and render you less able to help other people as a result. But maybe someone else in your organization could do this bit of strategizing.
posted by amtho at 5:37 PM on May 22

If, as you said, Joe donates generously to events and projects, the head of the community has little incentive to inhibit Joe's behavior.

I would spend my time and efforts somewhere where you feel welcome, feel heard and enjoy.

I would not burn any bridges, but I would tell the head that you do not have the time to continue in your moderator role but will continue to be a member of the community. Then I would do as fast as a slow fade as suits you.
posted by AugustWest at 5:41 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

If the situation has persisted this long there is no reason to think it will change. Your choices are to adapt or leave, and it sounds like adapting isn’t going to happen.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:37 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Leave. Start your own group. I can guarantee there are others in your current online community who feel the same way you do, to whom a Joe-free group would probably be quite appealing.
posted by Jubey at 11:00 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Or you can be straightforward and push back. Joe, we've heard a lot about you, could we recenter on Deb? Etc.

The punishment will be...that you might get kicked or you might get disapproved of. So? It's better than being run off the group and letting a bunch of less powerful people get run off, too.

Stand up for yourself and the group! Life is short; no one being assertive is how this kind of thing goes on for years. Stretch yourself a little and change that.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:24 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

Been in this position many times — work, online, volunteer groups, etc — and in my experience, if management isn’t doing anything then your only option is to leave. It sucks and it will hurt briefly but it is likely the only option that will keep you away from Joe and with your sanity intact.

Good luck.
posted by terrapin at 6:47 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

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