This is a pre-publication draft of the paper. Please cite as:

Berge, Z.L. & Collins, M.P. (2000). Perceptions of e-moderators about their roles and functions in moderating electronic mailing lists. Distance Education: An International Journal, 21(1), 81-100.

 

PERCEPTIONS OF E-MODERATORS ABOUT THEIR ROLES AND FUNCTIONS IN MODERATING ELECTRONIC MAILING LISTS.

Zane L. Berge

Director, Training Systems Graduate Programs
UMBC
1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore, MD 21250

berge@umbc.edu

Mauri P. Collins

Instructional Designer
Old Dominion University
337 Gornto Teletechnet Center
Norfolk, VA 23529

mcollins@odu.edu

February 29, 2000

Abstract.

Reported here are responses gathered using a probabilistic survey (n=162). Indications of what this group of electronic mailing list moderators, or emoderators, perceive about their roles, tasks, and responsibilities as list moderators. The issues explored revolve around mailing list moderators' conceptions of their roles, their rationale for moderating or not moderating their mailing lists, where they learned their craft, and where moderating lists fits into the context of their lives. With such descriptions of the tasks and roles of practicing moderators, better training could be developed for those persons wishing to function effectively as on-line discussion facilitators and moderators, as part of their on-line teaching for instance. Findings confirmed previous research that moderators perceive among their roles those of a filter, firefighter, facilitator, editor, manager, discussion leader, content expert, helper, and marketer. The moderators responding to this survey cited as reasons a mailing list should be moderated as keeping the signal-to-noise ratio high; keeping the discussion focused within the topic of the list's mission; keeping down "flames;" and digesting/editing posts. Most learned to moderate online discussion lists by watching others perform those functions--rather like apprentices, and either volunteered to be a list moderator, were invited to be, or started their own lists. They report being involved in list moderation because the list is work related, or is part of their leisure activity, or is part of both.

Descriptors: Computer-mediated Communication; Electronic Conferences; Moderating/Facilitating Discussion; On-line Teaching

 

PERCEPTIONS OF E-MODERATORS ABOUT THEIR ROLES AND FUNCTIONS IN MODERATING ELECTRONIC MAILING LISTS

Over the past several years we have been interested in online teaching, both as an adjunct to in-person instruction and as a replacement for face-to-face instruction. We have also been involved in the delivery of professional development seminars using the electronic discussion group (EDG) format (Berge, 1992; 1994; Rojo, 1995,). We believe a moderator is essential in creating a stimulating and supportive online environment (Anderson and Kanuka, 1997). In the literature in these areas, there is a growing number of descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of online teachers in course-related computer conferences (Berge, 1995; Brochet, 1989; Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1997; Davie, 1989; Eastmond, 1992; Feenberg, 1989; Kerr, 1986; Paulsen, 1995). A teacher's role as a moderator and facilitator of online course discussion--an emoderator--shares much in common with the roles that a moderator of any online discussion forum performs; although moderators of lists used largely by out-of-school adults may not consider themselves as teachers/instructors in any formal sense.

Many distance educators make use of electronic mailing lists, both in their teaching and in their professional roles. In fact, facilitation and moderator of discussion is integral to much distance education today. A purpose of this paper is to help anyone using mailing lists to understand these tools better.

While there is a growing body of literature that describes and prescribes the functions and roles of online instructors, there is no similar body of literature that specifically addresses the roles, tasks and functions of online moderators in non-pedagogical conferences, i.e., online gatherings that are not part of a formal course or instructional program. McMann (1994) describes the work of several authors who characterize traditional, face-to-face discussion facilitation. He concludes that many of the same roles, functions and tasks involving the management of the content, course process, communication, and decisions are similar in both online computer conferences or face-to-face learning situations. Both face-to-face classroom discussion groups (Brookfield, 1990; Brookfield, 1986), and public electronic discussion groups (Berge and Collins, 1995) appear similar to the extent that they both involve social activity and discussion, are cooperative endeavors, are usually rational and purposeful, are sometimes systematic and often creative, require participation, and involve formal or informal leadership or moderation (Hyman, 1980, pp. 13-17). They are also used by their participants as venues for professional development, formal and informal learning, enlightenment and decision-making (Collins and Berge, 1996; Heuer, 1997).

Still, Harasim (1990) points out that the face-to-face discussion facilitator's skills need to be updated and modified somewhat, and Feenberg (1987, p. 178) points out the critical need for a moderator to be skilled in setting the contextual cues that establish a shared communication model from which can flow the appropriate norms, roles and expectations for an instructional setting (Newby, 1993). A subset of the roles and tasks of online teachers seem to be the same or very similar to those we have played in our experience as moderators of scholarly discussion on electronic mailing lists. The role of the online moderator includes special responsibilities and authorities in both a technical and facilitating sense. Typically, the face-to-face and online discussion moderator guides and monitors the discussion, stimulates participation and often offers intellectual leadership. Thus, the role of the moderator of online discussion combines aspects of a teacher, discussion facilitator, and community organizer (Green, 1998a; Harasim, et al., 1995). Still, experience suggests that the type of online discussion list or the purpose of a particular list, would determine to a significant degree the moderating style necessary for success. As Green (1998b) states, "there are important differences between moderating in an online classroom and moderating an online meeting, not the least of which is the difference in motivation of the participants" (p.1). The role of the teacher as dispenser of grades is rarely forgotten by the participants.

The current study reached online discussion moderators who function outside of professional development or formal education settings. While ultimately, we may wish to understand the emoderators' roles in professional development and academic settings, we are interested here in exploring the perceptions and attitudes of persons who moderate non-academic electronic mailing lists that have subscribers, as a starting point for a more extensive research agenda. Once the significant facets of the online moderator's roles and tasks are described, it should be easier to determine which factors account for success in a particular type of online moderation and to what degree each factor contributes in which different context.

A major purpose of this paper is to survey emoderators concerning their persecptions about their roles and functions regarding moderating electronic mailing lists. The perceptions of moderators using this push technology (i.e., technology that is older, but stable, with content that shows up in the subscriber's mailbox without the subscribers actively needing to go to a website, or being locked in time as with IRC for instance) is important--especially in developing countries. In some countries one simply can not afford to sit online for such technologies that are real-time, or require the bandwidth that the audio and other high-end technologies require. It is a challenge in many places to have 24/7, basic connectivity, let alone cutting edge, high-bandwidth access. Why do technologies such as mailing list continue? Not only continue, but there re tens of thousands more mailing lists today than five years ago. They are familiar, easy to use, archival, relatively inexpensive and easily accessed.

Defining an Electronic Mailing List

An "electronic mailing list", variously referred to as an online forum, a discussion list, a discussion group, as just a "list", or incorrectly as a LISTSERV®, is a subscription list stored in an email distribution program, (e.g., LISTSERV®, majordomo, listproc, MailMan), to which persons can subscribe using their email address and under conditions set in that particular mailing list’s header by the list owner(s). Each time an email post is sent to the list's electronic address, it is distributed to the entire subscription list. Analogous to the subscription list of an email discussion list is the subscription list of various print publications where individuals are represented by their postal name and address.

Logistically, once subscribed to a particular electronic mail distribution list, a subscriber receives an email copy of every post distributed to the list of subscribers. From this incoming series of text messages on their computer screen, from more than one subscriber including themselves, participants can internally construct a "discussion" and sometimes, even derive a sense of belonging to a "virtual community" (Rheingold, 1993b).

For the purposes of this research, we are making a distinction among the terms "list owner", "list monitor" and "list moderator". A "list owner" is used as a technical term to refer to the individual who is responsible for the technical management of the list (taking care of bounced mail messages, setting subscribers to nomail, or restarting their mail delivery, changing addresses, adding and removing subscribers, etc.), and may be responsible to the host organization for the conduct of the list. A list owner may or may not participate in the day-to-day activities of the discussion group.

A "list monitor" may also perform the duties of a list owner, but may also participate in the day-to-day activities of the list, interjecting comments that may serve to regulate the course of the list discussion. A monitored list is one in which posts are distributed to the list as they are received by the distribution software and one or more persons are responsible for monitoring the discussion for breaches of list etiquette or policy, after the fact.

A "list moderator" ("Editor" in list terms) may also perform the duties of a listowner and be a "list monitor", but may also receive and approve messages, prior to distribution. A "list moderator" may also collect posts to the list and compile them into a digest/newsletter format. Literature review and our prior research (Berge, 1995; Feenberg, 1989; Eastmond, 1992; Davie, 1989; Kerr, 1986) has determined a list of moderator roles which are discussed below.

We define a "moderated list" as one where one or more persons are responsible for reviewing and/or editing all posts before they are distributed and generally overseeing the discussion. An "unmoderated list" is one that has an owner but all messages sent to the list are distributed directly to the subscribers. Subscribers to an unmoderated list may or may not police their own communication behaviors in accordance with accepted communicative behaviors.. One or more of the list subscribers may informally assume the role of monitor, discussion moderator or agent provocateur.

"Signal-to-noise ratio" is a ham radio term referring to the balance between the clarity of the incoming signal and the ambient static and/or atmospheric interference. In the context of a mailing list, it is the perceived ratio of relevant posts to irrelevant posts on the list. On most discussion lists, advertising is considered the worst kind of "noise."

(Note: Technical terms used here are those used in the LISTSERV® software, but other software such as majordomo and listproc have similar functions to "Editor" and "Owner.")

Current Study

Significance

In the literature, the roles played by emoderators appear to have been articulated largely from individual, personal experiences of those who have performed those functions in their classrooms (Berge, 1997; Davie, 1989; Feenberg, 1986; Feenberg, 1987; Hiltz, 1994; Hiltz and Turoff 1978; Harasim, 1986; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles and Turoff, 1995; Mason, 1991; Rohfeld and Hiemstra, 1995). The literature on those who moderate EDGs who do not have an academic purpose or affiliation, is small and again, consist mostly of reports of individual experiences (King, 1994; MacLennan, 1996; Sakkas, 1993). These case studies represent a data set derived from a small group of very experienced online teachers rather than from research that articulates and summarizes in generalizable form the collective experience of a large and diverse range of on-line discussion group moderators.

Research Questions:

In this study we wanted to expand upon our prior research (Berge, 1992; 1994) and verify our conclusions by asking a large group of online discussion group moderators to describe their experiences. We wanted to know what they perceive the roles and functions of emoderators to be.

To place this research in context, we gathered the following data from moderators

  1. A description of the list for which they were responding,
  2. The policies that guide the topic and tone of postings and the operation of the list,
  3. Their perceptions about their various moderator roles
  4. Their attitudes about moderated versus unmoderated lists,
  5. Their perceptions regarding attributes of subscribers to the list,
  6. Their perceptions of their lists as a community,
  7. Demographic information about the respondent's training and experience as a moderator
  8. Reflections on their moderating experiences, and
  9. The respondent’s awareness of one particular resource for online moderators–(http://www.emoderators.com/moderators.shtml)–The Moderators Homepage.

This article reports on selected findings from all content areas above, except the last two: reflections on the moderating experiences is excluded because it demands more space than permitted here, and the awareness of our website was asked for more "personal" reasons by the researchers than to report here . Additionally, many EDGs have documents (editorial policy, FAQ, etc.) that describe the purpose of the list, prescribe the range of appropriate topics, how discussion will be conducted and what the roles of the moderator will be. Technical instructions and the various software commands for list activities (subscribe, unsubscribe, turning on and off receipt of postings from the list) are also often included. Respondents were asked to include their policies, or give a URL where they could be found. This data is awaiting analysis.

Methodology

Sample selection

Using a mailing list search program, Tile.net (http://tile.net/lists/), we found listed approximately 15,700 mailing lists with access to the public, from a total of approximately 71,050 mailing lists managed by LISTSERV® software. This number included local lists not accessible to the public at the time this survey was distributed. The email addresses of the registered "owners" of 15,700 public mailing lists were arranged in alphabetical order. Using a random number to start, every fifth mailing list was selected to receive the survey. Lists with only BITnet addresses or that had less than 20 subscribers were omitted and the next list with more than 20 members was substituted. (The BITnet network has been dismantled). This probabilistic methodology yielded approximately 1500 lists addresses.

The Questionnaire

The categorical questions in this questionnaire have emerged and have been tested during a continuing program of research that has been conducted by the authors since Fall 1992. The categories for moderator's roles had their genesis in the authors' personal experiences as emoderators and discussion about appropriate moderator roles on IPCT-L (Berge and Collins,1993) (owned and moderated by the authors since February, 1992). After a literature review and informal discussion with other list owners a initial list of possible moderator roles was developed and formed the basis of further discussion on IPCT-L and several other EDGs. These refined categories were verified in a survey late in 1992 consisting of 9 open-ended questions sent to the LSTSERV-L list (Collins and Berge, 1997), a list for those who own and moderate electronic discussion groups.

Sometime later our research interests expanded to include EDG members and two electronic surveys were conducted (Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1996). The benefits members reported that came from their participation in mailing lists, (i.e., why they belong to EDGs) was one of the outcomes of this research. From the survey findings it became apparent that out-of-school adults were using electronic discussion groups for self-directed and informal learning, professional development activities. Another finding from those surveys was that out-of-school adults also use electronic discussion groups to find and participate in a "community" - and as a support group, which was later verified by reference to the literature (King, 1994; MacLennan, 1997; Sakkas, 1993). Seven open-ended questions were included to further probe moderator's perceptions. This data has not yet been analyzed and categorized, nor have the many comments moderators made as they completed this study.

The Research Process.

One week after the first distribution of the survey we resent the questionnaire to the entire list of randomly selected listowner addresses, to increase the return rate. The 162 useable surveys (and four that were incomplete) were returned and these represent approximately 10% of the lists surveyed. While 10% return may seem low to some readers not familiar with this population, a) moderators are an extremely hard group to reach, and b) the questionnaire is rather lengthy to complete including requiring the respondent to think and reflect a great deal. The moderators are steeped in a culture that, while recognizing the benefits of research, still causes some to flame the researchers for sending them unsolicited email--i.e., for spamming them. As with any survey, non-respondents may be systematically different than respondents. However, we have no knowledge of that being the case here.

We also received 7 narrative responses to our questions. Some lists have a team of moderators and, in one case, we received surveys back from three persons who co-moderate the same list. This did not affect the sample as the unit of analysis is the individual moderator and their perceptions and activities..

Findings and Discussion

In all of the following tables two numbers are reported: 1) the actual number of respondents to that particular variable, and 2) the percentage reported is the "valid percent" i.e. the percentage of all respondents, including "missing data." We feel this gives a more accurate representation of the data.

Describing the Lists that Respondents Moderate

To set the context for this study, the first set of questions inquired about the longevity of the list, and the length of time that the respondents had been undertaking their role, the number of subscribers, whether the list was open to subscription or closed to a select group, the original focus of the list discussion and if that focus had changed. These were followed by questions about the number of postings (per day, per week, or per month and their reaction to lulls in the conversation.

Table 1

Age of list and Moderator longevity

 

Age of list

Length of time moderating

Categories

Responses

(n=162)

% of response

Responses

(n=162)

% of responses

no response

1

.6

1

.6

3-6 months

4

2.5

1

.6

6-12 months

9

5.6

6

3.7

12 months-2yrs

26

16.0

16

9.9

2-3 years

36

22.2

35

21.6

3-4 years

25

15.4

36

22.2

4-6 years

30

18.5

27

16.7

6-10 years

28

17.3

21

13.0

Don't know

3

1.9

19

11.7

The average age of the list these respondents moderated was reported at about 3 years, with 17.3% (n=28 of 162) existing six years or more (see Table 1). The average length of time these moderators had in their role was over 3 years, with a considerable number (13.0%, n=21 of 162) claiming 6-10 years in their role. During data entry it became evident that the possible age of lists and years of moderator longevity had been underestimated. On the survey form, there were more categories "less than 2 years'" than needed and fewer than necessary for the 5+ years time span. The LISTSERV" software originally designed for interconnected mainframe computers, dates from 1986 and there are evidently discussion lists still in existence that had their start in the late 1980s.

The number of list members subscribed to these respondents’ lists varied greatly. Eighteen out of 132 (13.6%) responses to this question said there were less than 50 subscribers to their list, while 34.8% (n=46 of 132) said there were over 500 subscribers to their list. For a list to be successful there needs to be a "critical mass" to carry along the discussion -which in large groups can be likened to a panel discussion with rotating membership and a large audience (Collins, 1997)

The range in list membership was from "less than 50" to "over 3000" with 65.2 percent (n=86 of 132) of the lists reporting a membership of less than 500. Eligibility for membership in some lists is restricted to certain populations. Membership is usually self-regulating as most lists are focused around a specific topic or interest. The list owner and or the list membership sometimes choose to place further restrictions. When asked if membership to their list was closed or open to anyone who wants to join, 72.2% (n=117 of 162) said it was open, 26.5% (n=42 of 162) said it was closed, and 1.2% (n=2 of 162) respondents said their list was open but they screened subscribers. When asked if their list is associated with a course, only 8.1% (n=13) of the 160 respondents indicated it was. These lists are most frequently restricted to course registrants.

Discussion groups are ordinarily focussed around a particular interest or topic. That topic could be almost anything--from particle physics through owning a pet bunny, (instead of a cat or a dog). When asked what the original focus of their discussion list was, 87.4 % (n=125 of 143 respondents) indicated it was discipline or topic specific. One of the top seven reasons for joining a particular list is interest in the topic (Collins, 1997) and list members tend to negatively sanction posts to the list discussion that are "off topic". Approximately 20.2% (n=32 of 158) indicated the focus of their list has changed from its original intent. Those lists have increased their scope within their topic, or spun off another list in order to segment the discussion and maintain tighter focus.

Discussion lists can serve different purposes. When asked to check all the purposes that applied from a list of categories developed in prior research (Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1996) the greatest number of respondents selected information distribution (88.3%, n=143 of 162), a discussion forum (85.8%, n=139 of 162), and "for questions and answer" (75.3%, n=122 of 162).

."Traffic" (the number and frequency of posts) is always a concern - there is just so much time in a day and room in most email boxes. The range of posts to these lists ranged from one to 600 per day. Ninety-one out of 155 respondents (58.7%) claimed there are lulls in the number and frequency of list postings. These lulls were attributed mainly to vacation times 39.0% (n=41 of 105), or the periodic ebb and flow of discussion (21.0%, n=22 of 105). The moderators (70.1%, n=76 of 108) typically did nothing special to stimulate conversation during lull times on the list, but 25.0 percent (n=27 of 108) took it upon themselves to raise potentially interesting topics or questions.

Policies That Guide Postings And The Operations Of The List

Documents variously called list charters and/or editorial policies, can greatly ease the moderation of lists, especially those with controversial subject matter. Such policies can be disseminated frequently to the list, and sent to all new members in response to their subscription request. Charters often state the parameters of the topic of the list, by whom it was set up and for what purpose. Editorial policies also serve to create cues concerning the context in which discussion will occur and as Feenberg (1987, p. 178) suggests: "These contextual cues establish a shared communication model from which flows norms, roles and expectations." Participants' understanding of the style of communication behaviors that are expected of them. In the case of breaches in the communication norms, editorial policies can be posted as a general, non-personalized reminder to the entire community to re-focus the discussion. When the respondents were asked if they had a formal, editorial policy or charter 52.8 percent (n=84 of 159) said they had, 47.2 percent (n=75 of 159) said that they had not.

Advertising and commercial messages posted to electronic discussion groups are often perceived as a source of annoyance and controversy. Still, the respondents were fairly evenly split, with 50.6 percent (n=80 of 158) saying they had a policy regulating advertising and 49.4 percent (n=78 of 158) said they did not. We also asked if a formal policy statement about appropriate list behavior was in place as this may or may not be part of the charter. To this, 55.1 percent (n=86 of 156) said they did, 44.9 percent (n=70 of 156) said they did not.

Entry into an ongoing discussion group where group communicative norms have had time to arise can be problematical. While flexible and subject to change, norms are usually stringently enforced by members of social groups (Newby, 1993, p. 30) Some norms are fairly constant across lists e.g. that messages should be kept short and on-topic, contribute substantively to the group discussion and the prohibition against "flaming" - intense and vociferous attacks, sometimes provoked by a misunderstanding of a post's contents or tone.

We asked these moderators how a new list member found out about the list's behavioral norms. Almost two-thirds, 61.9% (n=81 of 133), of the respondents said it was contained in the list's policy that is sent with the welcome message to the list. No other single method received over 10 percent of responses. Indications are, however, that list policies are made reasonably available through: reposting to the list, a web page, or list archives. As with most social norms, these are often not made explicit until they are transgressed. When this happens, even inadvertently, list members may flame the offender.

We asked the respondents who have a formal policy if it has helped or hindered their work. Only one person said that it hindered their efforts, by narrowing their latitude for judgement . The ways it helped most are that it defined and regulated discussion, setting out clear guidelines and sanctions that are known to all participants. Where lists have more than one moderator, it helps to put list co-moderators on the "same page"

We asked if breaches of appropriate behavior and/or flames occurred on in the discussion groups. In response, 66.5% (n=105 of 158) moderators said yes or sometimes, 33.5% (n=53 of 158) said no/never. However, only 4.3% (n=6 of 138) respondents stated these breaches occurred frequently. When asked the ways inappropriate list behavior is dealt with, the most common method used to deal with infractions is the use of private email (51.6%, n=66 of 128) which would progress from warnings, to the moderator screening all posts, to a persistent offender being removed from the subscription list. On moderated lists, inappropriate communicative behavior is screened out. On monitored and unmoderated lists, the members police and enforce their own norms.

The Roles of the Moderator

Public EDG moderators are often volunteers who, on a daily basis, moderate discussion in a myriad of different on-line discussion groups and who have accumulated many years of practical experience among them in this demanding task.

Using the definitions stated earlier for lists that are moderated, monitored, and unmoderated, we asked the respondents to best describe their list according to those categories. Of the 162 responses, 21.3% (n=34 of 160) selected moderated, 45.0% (n=72 of 160) selected monitored, 31.3% (n=50 of 160) selected unmoderated, and 2.5% (n=4 of 160) said their list distributed a newsletter.

From the literature and previous pilot studies, we listed the roles of the moderator as: facilitator, manager, filter, expert, editor, discussion leader, marketer, helper, and firefighter, giving brief examples of behaviors comprise each role. We asked the respondents to indicate all the roles they believed described their activities (see Table 2). By far, the top selection was manager (87.0%, n=141 of 162), while facilitator (52.5%, n=85 of 162) and firefighter (45.7%, n=74 of 162) came in second and third places.

Table 2. Roles of the Respondents

Role

Frequency (% of

total respondents)

Example of activities

FACILITATOR

n=85 (52.5%)

peer discussion participant, mediator

MANAGER

n=141 (87.0%)

administrator, archivist, deleting/adding subscribers, dealing with bounced messages

FILTER

n=55 (34.0%)

deciding upon on-topic posts; increasing signal/noise ratio; rejects libelous posts; may reject jokes

EXPERT

n=53 (32.7%)

compiling or answering Frequently Asked Questions; expert in the list’s topic

EDITOR

n=23 (14.2%)

text editor, digest posts, formats posts, may correct spelling, grammar, newsletter editor

DISCUSSION LEADER

n=54 (33.3%)

poses questions or otherwise promotes discussion, keeps discussion "on track"

MARKETER

n=59 (36.4%)

promotes/explains list to potential subscribers or promotes sponsor of list

HELPER

n=70 (43.2%)

helps people with needs in the list’s focus area–more general than expert

FIREFIGHTER

n=74 (45.7%)

douses or rejects "flames" or protests ad hominem attacks

 

Attitudes About Moderated Lists

One of the more frequent challenges a moderator faces is that of being charged with censorship. Many people who frequent discussions lists believe they have the right to say anything to anyone. Moderating discussion lists, especially those with controversial content can be harrowing and time-consuming--so why do it? Moderators appear to value their own time and place a high value on keeping the "signal-to-noise" ratio in discussions high. Part of a moderator's concern stems from a desire to retain the number of subscribers to their list, while providing a valuable service to their readers. For example:

"In the case of an announcement group especially, it should absolutely be moderated. The items I've rejected have convinced me of that. Also, if an announcement group does not stay on topic, people won't read it. Since the very idea of such a group is to reach as wide an audience as possible with pertinent information, the quality must be maintained or the audience will desert the group. I have rejected various sales offers, chain letters, and pyramid marketing schemes, all of which are clearly inappropriate for an announcement group in a hierarchy devoted to technical topics" (Respondent)

When asked if they thought discussion groups, as a rule, should be moderated, 23 (14.6%, n=23 of 157) said yes, 105 of 157 (66.9%) said it depends, 28 of 157 (17.8%) said no, and 1 person (.64%) had no opinion. Of their reasons for moderating lists, the two most common are to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high, to keep out flames, to keep the discussion focused, to increase the quality of the discussion, making sure postings are timely, and a concern for legal and copyright issues.

Table 3. Why Should Lists Be Moderated or Unmoderated

Why lists should be moderated

Why it depends whether lists should be moderated

Reasons given why lists should not be moderated

  • To keep the signal-to-noise ratio high
  • To keep out flames
  • To keep discussion focused
  • To increase discussion quality
  • For timely posting of information, agendas, working papers
  • Because of legal issues, e.g. copyright issues, trade secrets
  • To compile digests, edit messages
  • The impact factors listed as reasons why lists should be moderated
  • The purpose/ mission/ nature/ size of the list/group
  • The group conscience of the list
  • How the list members behave/if they are self-policing
  • What the list members want/need
  • Volume of mail vs. proportion of offenders
  • If someone is prepared to do it/pay to have it done
  • The list belongs to the members, and they are self-regulating
  • It abridges freedom of speech
  • It takes a lot of time and energy
  • The membership resent being censored
  • It slows message distribution down, slows conversation

  • Many respondents felt that electronic mailing lists should not be moderated, 17.9% (n=28 of 156) or that it depends (67.3%, n=105 of 156). There is a strong cyber-cultural sense that a mailing list belongs to the participants in the discussion and that their right to freedom of speech should be vigorously maintained. Moderation also takes time, can tie a moderator to their list as if it were an inescapable daily chore and can delay postings to the list. Table 3 lists the reasons given for not wanting moderating to occur.

    Perceptions Regarding Subscribers to the List

    Tables 4 and 5 give the perceptions of these respondents about the age and gender of their lists’ subscribers respectively. Note that these are only the perceptions of the respondents, and that no other methods were used to verify these.

    Table 4. Perceived age distribution of list membership

    Value Label

    Count

    Frequency

    no response

    03

    01.9

    wide span, late teens-70s

    62

    38.3

    college-age, mostly twenties and thirties

    22

    13.6

    all, mostly middle-aged, mature

    20

    12.3

    early 20s and up

    16

    9.9

    all old

    0

    0

    Do not know

    39

    24.1

     

    Table 5. Perceived gender distribution of list membership

    Value Label

    Count

    Percent

     

     

     

    no response

    03

    01.9

    Can't tell, do not know

    39

    24.0

    More, mostly women

    26

    16.0

    More, mostly men

    43

    26.5

    about even

    49

    30.2

    Don't Know

    02

    01.2


    We asked the respondents to check the reason(s) they believed subscribers belonged to their lists. These categories were derived from two previous studies of discussion list members (Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1996) with input from those used in Rojo's dissertation (1996). The most often selected reasons were based around the concept of exchanging information, thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and to ask and answer questions (see Table 6). These findings are consistent with the reasons group members themselves give for their own participation (Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1996).

    Table 6. Perceived reasons why subscribers belong to these respondents’ lists

    Count

    Frequency (percent)

    of all respondents) *

    Brief Description

    152

    93.8%

    to get information valuable to them

    138

    85.2%

    to share information with others

    134

    82.7%

    to get answers to questions

    132

    81.5%

    to ask questions

    122

    75.3%

    to respond to others’ questions

    122

    75.3%

    to exchange thoughts, ideas and opinions

    112

    69.1%

    to learn about the list topic

    109

    67.3%

    to get help solving problems

    102

    63.0%

    to find peers, interested in the same topic

    101

    62.3%

    for feelings of community or belonging

    92

    56.8%

    to exchange experiences and stories with others

    82

    50.6%

    for personal networking and making contacts

    82

    50.6%

    to stay updated in their field

    68

    42.0%

    for professional networking and making business contacts

    65

    40.1%

    to express themselves and their feelings

    34

    21.0%

    to increase their feelings of self-worth

    28

    17.3%

    to find a mentor

    27

    16.7%

    to find a job

    21

    13.0%

    Because they share my views on the list topic

    18

    11.1%

    Other

    11

    6.8%

    to advertise or sell products

    *Respondents were asked to "Check all that apply" The count is the number of times that category was checked (from an n of 162 respondents) and the percentage is the percentage of those 162 respondents who selected that category.

    Perceptions About Lists as Community

    There is literature promoting the notion of online discussion groups constituting a virtual community for members (Rheingold, 1993a, 1993b) and those who are skeptical (Killian, 1994). List members report finding a sense of community from their reading and participation (Collins, 1997; Collins and Berge, 1996). It is often the influence of the moderator that sets the tone for list transactions.

    Knowing of this potential influence, we asked if these emoderators considered their list as a community. Over seventy percent said that they did (72.9%, n=113 of 155), 16.8 percent (n=26 of 158) said they did not, 9.0% (n=14 of 155) considered their lists as something other than a community and 4.3 percent made no response.

    When asked what, if anything, they did to promote a sense of community, 31.9 percent (n=43 of 135) replied that they did nothing, the other 92 respondents fell into twenty-seven different categories. When asked if they believed their list members considered themselves as part of such a community, 70.6% (n=101 of 143) of the respondents to this question said yes, with only 9.8% (n=14 of 143) saying they did not.

    Respondent Demographic Information

    Presaging the work of Collins, Brown and Newman (1989) , Feenberg (1986, Feenberg 1987) said the usual way of learning the behaviors appropriate for those in dominant roles in electronic discussion is to observe others in those roles from a position as subordinates, very much like cognitive apprenticeships. When asked, these moderators said they learned their moderating skills from their experience as discussion list participants, and from watching others moderate lists and then stepping into their shoes. Sometimes moderators volunteered for their task after having been a list member for some time and they felt the need to increase the signal-to-noise ratio; sometimes they were asked to step up when an moderator stepped down. Still others started their own lists–wanting the content matter to be very specific and the discussion to be conducted in a particular fashion–to take a direct hand in shaping the list. Those starting a list were usually dissatisfied with the conduct of discussion on existing electronic discussion groups, or had not been able to find a list that matched their specific interests.

    There are sources of information on the range of EDG moderators' technical tasks detailed in software manuals like L-Soft International's (1996) List Owner's Manual, which devotes an entire chapter to the social and cultural protocol involved in "Moderating and Editing Lists." Manuals such as this also detail the specific software commands and routines that must be used.

    To test these notions, we asked the respondents how they learned to moderate online discussion groups. These respondents' most common answer was that they "just jumped in" (63.0%, n=102 of 162), followed by "read about it" (42.6%, n=69 of 162), "observing others" (27.2%, n=44 of 162), "another moderator taught/mentored me" (17.3%, n=28 of 162), and only 2.5% (n=4 of 162) stating they received "formal training as a discussion leader/facilitator". When asked how they got started moderating an online discussion group, their most common response here was that they "started their own online discussion group" (45.0%, n=63 of 140), followed by being "asked by someone" (21.4%, n=30 of 140), "it was part of their job when they began" (14.3%, n=20 of 140), they "volunteered when prior list moderator left" (10.0%, n=14 of 140) or they "volunteered when the list became moderated" (5.0%, n=7 of 140), with the rest not responding or stating other reasons.

    Conclusions

    Implications and conclusions were presented throughout the text. Rather than repeat them here, we will point out that, this research is part of an on-going research agenda. Future research will elaborate on the questions considered here that involve a larger and diverse group of moderators. The personal skills and attributes that EDG moderators believe best undergirds effective on-line context-setting and discussion facilitation will be investigated. Where moderators themselves learned their craft and their suggestions for appropriate training activities ("if I only knew then what I know now") should be studied further. Moderators' suggestions for development of explicit training in the skills of synthesizing and summarizing discussions threads--if indeed such activity should be undertaken, and the maintenance of participation among the voluntary participants of electronic discussion groups needs to be investigated further.

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