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Reading between the lines, it doesn't look like it'll be long before we get our proper moderator elections. I don't hang around much on the other SE sites so I can't be sure of this, but I have a suspicion that tex.SX is towards one end of the spread of SE sites in terms of what moderators are called upon to do. So I thought it might be useful to have a tex.SX-based description of the role of a moderator to help people decide whether or not they would be willing to put their names forward for election (note that the process is by self-nomination only).

I'm putting this up now so that I and the other mods have time to think about this before answering rather than feeling that we have to write something straightaway, and to give others who might be thinking of putting themselves forward (or who are just curious) time to ask questions.

  • I see that there are currently 28 potential candidates (i.e. members with rep. over 2k) at the time of writing. – Joseph Wright Jan 26 '11 at 20:33
  • I guess you want a bit more description than 'turn up on the site every day, read new posts, check mod flags' :-) – Joseph Wright Jan 26 '11 at 20:34
  • @Joseph, Yes, but I'm not sure what! I know that I now have a completely different idea of what "moderating" this site means than what I thought at the start and I know that I wouldn't guess that if I hadn't been a moderator during this period. It may be that it's blindingly obvious to everyone else, but just in case there are others like me I thought I'd ask this. And if I'm wrong, you and the other mods will be able to correct me so everyone gets the best of all possible worlds. Anyway, thanks for starting us off with your answer. – Loop Space Jan 26 '11 at 21:15
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    @Andrew. Looking quickly at some of the election threads for other SO sites, I suspect some of them require a lot more 'active' moderation. So I can see that it's a good idea to summarise what the pro tem team have found has been the case for this site. I do hope I've made a decent stab at it. – Joseph Wright Jan 26 '11 at 21:21
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    As an aside, Yi Jiang's candidate statistics page will give a summary of the current candidates' measurables when the election primaries begin. Some things to look at: does the candidate vote a lot, and are they active in many tags? Harder to quantify are: how do they handle fragile egos, do they know the tools well, are their opinions as visible on meta a good fit for yours? – Charles Stewart Jan 27 '11 at 12:32
  • @Charles. Useful link: it's worth looking through the nomination threads for the other SO sites just to get a feel for how they operate. For me it's certainly interesting, as it seems that some of the other SO sites must be quite different in 'feel' to {TeX}! – Joseph Wright Jan 27 '11 at 20:24
  • @Joseph: I think the prior existence of a good community structure through TUG, &c, has been great for this site. – Charles Stewart Jan 27 '11 at 21:08
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    We now have an election date: 14th of February. See blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/02/moderator-messages – Joseph Wright Feb 2 '11 at 17:06
  • As nominations open tomorrow, I took a look at the set that opened last week. Quite interesting: a couple have reached three nominations only: I wonder if this is a deliberate decision? (There are three spaces in each case, so once there are three volunteers is it worth anyone else standing?) – Joseph Wright Feb 13 '11 at 9:11
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The question is about moderating {TeX}, but I think an answer needs to start with the general Stack Exchange model. The approach is that most things can be done by people with sufficiently high reputation (the important lines are 2k and 10k, I think). In particular, members with reputations over 10k get access to most of the tools that the moderators do. The idea is of course that most 'moderation' is actually done without any intervention from Moderators.

We currently have a pretty small number of 10k users, although that will grow over time. At the same time, there are a small number of things that only moderators can do or see. For example, moderators can see people's registered e-mail addresses, and so can try to contact them directly if necessary. So there is a need for moderators to do some tasks.

At the moment, the number of things that have needed moderator attention have been pretty small. A number of these have been 'backing up' comments from others, or deleting 'answers' which are not really answers. The approach the pro tem moderators have taken has been pretty 'light touch', only using the moderator 'powers' sparingly. That's been helped by the rarity of times when they've been needed. I hope that this situation continues after the election.

I'd say that moderating {TeX} should be something that is mainly about being an active member of the community. So if you visit the site most days, answer some questions (perhaps avoiding the 'low-hanging fruit' to allow lower rep. users to answer), edit tags and typos, and comment on questions when appropriate, then you should consider yourself as a potential candidate.


Looking through the election posts given by candidates on other Stack Overflow sites, I see that time zones come up a lot. That's quite interesting mainly because I don't think it will be an issue in the {TeX} moderator election. The approach that's been taken by the pro tem moderators is to check on questions for moderation and in most cases to leave a comment in the first instance. The convention that's been adopted is to first allow the user in question to take action, and only to step in after some time has elapsed. The net result is that 'rapid moderation' is not really needed, and so the fact that all of the pro tem people are in Europe has not been an issue (at least I don't think it has).

  • I'm a bit worried that mine is the only answer here! – Joseph Wright Feb 1 '11 at 19:12
  • Mea culpa! I have in mind some things that I want to write but other things have come up that have meant I haven't had time to compose it as carefully as I want. – Loop Space Feb 1 '11 at 22:03
  • @Andrew. No panic, I was more thinking 'I hope I have not put everyone else off answering'. – Joseph Wright Feb 1 '11 at 22:07
  • Since you mention time coordination: What about date coordination, i.e. ensuring that at least one mod has Internet access and some free time on each day (at not that all of you go an vacation at the same time)? – Caramdir Feb 3 '11 at 2:09
  • @Caramdir. As we currently have 5 pro tem moderators this has not been an issue. I guess that experience from other SO sites has suggested that 3 moderators is sufficient in practice. – Joseph Wright Feb 3 '11 at 8:12
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Given that the date set for our elections is approaching fast, it's about time that I answered this question!

I'll start by saying that I think that the word "moderator" is ambiguous. On the internet, it can range from "administrator" to "janitor" to "police". I think that we see the whole range on the various SX sites. Jeff, Joel and the SO team are clearly "administrators" whilst over on Math.SX they seem more in need of "police"! Here, I think we're more towards the "janitor" end of the spectrum.

That's no bad thing! I think it means that our site runs itself fairly well, and that the community is doing the majority of the work (in so far as it is allowed to via the reputation system). But no matter how smoothly run the event, every now and then someone needs to know where the keys are kept to that strange storage cupboard where the extra chairs are stored, and needs to sweep up in the corners that everyone else has overlooked.

Looking back over the "actions" that the moderators have taken (with sincere apologies if I've missed some of the hard work that my fellow mods have been doing without my noticing them), I'd say that they fall in to the following categories:

  1. Polishing the site. Tag synonyms and merging, merging user accounts, writing tag wikis. This sort of stuff needs to happen, some of it high-rep users can do, but as we don't have many of those yet then we need moderators to bypass the reputation system and get these things done.

  2. Welcoming people. Often, new users get a little confused by the interface and need to be (gently) told how it works. The community is extremely good at doing this, but with the extra tools available to mods then they are the backup-team that (try to) ensure that no-one goes unnoticed.

  3. Wielding the black diamond. As I said, I think we're more like the "helpful team of volunteers at an event" than the actual organisers, but if you're wearing the "Welcome to TeX.SX" t-shirt then sometimes you get mistaken for someone who Ought To Know, and then when you say something everyone listens and accepts it (even if they disagree). That's quite useful. It can be a bit annoying to come to a new site, try to contribute, and then have Joe User say "That's not how things are done here, read the FAQ!". But if Jo Moderator says it then it comes across as less pretentious and condescending (in my opinion). Also, when a community member does write some constructive criticism, it can take the sting out for a moderator to come along and (effectively) say, "This isn't Joe User picking on you, it's just how things are done here.".

The one thing that isn't on my list is "making decisions". I'll admit that I've been fairly vocal in how I think that the site should be run: if there's a question on meta about "Should we do X or Y?" then I'll happily weigh in. But I regard that as orthogonal to my role as a pro-tem moderator. And I'd like to think that it's my arguments (plus a bit of my reputation) that gets my voice heard, not that black diamond next to my name.

So what should we look for in our next team of moderators? Here's my list; it's not necessary that all be in each of the moderators, but that all be covered.

  1. Commitment to the site. I guess this is obvious, and I'd be surprised if someone put themselves forward who didn't want the site to succeed, but I'll say it anyway.

  2. Regular visitor. The janitor needs to be there most of the time. A lot of the time, she can sit in her office drinking tea, but when she's needed it shouldn't be too long before she responds. I wouldn't say that we need continual coverage here. Even the threatened LaTeX vs ConTeXt war didn't amount to much! But we do need regular coverage.

  3. Broad knowledge of TeX. The clean-up stuff needs to be done by person or persons who know what they're doing. I haven't written any tag wikis simply because I haven't a clue what should go in them. But they need to be done, and since we don't have many high-rep users to write them, then the task falls on the mods. Similarly with cleaning up the tags. (This is one where that knowledge needs to be present in the moderators as a whole rather than in each moderator individually.)

  4. A good community member. This goes in hand with the second trait. If you're going to be on the welcoming team, make sure you're someone who naturally smiles a lot! On the internet, that translates into being someone who can write something critical but in a way that comes across as being constructive. Given that we've built up a list of "cut and paste text blocks" this doesn't mean that you yourself have to have the gift of the gab, but at least be able to appreciate the need for it.

And that's about it. I think that TeX.SX is doing a remarkable job at running itself, and I'd like to see the next team work on keeping it that way.

  • Very nicely put, Andrew. Covers all of the key points, particularly the one that decisions are for the community, not the moderators. – Joseph Wright Feb 11 '11 at 11:18
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    Being vocal is an asset in candidates, because it means we know where they're coming from. – Charles Stewart Feb 11 '11 at 12:14
  • @Charles: Yes, I agree. My list isn't exhaustive - there are no doubt more things like this that I just didn't think of. (If you have an idea yourself of what the job should involve, you should post an answer to this question yourself. Don't let us pro-tem mods have all the fun!). – Loop Space Feb 11 '11 at 12:43
  • @Charles: Candidates, what candidates? We haven't started the nominations yet :-) – Joseph Wright Feb 11 '11 at 15:15
  • Just to day that I'd second @andrew's comment that contributions from outside the pro tem team would be very welcome. – Joseph Wright Feb 11 '11 at 15:16

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