Discord is a place for all kinds of connections to be made and relationships to form and as a moderator one of your primary responsibilities is managing the relationships of others to ensure that you are promoting a healthy, productive, and inclusive community. But what happens when the interpersonal relationships that you as a moderator have built start to cause problems in the community you moderate? Understanding how to manage your own interpersonal relationships within the communities you moderate is the key to preventing major administrative problems and is a crucial skill for a prospective moderator. This article will explain the dangers of interpersonal relationships gone awry and offer precautions to take when forming close relationships with members of communities you moderate.
Any relationship between two members of a community can be described as an interpersonal relationship. These relationships exist on a wide spectrum. As you participate in a community, you are most likely going to develop connections to varying degrees with other members of the community. As a moderator, this may even be expected as part of your duties to promote community engagement and healthy conversations. That’s perfectly normal, as it’s very natural for people who spend a lot of time communicating to develop closer ties to one another.
Every kind of relationship, from mere acquaintances to romantic partners, can occur in a Discord community, and every relationship you form as a moderator will carry its own unique challenges and responsibilities in order to ensure you are performing your duties to the best of your ability. Any kind of interpersonal relationship can create difficulty in moderation, but as the nature of the relationship changes, so too does the unconscious bias you may experience.
A friendship between a moderator and a member of the community is the least problematic type of intersocial relationship, but as these friendships form it is still important to take notice and be aware of them. As a moderator it is your duty to be available to everyone in the community, even people who you may not ever see as a friend, so you must resist the temptation to devote more time and attention to the people you more easily connect with. If your biases toward your friends begin to show up in your moderation efforts, many more serious and harder to diagnose problems can arise. Feelings of "elitism" or “favoritism” can start to take hold and disgruntled members may take advantage of your friendships to excuse or justify their own behavior, so take care to make sure that you are remaining impartial.
A friendship between a moderator and a member of the community that persists for a long period can evolve into a closer and more open relationship. These relationships are built on trust or shared experience, and can be more difficult to impartially manage than regular friendships or acquaintances. This kind of relationship could come from the fact that this person is someone you know from another server, in real life, or possibly even a family member. No matter what the scenario, the closeness of this kind of relationship makes it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to remove your own partiality from the equation. Special care must be taken to ensure you engage and listen to other moderators on your team when someone you are closely involved with is in question. When in doubt, it may be best to remove yourself from the situation entirely, which we will discuss in more detail later in the article.
A romantic relationship between a moderator and a member of the community can (and does!) happen. As is natural, if you meet someone who shares common interests and has an attractive personality, over time your relationship may progress into something more profound. Romantic relationships are certainly the most difficult to manage as a moderator. The saying holds true, especially in new romantic relationships, that you will see your significant other through “rose-tinted glasses” which tend to blind you from their potential flaws or wrongdoings.
Additionally, other members can very quickly see a budding relationship as an opportunity for a fellow member to grab power through the moderator they are romantically involved with. As a best practice, you should remove yourself from any moderation decisions involving a user that you are in a romantic relationship with. Failing to do so can and has directly caused the death of some communities, especially when the romantic partners are both on the same moderator team.
This type of one-sided interpersonal relationship is rare among moderators because of the connection a moderation team usually has to the content creator or personality that they moderate for. More commonly, a user witnessing a friendly moderator carrying out their daily duties to interact with their server can develop such a relationship. However, this type of relationship requires an extra level of care and awareness, as they can quickly become toxic if not managed appropriately. Always be aware of them, and consider their existence when making certain moderation decisions. The DMA has an article exclusively dedicated to parasocial relationships for further reading.
One thing to keep in mind when evaluating your relationships in your communities- regardless of the nature of them– is that your relationships and connections if played out in the server are most likely visible to other members of the community. When interacting with your friends, close friends, or even your partner in a space with other people such as your server, members of the community may pick up on the fact that you do have these relationships. As with any kind of community, there may be feelings of exclusion or the perception of “in-groups” that can arise in, especially when it comes to relationships between a “regular” server member and a highly public and visible one like a moderator. A responsibility you have as a moderator is to take this dynamic into account and the effects it can have on your members and how they view you and your friendships. Making sure that your friendships and relationships are not creating an exclusionary atmosphere for other community members, where they feel like it’s unwanted or difficult for them to contribute.
On the subject of “visibility”, a moderator – whether they are consistently conscious of it or not - is someone in the server who has power over other users in that space. It is not always the easiest task balancing the dynamic between being part of a community and cultivating relationships and friendships with being conscious of your role within that community as a moderator and what that imbalance may influence. This difference in responsibility and position can make relationships and connections with other users in the server more complicated. You may not be directly aware of it when you’re chatting with fellow server members, but there will be users in your community who are keenly aware of your status as a moderator. This scrutiny can affect how they approach becoming friends with you as well as affect how they view your own relationships with other server members. Always keep this dynamic in mind and be aware of how your position may affect not just how users interact with you but also how they interpret your relationships and conversations with other members.
Just as it is natural for these relationships to form, it is also human nature to unconsciously develop and act on a bias toward the people closest to you. As a moderator, that natural bias is something you must actively resist, and take conscious steps to avoid. What happens when the friend of a moderator has a bad day and doesn’t act in the spirit of the rules of the community? In an ideal scenario, the moderator’s response would be the same reasonable response that would be expected if the offending member were anyone else. Your response to these situations will have a profound impact on your community’s attitude toward you as a moderator, as showing favoritism will quickly evaporate the community’s trust in your ability to be impartial. Moderators are human, and for inexperienced and seasoned moderators alike, this kind of scenario can prove to be one of the most significant tests of their ability to manage conflict.
In preparing for this scenario, the most important tool in a moderator’s arsenal is self-awareness. It is the burden of a moderator that this commitment comes above any interpersonal relationships that may form during time spent engaging with a community. Being ever-mindful of your responsibility and role in a community can help temper the depth of the relationships that you build.
As a recommended best practice, moderators should be careful about building interpersonal relationships of depth (close or romantic relationships) in the communities they moderate, including with other moderators. The only guaranteed way for a moderator to remain impartial in upholding the rules for all members is to exclusively maintain friendships within their community, but this isn’t always reasonable for communities that you are closely involved in. Should you find yourself in a difficult scenario involving a member with whom you have a close interpersonal relationship, here are some best practices for managing the situation:
The first step in successfully managing a scenario that involves someone you have an interpersonal relationship with is to take stock of your own investment. How are you feeling? Are you calm and capable of making rational judgment? Is your gut reaction to jump to the defense of the member? Or is the opposite true - do you feel the need to be overly harsh in order to compensate for potential bias? Carefully self-evaluate before proceeding with any action. The wrong type of moderator response in a scenario like this can often exacerbate or distract from the actual issue at hand, and potentially weaken your community’s trust in your capabilities as a moderator.
If in the course of your self-evaluation you realize that you cannot positively answer any or all of these questions, it may be necessary for you to more seriously evaluate whether or not you need to make difficult decisions regarding your position as a moderator. If your interpersonal relationship is preventing you from fulfilling your duties as a moderator, you may need to consider either abdicating your role as a moderator or ending the relationship until circumstances improve. Neither option is easy or ideal, but making tough decisions for the health of the community is your primary responsibility as a moderator.
Once you’ve determined that you’re capable of proceeding with moderation, evaluate the scenario to identify what the problem is and whether it immediately needs to be addressed. If there is no immediate need to step in, as a best practice it is usually better to defer to another moderator whenever your personal relationships are involved. Contact another member of your moderation team to get a second opinion and some backup if necessary.
If immediate action is required, a concise and direct reference to the rules is usually sufficient to defuse the situation. Use your best judgment, but be aware that the likelihood of “rules lawyering” is higher with someone who trusts you or sees you as a friend in these scenarios because moderation action can be seen as a violation of that trust or relationship. Clearly and fairly indicating the grounds for you speaking up is crucial to prevent further issues from arising.
Additionally, be careful about what is discussed in private with the person involved in this scenario following any action. There is a higher likelihood of them contacting you via DM to talk about your decisions because of the level of trust that exists between you. As a best practice, it is usually best to avoid litigating the rules of the server with any member, especially a member with which you have an interpersonal relationship. Politely excuse yourself, or if prudent, redirect the conversation by giving the member a place to productively resolve their own issue.
As with any moderation action, once taken it is best practice to leave a note for your team about what action was taken and why. Another period of self-evaluation is a good idea after any action is taken. Ask yourself, was the action taken in alignment with the rules of your community? Was it fair to both the offending member, as well as the other members of your community? Was your decision affected by your bias towards the offending member? If necessary or unclear, ask your teammates for their outside perspective.
Taking moderation action when the offending member is one with whom a moderator has an interpersonal relationship can be one of the most difficult scenarios that a moderator can find themselves in. Set yourself up for success as a moderator by tempering the type of relationships you build within your community and cultivating the ability to self-evaluate. The best tool available to a moderator in these scenarios is self-awareness and the ability to recognize when their own biases prevent them from acting fairly. Remember that moderation is a team sport, and that team is your most valuable resource in impartially upholding the rules and values of your community.