Creative Commons License photo credit: onnola

Generally speaking, if I do my job as a forum administrator, my members don’t have to see much of what I do behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. That is for me to worry about – not something for them to be concerned with.

I tend to believe that this is how most people approach the role: I have work to do and I’m doing it. I don’t care if people know about it or if people know how hard I work or if I get credit for it.

Consequentially, only a small percentage of people know even half of the responsibilities that someone has, when they run a structured online community. Sometimes, though, it’d be helpful if they did. If they knew what it took to run that community that they love, that they derive some benefit from.

That’s my aim here. I want to give you a taste of what it takes to keep those forums running well. This isn’t an all-inclusive list, and it may not completely apply to everyone, but in my experience, these things are fairly common.

Yes, They Remove Spam

Most users know this much: administrators remove spam (or advertising, as I like to call it). And they do. Most dedicated administrators I know believe that, if you see something to handle, you take care of it. From the smallest task to the largest. From the once off spam post to a serious threat to the community.

Dealing with spam is definitely a regular part of managing an online forum. It may be the part that most identify with, but it is a very small part of the overall role.

Guideline Violations

Spam probably isn’t the only reason a post is removed on your forum. Most active communities have some sort of guidelines that detail the types of activities that are and are not allowed. If you want to know what else is not allowed, in addition to spam, take a look at the guidelines on the forums that you visit.

As an example, if you were to read the guidelines of a forum that I manage, here are some things that you will find as inappropriate on my forum: advertising, cross posting (posting the same content in two or more forums), personal, real life contact information (like a home address or telephone number), vulgarities, hotlinking, discussion of illegal activities, copyright infringement, political and religious discussions, inflammatory (disrespectful) comments and more.

Some of these items may matter to you, some may not. For example, you may not care much about the discussion of illegal activities or whether or not one of your fellow members is violating someone’s copyright. But, these issues can have an impact on the long term stability of the forums. Communities that are not proactively managed in these areas can run the risk of either partial or full deactivation.

Viewing Reported Posts

Moderating isn’t just for moderators. When an administrator sees it, it is handled right then and there, on most productive communities.

When you report a post, there is a fair chance an admin will see it. Some systems allow for the first person to see it to mark it as read and then the people after that don’t see it. But, other systems send a notification to the administrator no matter what.

Writing Policy

Speaking of guidelines, policy writing is part of managing a forum. This is primarily through the guidelines – whether it be adjusting or removing a current guideline or adding to the guidelines in order to address a new challenge. This may seem easy, but guidelines need to be well written and clearly communicated.

On top of that, there can be specific guidelines or “read me first” posts for individual forums. I have written too many of these to count.

Community Infrastructure and Design

The way that your forums are organized – the forums, categories and more – was likely decided by the administrator and is adjusted by him or her, as well. Good organization makes the forum easy to navigate and more inviting for new members because it showcases the content of the community in the most attractive manner possible.

When speaking of design and the way that the forums look, there is a good chance that your administrator has played some role in this, whether it be designing it themselves, picking a pre-made style or template and customizing it or consulting with a designer.

Many make changes or tweaks themselves. Does a button need to be changed? A link added? There is a fair chance the admin does this.

Technology and Keeping the Site Online

Some forums have a person dedicated to tech issues, but many (most?) do not. For those that don’t, the responsibility likely falls on an administrator.

When there is some kind of error, they research it and fix it, drawing on publicly available resources and people dedicated to providing assistance for these issues.

A very important part of this is keeping the software that the forums use up to date. What happens if the software is not up to date? In a worst case scenario, the outdated software has a security issue that is exploited, allowing the site to be hacked. The forums can be taken offline and erased and other damage can be done.

The administrator often makes decisions regarding web hosting, which is a service that makes the forums accessible to visitors through the web. They also ensure that the domain name registration is kept up to date, if applicable, and work to make sure that the site is regularly backed up, in case of an emergency.

Managing the Staff

If your favorite forums have moderators, there is a good chance that they are supervised by an administrator. The admin provides some form of training for them and a private staff area that allows for discussion and documentation of any actions taken by a member of staff. It’s almost like a community within the community, that has to be managed in it’s own special way.

Personally, I see and review every action taken by a member of my staff. I praise them when they do well and I step in when something must be fixed, helping to prevent it from happening in the future. Sometimes, this requires a message to a member and, if appropriate, an apology.

I interact with them, I answer questions and I encourage them, as best as I can. I keep tabs and also note if anyone disappears for an extended period of time unannounced, so that I can check in with them and make sure that everything is OK.

Interacting with and Responding to Members

If you hit the contact link on my forums, you are contacting me. This isn’t uncommon. Admins most often handle general inquiries, no matter what they may be. I regularly respond to members via e-mail and private message and occasionally elsewhere.

This personal response to everyone who contacts me (anyone who is not a banned member will always receive a reply from me, with the best answer I can reasonably provide) takes a great deal or time, but is worth it.

And, of course, I also interact with members on the community, where I post, comment and contribute like anyone else.

Have a Problem? Guess Who Probably Fixes It!

If you have any sort of problem with the site, odds are that an administrator is the one who fixes it or works with you to fix it. Whether you received an error, forgot your password, didn’t receive your welcome e-mail or need some help uploading an avatar, they are there.

Be a Good Influence

Administrators are the ultimate example to their communities. I believe that the admin is a big part of the tone of the forums and they should take seriously how they themselves contribute.

I welcome people to my forums. I randomly thank people publicly who make a particularly helpful or well thought out comment. When I notice a long term member has returned after a long break, I send them a private message welcoming them back.

When I notice a member who has been an exceptionally good contributor over an extended period, I send them a private message thanking them and making sure that they know that I see the great stuff they are doing and that I appreciate it. When I see someone who is timid or feels awkward in joining a new group, I do what I can to encourage them.

Not everyone appreciates what a good admin does for a forum. But, a good admin always appreciates the people who make great contributions to the forums. And, though a member who makes a mistake may not always apologize – when it is us who make one, we need to.

Take Abuse

Community administrators take a lot of abuse. If they aren’t taking abuse, they aren’t really doing their job. We have a responsibility and we do it to the best of our ability. And that means removing content and contacting people. Some people don’t like to be told they can’t do something. Some people decide they are bigger than the guidelines, bigger than the forums and think they can do whatever they want. When their access is blocked, they take it out on the administrator.

We are called Hitler, Stalin and Gestapo (one commenter on the linked post, MsMod, remarked that someone once told her that “Hitler would embrace and adopt you as one of his own”). Our sexual preference is questioned. People hurl insults to do with the nationality of our name. We deal with creeps who stalk us. When I suggest that your font color should be changed so people can read your posts, it’s like I am “telling a black person to stop being black.” My guidelines are draconian.

In short, we take a lot of abuse. And yet, most of us don’t share it publicly or talk about it much. I don’t even respond to these people. I document it, try to laugh at it and I get back to work. Sometimes people complain about their buddy who was banned from a forum they visit. Little do they know that sometimes, their buddy was a monster.

Everything That You See, the Administrator Probably Touches

In one way or another, most everything you see on your forum is touched by the administrator. When you see an active community, it’s usually not because it magically popped up by itself. It’s because someone cared enough to cultivate it.

They Demand More of Themselves Than They Do of You

If you think that the admin is being particularly demanding of you, chances are they are demanding even more of themselves. It’s not that an administrator has to be perfect, but a mistake made by an admin is magnified. I am very careful about what I put out on my forums and how I speak to others because I am setting the example. I take my time and try to get it right.

At times, it may be a burden, but it is the role that I chose.

Yes, Some Administrators Are Monsters

Before anyone comments saying that some administrators are jerks, egomaniacs and have no idea what they are doing, yes, I agree. Some are. Don’t forget that a forum administrator is only a human being and, as such, it is natural that some will be monsters, just like it’s natural that some people will be. Some of them are terrible and abusive. No doubt. And you have my sympathy.

But, more often than not, they are just a person doing the best that they can in a role that not many people truly understand. They aren’t perfect, but they try. Like most people do.

If you enjoy a forum that you participate in, I hope that this information gives you a greater understanding of some of the responsibilities that your administrator has and what he or she does behind the scenes to keep everything on track.