Slack moderator structures should share power and guard against burnout
Focusing on logistics, emotional labor, welcome and support, safety, and membership review
In March 2021, OpenNews and more than 100 members of the journalism community launched the DEI Coalition for Anti-racist, Equitable, and Just Newsrooms. It now has more than 900 members and relies on a rotating team of volunteer moderators to help support the community’s shared values of learning, growth and trust. Through this RJI Fellowship, Sisi will be creating and sharing guides and other resources you can use to implement this work in your own newsroom or organization.
But first, some background on who “we” are. We, Sisi Wei and Sophie Ho, worked with a small focus group to envision what this structure might look like. We both brought in experiences of being burned out ourselves or seeing our teammates burn out after overextending ourselves within ambiguous structures. Sisi has been a part of multiple admin teams on Slacks she deeply cares about, but since the teams have always come together ad hoc, she’s always wondered about the difference a more deliberate structure could make. Sophie brought her experience as a former co-chair of The Washington Post Guild’s Equity and Diversity committee, where she project-managed the union’s pay study and other initiatives. She focused on how to build safe discussion spaces for union members, specifically in situations where norms had not been set or defined.
Since the Coalition itself was built so collaboratively, building the moderator structure needed to be a collaborative effort too, and one that valued respectful and constructive disagreements, so that the end result would be as helpful to the community as possible.
We also needed to make sure the structure we created reflected and supported the Coalition’s mission of taking action in pursuit of an anti-racist, equitable, and just journalism industry.
In this piece, you’ll find:
- How we approached building that moderation structure
- The framework we’re using today, that you can copy
- What to keep in mind when building a moderation structure for your digital (or in-person) communities
We are using Slack as our communication platform, but the lessons we’re learning could be applied to moderating Facebook Groups or listservs or just about any way you organize and work.
How we thought about purpose, accountability structure, power limitations, and selection
Ahead of the Coalition’s launch, we created a focus group of Coalition volunteers to talk through what roles and responsibilities moderators might have in the space, considering the scope and gravity of the conversations that we expected to take place in Slack.
We realized immediately that crafting clear community values and moderation frameworks to support those values were important opportunities to help build the community’s culture. Especially in a new space that didn’t yet have an existing culture, we knew it would be critical to create one where people would be comfortable sharing their challenges and asking for help. Knowing that, we focused on crafting moderator roles and a structure that would help members feel supported, empowered, and welcomed in the community.
Here are the four main areas that we considered:
Making invisible work visible: Name your goals
There are many models for Slack admin teams out there. Some exist to only help solve problems around using Slack, while others only exist to resolve conflict. But in the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish, we wanted the DEI Coalition Slack “moderator” team to go beyond both technical implementation and policy enforcement.
Our team is also responsible for creating a welcoming environment, encouraging and supporting member conversations, and proactive communication about what’s going on in Slack. Whether it’s in other Slack communities, at home, or at work, we also know that many people often take on the responsibility of making others feel welcome without any official role or recognition, and we wanted to turn work — normally invisible, and done for free — into something just as valued and recognized by the community as regular “Slack admin” work.
Being accountable to the community, not a single person: Who do the mods report to
As the DEI Coalition strives for anti-racist, equitable, and just newsrooms, we wanted to create an accountability structure for moderators that also strived to be equitable. After some discussion, we ruled out having the moderators “report” to Sisi, who is the founder. We felt that while Sisi had built a lot of trust, and many people were comfortable with this idea, we didn’t want a single person to be the ultimate decision maker of a coalition. That didn’t fit in with our goal that this space was truly for and by the community.
The moderation team structure was built so that power is being purposefully shared, but also in recognition that the mod team is simply a group of nine volunteers who are stepping up to help manage the DEI Coalition Slack community.
Sisi’s role as founder, then, is to uphold the spirit of what the over 100 volunteers decided when they originally created the Slack. For example, in the event of a moderator coup, where a group of volunteer mods decide to ignore their roles and claim permanent admin status over the Slack, Sisi would remove them, as it goes directly against the community’s original intentions on how moderators should work.
Sharing power and mitigating burnout: Terms and term limits
The DEI Coalition Slack decided to create terms and term limits for all our moderator roles. This serves as an accountability tool, a way to give potential moderators clear time expectations, and serves as one more way of making sure power is shared across the community.
Moderator terms are undefined in a lot of communities, but clarifying those terms can have a lot of benefits. Knowing exactly what you’re getting into and when your commitment will end, helps people decide whether they want to sign up, and helps guard against burnout because commitments do not go on vaguely forever. Terms also help share power within the community because more members can participate in a deliberate way.
Our Term Limits: Anyone in the DEI Coalition Slack can serve up to two consecutive terms before needing to step down from a moderator role. They are welcome to volunteer again, but only after taking at least a one term break.
Our Term Lengths: Based on how intensive a role might be and how much emotional labor it requires, our term lengths vary to account for that. See the table below for examples. We also balance this with the fact that all mods will need to be onboarded, and will need to serve for a long enough time to make that initial time commitment worth it.
Paying attention to power dynamics: Balancing the moderator team
We have one main rule that helps balance future teams: Two moderators serving in the same role cannot have the exact same access privileges in the Slack. When people first submit a membership request to the DEI Coalition Slack, they tell us whether it makes sense for them to have access to private “staff” channels, private “manager” channels, or neither. Our instructions say:
These private channels are only open to folks who currently identify as having one of the two types of roles — staff or manager — in the journalism industry, and exist to help create space for them to share their ideas and struggles with others in similar situations in their organizations.
When it comes to moderators, that means that out of the two mods in each role, they cannot both have staff access, both have manager access, or both have access to neither. Since most members have access to either staff or manager channels, this usually means that we have one person who identifies as staff, and one person who identifies as a manager in the journalism industry, in each moderator role.
This helps us address a lot — from making sure both types of perspectives are represented to making sure the team is staffed appropriately to handle any necessary recusals.
Our current structure: Five moderator roles with different terms and time expectations
The DEI Coalition Slack has 5 moderator roles. We mentioned earlier that it’s important to name your goals. With all the different types of work that we wanted our moderator team to do, it was very important to us to make sure that no single moderator would be overwhelmed. In fact, we wanted these volunteer positions to feel extra manageable and clear, and that each volunteer would only be responsible for one main area.
If you’d like to copy this table and adapt it for your own Slack or community, please feel free! The actual spreadsheet we use in the DEI Coalition isn’t shareable publicly, but this table shows you the most important elements.
Want to work off a copy of this table? Click here to generate your own copy in Google Docs.
|Role||Minimum Term||Time Expectations|
|Logistics Mods work to keep the entire mod team running smoothly, make sure that we always have folks ready to volunteer for the upcoming 3-6 months, and onboard new mods.||6 months or 1 year||Most of the work happens at the beginning and end of your term, with reminders and check-ins in-between. During scheduling periods, you’ll probably spend 1-3 weeks coordinating people and on/offboarding folks. Other times, you’ll probably spend 1-3 days making adjustments to the schedule.|
|Safety Mods help keep the community safe and respond to safety-related community agreement violations quickly.||6 months||Most of the time nothing will happen and there won’t be much to do. But when something does happen, you have to react immediately. Best guess: Bursts of activity lasting 1-3 days, or longer if it’s a tricky situation.|
|Welcome/Support Mods help people feel welcomed right when they join, and give them a friendly face to go to for help. Their work is crucial for maintaining a place where people feel they belong and are valued.||6 months||You’re someone who checks the Slack almost daily just because you want to. You welcome batches of new folks at least every week. When someone needs coaching, you respond quickly, even if that’s to set another time to talk further.|
|Membership Review Mods make sure that applications to join the coalition are processed reasonably quickly. They also serve as our first line of safety, since application review mods will not accept folks who do not meet our community-written membership criteria.||3 months||You can do this on your own time. You can rotate weeks with your partner mod too, or however else you both want to set it up. Since we don’t know our membership request volume, you’ll help us figure out how much time you need to spend each week, and how many total mods should have this role to make that doable.|
|Emotional Labor Mods volunteer to help take on the emotional labor of facilitating a community, whether that means reminding members of the community agreements, or helping people reflect on how their words, actions and privilege affect others in the community. They are there to help facilitate difficult conversations and situations as they arise, making sure this burden is shared. An emotional labor moderator is not expected to be an expert on how anyone should act or speak at any moment — everyone is at a different part of their journey on this. Instead, they are open-minded, willing and eager to become better allies and accomplices, and help others in the community do the same.||3 months||You’re in the Slack almost daily just because you want to be, even if you’re not posting. As comments are brought to your attention, or as you see them, you respond.|
How we created these guidelines and roles, as a community
Community members worked together to draft, propose, give feedback, and finalize every part of the DEI Coalition Slack. When it came to the moderator guidelines and roles, we used the same approach, with one tweak. Instead of asking a group of people to create a structure together, we worked as a pair to give people a model they could react to.
Step 1: Create a proposal so people can react to it
We created the first draft of what the moderator roles could be in a Google spreadsheet (it was really similar to the table above), adding roles and other details as we brainstormed ideas together.
Step 2: Give everyone the opportunity to be involved
We asked everyone if they were interested in helping us shape and mold the moderator guidelines and roles, and shared that this would mostly likely involve sharing thoughts over email and at least one group call in the near future. Once people responded, we had our focus group.
Step 3: Use your community members’ time thoughtfully and take vigorous notes
If you plan on having a synchronous meeting, know exactly what you’d like to get out of it. We wanted a live meeting because we expected people to bounce ideas off each other, and that a concern one person had might help someone else realize another right away.
After the live meeting, we also made sure anyone could email us further thoughts anytime in the next week, as ideas might come after they’ve had some more time to process. During the meeting, take vigorous notes that everyone can see (and help edit), because you’ll need them to remember all the feedback you get.
Step 4: Incorporate feedback transparently
As we started incorporating feedback and changing our guidelines and roles, we revisited our shared notes doc, and used comments to log exactly how they were being incorporated, transformed, or not incorporated, so there was a transparency trail. This not only demonstrated that we were re-visiting each piece of feedback we received, whether live or via email, it also allowed anyone in the group to look up how it was being used.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 3 and 4
You can go through this cycle of refining your proposal, seeking feedback, and incorporating feedback as many times as feels right. You should do it at least once, and we ended up doing it twice more, with the same group.
During these rounds of feedback is where we made some crucial changes, such asking that most moderator roles be filled by two people at once, so that volunteers can step back from the Slack easily (such as for vacations, mental health breaks, or any other reason) and know that their role is still being filled.
We also used the feedback from these conversations to help frame our moderator onboarding. The group’s initial questions gave us an idea of what specific scenarios, workflows and resources we wanted to train moderators on.
Step 6: Celebrate how much better your result is
In many other scenarios, step 1 might have been the one and only step to making a moderator structure. What we had originally come up with was good enough and a workable solution. But our final version is miles ahead of what we came up with on day one, and we could feel how much better each round of feedback made our work.
This experience demonstrated to us how sharing power and making the time to invite input can make the end result better for everyone — and drastically so. The work isn’t done, either — as the community grows, we expect that members will continue to refine, iterate, and improve on what has been built.
Calling for volunteers to be moderators
After establishing the initial moderator roles and responsibilities with our working groups, we turned to the community for volunteers.
Here are some tactics you may want to try when calling for moderator volunteers:
- If your community requires a form or application process, consider adding a place where people can indicate interest in being a moderator at some point. In doing so, you’ll have an active pool of folks to engage with when building out the moderator team.
- Clearly detail the roles and expectations for moderators, and how they fit into the fabric of the community.
- Consider using a tool like Google Forms where people can indicate their interest in specific roles.
- Be clear who can volunteer to be a moderator (is it anyone? Is it only people who have been in the community for X amount of time?).
Once you’ve built out the moderator team, here are some tips to get the team off the ground:
- Provide onboarding. Onboarding should provide more detail into the roles and give a rundown for any resources or documents people may need.
- Avoid silos. If your moderator team has multiple types of roles, it may be important to make sure everyone knows what everyone else does, in the case folks need to sub in or take time away from their role.
- Talk through what decision-making looks like in the community and among the moderators, especially if you move toward a decentralized power structure. It’s likely your moderator team will be the heart of key decisions moving forward, so focus on frameworks or structures they can turn to as your community grows.
- Provide spaces for supports among mods. That could be a channel, email threads, or regular meetings where folks can bounce ideas off of each other. For example, moderators in the DEI Coalition are in a private channel, where people can raise questions, ask for gut checks for decisions, or solicit advice on how to handle different situations.
Moderation: An open conversation with the entire Slack community
Moderation is an important part of how we ensure we can create welcoming environments for everyone, and it’s important to remind community members that they have moderators to turn to.
When thinking through how to message to your community about moderations and how moderators work, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- If you have welcome documents or onboarding for new members, include a note or description about who the moderators are, what roles they have and how they work with other members. For us, we added a section in our welcome guide for new members that detailed our moderation structure.
- If your community has a code of conduct, community agreement, or other founding document, consider adding notes about how moderation fits into upholding the spirit of the community. For the DEI Coalition slack, we explicitly mentioned that the community is moderated by a team of volunteers in the Community Agreements, the foundational, community-written document that all applicants to the DEI Coalition were required to read.
- Provide reminders of how members can contact moderators! Slack reminders are great for this to help people remember where they can go for help, whether that be a channel, an email, or a list of people they can directly message. For the DEI Coalition, there is a dedicated channel that members can hop into if they need help from a moderator, which we remind folks of every week or so. This channel is one of the few that has the Anon bot enabled in case there are sensitive requests.
If you’d like to be part of this community (including talking to us directly about moderation structures!), you can apply to join the DEI Coalition here. You can also find us on Twitter at @sophanho and @sisiwei.