I’ve been working on putting together a set of forum ownership requirements and moderation guidelines for the MSDN forums in preparation for other sites and forums that may be launching in the future.  You may have seen my posts today.

My belief is that for too long Microsoft has created these types of communities without realizing that while some technologies may be lucky enough to support self sustaining communities that require zero oversight; that this is not the case for every technology.

It is our responsibility to ensure the existing community and future community members (people who click Ask a Question in Visual Studio) do so on a place they are likely to receive an answer from a friendly environment. 

This doesn’t mean that we need to maintain absolute control of the community. In fact, to claim we could would be huge lie.  What we can do, however, is continue to innovate in the forum technology space to ensure that the community there has the tools to control their own destiny and that someone here is paying attention… ready to hand over the reigns of moderation within each sub-community. 

What I’m saying is that you should not take the guidelines I’ve drafted here as the final unchangeable word.  In fact I had a lot of help from the Asp.Net forum moderators in coming up with the initial list.  The forums are your community and I would love to get your feedback on what I’ve written.  The end result should be a set of guidelines that should empower a large set of community moderators to help the community beyond how they’ve helped in the past. 

All that said. Keep in mind that the site owner and forum owner stuff is written with a strong internal MSFT focus. I want you to see what I’m telling the forum owners today.  These are the people that should be focused on handing over the reigns and pushing their own teams to join the community to help developers trying to solve problems with VS 2005 and beyond. 

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Abstract

This document describes the Microsoft forums ownership requirements, expectations, and moderation guidelines.

Being a Site Owner

A forum site contains multiple forums and groups of forums. http://forums.microsoft.com/MSDN is an example of a forum site that contains multiple forums and forum groups. The site owner(s) must ensure the following.

1. Every forum on the site is appropriately located for customers in the forum list

2. Every forum contains an appropriate title and descriptions.

3. Every forum has at least one internal forum owner and team responsible for sponsoring its existence and ensuring the answer rate in the community.

4. Every forum is being tracked internally by a question tracking tool such as http://answerme or the eventual Tomcat replacement so that thread ownership and resolution can be ensured.

5. Forums are appropriately highlighted on Microsoft product pages. Ideally the product pages should highlight both recent answers, recent questions, and top answerers for applicable forums. Note: At this time not all of the RSS feeds for this are available for consumption.

Being a Forum Owner

Every forum must have at least one owner ultimately a team that is responsible for sponsoring its existence and ensuring the answer rate in the community. It is the responsibility of this owner and the team to ensure:

1. The forum is appropriately named with an accurate description.

2. The forum owner and team is registered as being ultimately held accountable with the current question assignment tracking tool. Currently we leverage the http://answerme system internally to ensure threads are routed appropriately.

3. Users who ask questions get answers. Specifically this means…

  • Greater than 80% of the questions asked on the site have replies tagged as answered.
  • The average days to answer is not greater than 3.

4. Forum Owners have a clear support plan that enables them to reach and maintain the goal outlined in requirement #3.

  • In the case of the MSDN forums the product teams are held accountable for the answer rate as one of their ongoing community commitments. Once Visual Studio 2005 we will likely onboard CSS to extend their MSDN customer benefits to include a minimal turnaround for managed customer posts made to the forums as well as the newsgroups that are covered today.

5. The forum is appropriately resourced with members of the community (MSFT or non-MSFT) who perform answer tagging and moderation. The moderation guidelines are described below.

  • Any member of the community (MSFT or non-MSFT) could be enabled as a moderator.
  • All MSFT employees and MVPs minimally should be given at least the answer tagging role. Note: This role (without full moderation rights) will not be available until the fall.
  • The team should have a plan to ensure that a majority of the moderation team is eventually spread across non-MSFT personal. This is to ensure that we only own the tools, but don’t ultimately control the conversation. Ideally the responsibilities of moderation can be spread across a good number of people.

Above all… please… please pay attention to the needs of your communities.  I’ll be doing my best to watch for user complaints and forums where the moderators seem to be asleep at the wheel.  If one of your team’s forums suffers a severe lack of moderation to the point of affecting the rest of the site over an extended period of time… I will remove the forum from public listing until it has been cleaned up. 

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Being a moderator on Forums.Microsoft.com

For now the MSDN Forums site does not require every post to be approved before it is allowed on the site.  Although that is the current practice on the Asp.Net site we felt that it would initially create too much of a moderation burden when 99% of posts are approved straight away regardless at the expense of the asker having to wait longer for an answer. 

If, after a period of time, we receive feedback that this community is not a safe place for our customers then we will have to start enforcing these stricter requirements.  So, in some ways we have it easier, but we a responsibility to our customers to remain diligent participants in the community.

Overall Methodology

Think of the MSDN forums as a gigantic FAQ generating discussion system whose purpose is to quickly provide answers to users who search for or go as far as asking questions in the system. The question and answer tags within threads enable users to easily see what threads contain answers and what posts within that thread actually provided the answer to the question.

The overall purpose of moderation on the MSDN forums is to keep the search results clean and filled with useful answers for customers.

Initial Moderator Requirements

Ideally people chosen to help moderate your forums should be trusted members of the community. Traits of good potential moderators include:

Knowledgeable: Moderators should have demonstrated an understanding of the space they are moderating through the answering of questions on the current forum site or elsewhere such as the newsgroups or their own blogs. This will help them identify potential answers and know where the right places to move off-topic posts are.

Good communication skills. Moderators should be able to effectively communicate their actions with members of the community who may be irate, annoyed, offensive, or just plain rude.

Team Focus: Good moderators should understand that effective moderation is a team activity and that they would be expected to work well with others whether that includes communicating in the moderator forum or simply understanding that our moderator mentality focuses on having a breadth of moderators rather than kings of individual forums.

If one of your MVPs, for example, asks to be a moderator there shouldn’t be much hesitation in granting him or her these abilities.

Maintaining Moderator Status

There are currently no strict requirements placed on users to maintain moderator status on the forums site. It’s our belief that given the appropriate tools the job of moderation and answer tagging especially can be handled if a large enough sub-set of good community contributors (MSFT and non-MSFT) are adequately empowered.

This means that if you are a good moderator today but became engaged in a difficult project for several months that you'd still be a good moderator when you have the time again and we’ll welcome you doing the right thing for the community.

Specific Moderator Guidance

The following links are meant to explain the when, why, and how each each moderation activity.

Answer Tagging

Post Editing

Deleting Posts

Moving Threads

The Report Button

The Moderator Forum