Tips for an Online Discussion Moderator

By Barbara Risto

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As a moderator of a Discussion Forum, you should have an enthusiastic interest in a topic that you believe other readers might share and an ability to express yourself in writing clearly.

As moderator, you will be asked to post the initial comment (known as a “thread”) and make a commitment to check back frequently to monitor comments made in response to your comment. Whenever you feel you can add something to the conversation, you jump in and add your comment. The point is to keep the conversation flowing. Allow others to respond and interact freely. Interject your own comment when it feels appropriate to stimulate more comments. If a question is being asked of the organization or company hosting the discussion on their website, respond to it if you know the answer (and have been given permission to do so by the host) or direct it to the attention of the website’s host so that someone responds from the organization.

Engaging Members in Thinking and Responding

• Provoke curiosity and stimulate intelligent discussion about a critical, controversial, or intriguing topic.

• Identify a rich theme, a question or dilemma with no simple answer. Embed one or more questions in your messages, and use an inquiring tone to invite others to join the discussion.

• Stake out a controversial position or play devil’s advocate to challenge others to think through their own ideas.

• Ask good questions that stimulate thought.

• Share and compare experiences as a way of learning from others, and seeing your experiences/ideas through someone else’s eyes.

• Invite others to help problem-solve a dilemma you are facing.

Opening the Conversation

When creating a new topic for conversation, the title of the topic and the content of the first message all have a bearing on who will be attracted to the topic. By all means, use witty or intriguing titles, but please make sure that the topic is clearly identified in the title. For example, don’t use a title like “You won’t believe how much fun you can have”; instead, say “You won’t believe how much fun you can have zip-lining.” Better yet, say “Zip-lining is unbelievable fun.” Keep it short and to the point.

Asking Good Questions

Asking good questions is a fundamental aspect of moderating a group discussion. It is important to ask questions that could be responded to with a thoughtful answer – reporters often refer to these as “open questions” – they cannot be answered with just a simple “yes” or “no”. It requests the respondent to offer an explanation. Questions that specifically ask about another’s idea of point of view can lead to a rich and reflective dialogue. Questions that only require a “yes” or “no” response are called “closed questions” and can stilt a conversation as there is nowhere to go with the conversation other than to ask another question.

Answering Questions

By posting thoughtful answers, moderators can help to sustain the flow of conversation beyond a simple question/answer rhythm. If there is a question that needs to be answered by the website hosts, please make sure that someone from the company is notified so that a response can be posted on behalf of the company. The hosts may not know about the question being asked unless you draw it to our attention as they are usually not monitoring the discussion forums on a regular basis. This is where they rely on moderators to be their eyes and ears.


It is important that the moderator assess the responsiveness of the discussion members and be ready to step in with a comment whenever the conversation seems to be lagging. Your involvement will affect the pace and feel of a conversation. It is usually expected that, if you cannot monitor the discussion daily, that you check in at least every 2-3 days.

Monitoring for Misuse of the Forum

In a public forum, comments often show up that are off topic, insulting or offensive. While it is okay to disagree with someone’s opinion, it is never appropriate to attack or demean the person themselves.

Obviously, a conversation about harmonizing the tax in BC will be more heated and more controversial than a conversation about chocolate cake recipes. The tone will reflect the seriousness and emotions around the topic. It will be your responsibility as moderator to guide the conversation so that it stays within appropriate bounds without stifling the strong opinions and emotions of the people who are commenting.

In heated discussions, there can often be a fine line between the two, especially when it comes to topics like politics and religion. Your role will be to help determine that line, according to the guidelines set by the website host. When in doubt, bring the situation to the attention of the host organization.

On the other hand, if you are discussing chocolate cake recipes and someone interjects a tirade about the legalization of marijuana, discussion hosts will often remove the comment because it is inappropriate for that topic thread.

Using the Forum for Self Promotion

If you are the owner of a business or interested in marketing some service or product, mentioning your business, service or product in a discussion forum is generally accepted as long as it is done tastefully and doesn’t intrude on the general discussion. Moderators of discussions, however, walk a fine line here. Hosts of discussion forums usually don’t create the discussion forum to promote other businesses, so make sure that as a moderator you understand the guidelines of the company on whose behalf you are acting. What people contribute to discussion forums should be of informational value, not just an advertisement. If visitors to the discussion see an overwhelming amount of self-promotion showing up, they may protest this use of the site and stop visiting it.

Ending the Discussion

Eventually a topic thread may trickle down to no responses. Be aware of the responsiveness of the members, and start a new topic whenever you feel there is an opportunity to explore something new and interesting. Don’t expect one thread to continue forever and encompass everything there is to know on a particular topic. When you see a new angle, or a new thought that can be developed into a discussion on its own, post a new title and once again, monitor where the discussion goes.

Discussions that aren’t seeing any new responses aren’t usually removed, as new members coming to the site will often find the old comments helpful and may start the discussion going again.

If a thread looks like it has outlived its usefulness, or contains information that has since expired (event dates, products no longer being sold, etc.) hosts will often remove it to avoid confusing new visitors to the site.

Ending Your Role as Moderator

Most people have other commitments in their life, and while being a Moderator may fit your current interests, you are usually under no obligation to continue if at any time you feel it is not what you want to do, unless you have entered into some kind of contract agreement with the forum host. To get a solid start to the discussion, however, an initial commitment of about 3 months should be considered. At such time as you wish to withdraw from your role as Moderator, it is good protocol to let the host company know rather than just dropping out of sight.

Formal or Informal?

Some moderators worry about their grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. In most online discussions, the rules that govern most written language are often set aside. Users often resort to contracted words, like “r u” instead of “are you”. People in the throes of discussing a hot topic often would rather get their thoughts out there than stop and correct punctuation, make sure that capitalization is accurate, and so on. Unless the host of the site is adamant about spelling, grammar, non-usage of symbols or contractions, etc, then feel free to just relax and enjoy yourself and don’t worry about writing like an English professor. That said, moderators should have a good grasp of the written language and be able to express themselves fluently.



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