Last year, I made a pair of posts (here and here) about some of the issues I’d noticed in some of the online communities that I was a part of, and in particular a Goodreads reading challenge group. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to revisit this topic, but unfortunately it seems that the same group is still struggling with some of the same challenges. The group that I am part of is a user-driven reading challenge, which creates a list of prompts for next year’s challenge using a series of suggestions by group members, which are then voted on. When a certain number of suggestions are reached, a poll is set up where members can vote on their favourites and vote against their least favourites, and the winners of each poll make the final list for a total of 52 prompts (one per week). As I mentioned last year, this group has always been one of my favourite Goodreads groups because it is by far the most interactive and avoids many of the problems I see in other groups, but once again it has devolved into an environment where members are feeling singled out and attacked. While my focus for this post is on that one group, I also want to touch on a couple of other problems I’ve seen in other challenge groups I belong to.
I am apologizing in advance that this has become a very long post, but it is something that has been bothering me all week and I felt the need to get it all out.
Group Dynamics: Changing Rules Based on Discussions
Last year, many members of the group pointed out an overall negative atmosphere which left them feeling that the group was not as fun as it had been in the past. A lot of negativity seemed to stem from certain members, myself included, asking questions about the voting process since we had noticed some unusual patterns or things that have changed compared to previous years. For example, several members questioned why in the past we had consistently had a full Top 4 after each poll, whereas that year we frequently saw less than 4 results. While the moderators in charge of the voting did offer an explanation, it left some of us confused. It felt as though any attempts to question it further were treated as just complaining, even when the members who were posing the questions were just seeking information.
This year, this kind of challenge seems to have not only persisted, but become an even bigger issue. It is natural for the voting process to be dynamic and evolve over time as the group offers their feedback, and that on its own is not necessarily a problem. Where is does become a challenge is when the rules are changed frequently and rapidly. In the course of about 8 weeks with one poll per week, there have already been about 5 changes to rules. Some of these rules were necessary to ensure there were more opportunities for everyone to participate regardless of time zone, and some were based on member feedback about the list itself.
One of the issues we saw early on this year was that the moderators frequently had to get involved in the suggestion threads to remind people of the most basic rules which are in place every time. Members are asked to either make a suggestion for a prompt, OR second one that has already been suggested. The same person cannot do both in the same poll. In order to make the poll, a prompt must be suggested by someone and only one other person needs to show interest by seconding it. The suggestion thread remains open until a specified number of seconded suggestions is reached, and then that thread is closed and a poll is opened for people to vote on. This is outlined quite clearly in the list of rules provided at the top of each thread. It seems that we have quite a few new members participating this year who were still learning the rules, since in the first couple of polls, we saw many people who were both suggesting and seconding. It sometimes led to confusion in the threads about which prompts had made the list to be voted on, and which were still available to be seconded.
In the span the 8 weeks we’ve had so far there have already been several changes. For example, the group had originally voted that there would only be one “multi-week prompt” (a set of 2-4 prompts linked by a theme or more direct connections between books) allowed on the list. A 4-week prompt was chosen from a poll devoted only to multi-week prompts, and many of us were under the impression that no other multi-week prompts would be allowed. After a small amount of discussion where some users indicated an interest in more multi-week prompts, the rules were changed to allow them in any poll. This led to some frustration from members who had been under the impression that the decision to limit ourselves to one, as voted on earlier in the year, would stand. I understand that not everyone in the group agreed with the decision at the time since many people had voted to allow more, and it seemed that the moderators changed the rule in response to that feedback. It left the rest of us feeling a little annoyed that the results of the vote were ignored because of a few people speaking up in the chat, but in the long-run, it wasn’t a big deal.
Over the course of the next few prompts, the rules changed a few times again. A rule was implemented to drop the total number of seconded suggestions per poll from 20 to 15, because people seemed to think that having 20 options to choose from was splitting the votes too much, and leading to difficulties getting a clear winner. Shortly after that, another new rule was implemented asking people who had participated in the previous suggestion thread to wait for the latest thread to be open 24 hours before participating, to allow other members to have a chance. The suggestion threads in general tend to fill up very quickly, and those of us who are on the forums more frequently would often end up participating more. Again, neither of these rules were necessarily a bad thing on their own, but it was more to do with the frequency of changes when we’d already had considerable confusion at the start of the year about the basic rules.
The moderators rightfully pointed out that anyone who read the list of rules at the start of each thread shouldn’t have a problem, but it was clear that this was not always happening. follow the discussions about the voting process quite closely, and even I was very surprised by some of the rule changes. There were a couple of changes implemented that seemed to happen rather suddenly, after a tiny bit of discussion where it seemed like no conclusions were drawn. For example, I was surprised to open the thread for one poll and learn that we were moving from 20 suggestions down to 15. I had seen the discussion about it, but it didn’t look like any conclusions had been made. When we implemented the 24 rule, I was under the impression that it was for one poll only, so I was surprised to find that it was now the rule in every subsequent poll. Maybe part of that is on me for making assumptions, but it still left me feeling a bit blindsided by the changes. I went along with them anyway since they were really not a big deal, but I remember feeling confused.
I was also a bit irritated by the “But what about me?!” attitude that I saw through some of the discussions. Many members complained that the suggestions happened so quickly that the thread was opened and closed before they even had the chance to participate. Keep in mind that there are generally 13 or more polls through the year, and they open at different times and often on different days, so there are plenty of opportunities to participate. The main reason I was irritated by this is because the overall attitude seemed to be that it was unfair to have threads open where any portion of the group wouldn’t have a chance to participate. I have nothing at all against the group trying to be as inclusive as possible, and I’m all for opening one or two suggestion threads that would benefit people whose schedules don’t allow them much time to participate otherwise, but it seemed that these complaints came from only a handful of people who had very different scheduling needs from each other. In a group with over 100 people actively voting, it is next to impossible to schedule things so they can catch everyone. In reality, I would think the voting process is more important than the suggestions unless someone has a prompt they would really badly like the suggest. As expected, when a thread opened at an alternate time to allow more or different people to participate, it wasn’t very active until some of the more regular members came back in. It left the impression that the moderators were trying to bend over backwards to appease everyone. As much as it is disappointing to miss out on the suggestion thread, I think each of us needs to understand that sometimes real life gets in the way and there are still plenty more opportunities to participate available.
The Challenges of Moderating
I unfortunately feel the need to put a disclaimer on this section, even knowing that people from this group are unlikely to be reading this. A group of this size and with so many different opinions is very difficult to moderate, and in general, I think the moderators are doing a great job at trying to keep everything on track. The moderators really are doing their best to keep the process running smoothly, and I definitely don’t envy the amount of work it requires of them.
With that said, I find myself very frustrated with some of the moderators this year and especially with the way they have been responding to group members. Several times this year, myself and another member who I speak to via private message have noticed that the moderators seem to be less present during the suggestion process. There appears to be only one moderator actively involved in those threads, which in itself is problematic since it is a lot of work to keep up with the rapid pace at which suggestions often come in. A few times this year, we have noticed that the moderator did not seem to be around much during the process. This in itself is not a problem. Like all of us, she has her own life and outside commitments, and no one is expecting her to babysit the thread at all times. The problem is, several of us have noticed frequent problems that occur when the moderators are not around which lead to confusion in the process. In the past, it has been very helpful to have the top post in the thread kept as up-to-date as possible so we can all see which prompts have been suggested, which have made the list, and which are still available to be seconded. When the suggestions come in very quickly, I’m sure it is hard for her to update as frequently as needed, and again this is fine.
When the moderator is not around, we tend to see a lot of the same problems. People are both suggesting and seconding things, people are seconding things that have already been seconded, and it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of how many suggestions we have reached on the thread. Myself and another member decided to give some feedback on the process to point out that the threads have seemed very confusing lately, and it has been difficult to keep track of suggestions. The moderators quickly became defensive and pointed out that it is their job to keep track of the numbers and no one else should worry about it, that they can’t be expected to watch the thread for hours and update every single time someone posts, etc. Essentially, our feedback was taken completely out of context and treated as a criticism when that was not the intent at all. Earlier in the year, I had also offered some feedback stating that we should be cautious with the number of rule changes since it might be hard for people to keep up. This also seemed to be viewed as a criticism of the mods and the general response I got was “Well, everyone should just read the rules at the start of the thread, and then there won’t be any problems.” Meanwhile, we had seen quite clearly that either people weren’t reading the rules, or weren’t sticking to them anyway, since there were frequent problems.
Recently, the moderators made a mistake that led to a member’s suggestion almost getting excluded from a poll for the second time in a row. The first time, her suggestion was made and was seconded after we had already reached the total of 15 needed. That person decided to suggest her prompt again in the following poll, and was told that she must wait 24 hours because she had participated in the previous one. Another member stepped in to point out that this wasn’t true because that person’s suggestion had come in after the thread should have been closed. It spun off into a heated debate and a lot of frustration on both sides. The moderator took issue with the person pointing out her mistake and became upset when she was told that the decision was “unfair.” I should be clear that the member who pointed out the mistake did so in a respectful way, and offered details to support her claim. The moderators focused on the fact that they didn’t like the way the issue was brought to their attention, and got stuck on the fact that if it had been mentioned to them earlier, they would have rectified the problem. This was irritating to see because it puts the onus on the group members to find the mistakes and point them out in a timely enough fashion — which I believe should be the moderator’s job. It was especially frustrating since this same moderator had already made a number of other mistakes during previous polls. To be fair, when these were pointed out she did quickly acknowledge and fix them, which just goes to the point that her attitude about it was unwarranted. It seemed that she took the complaint very personally, when that was not the intent at all.
What complicated the matter even further was when other members jumped into the discussion to defend the moderators and remind everyone of how hard they work and what a great job they are doing. That’s great and all, but that’s not at all what the discussion was about. Because of all the defensiveness, what should have been a very simple discussion turned into an argument and once again left members feeling negatively about the group. Those of us who had tried in the past to offer feedback that went against what the moderators thought felt silenced, and the moderators felt attacked. When another member jumped in to support the person who had pointed out the mistake, she was told by someone defending the moderators that her posts often come across negative and dismissive. For me, that was a comment that really crossed a line since her posting style in general had nothing to do with the topic at hand, and if anything just went to show why some of us were beginning to feel unwelcome.
Like last year, it became an issue of negativity and the discussion quickly turned to constructive criticism vs. complaining. Even the moderator herself eventually made a comment that openly stated that the she did not believe the person who had pointed out the mistake had meant to be constructive. After reading through the entire thread thoroughly and more than once, I honestly don’t understand where she got that impression. It is very difficult to provide open and honest feedback in a setting where people are likely to take it personally, and that is not something that I would expect from moderators. They are only human and it’s natural that they can feel their work is not being appreciated, but at the end of the day, I think group members should be able to express themselves (respectfully) and have their concerns heard in order to keep the group running. The result of this incident is that several group members have once again become uncomfortable posting anything at all because they are sure it will get misinterpreted. It’s unfortunate since the lively discussions in the group are part of what make it so fun to participate in. This can’t happen when members are worried about their comments being misinterpreted, and it definitely can’t happen when people feel that they are unable to post the way they want for fear of being deemed too negative.
As a last point, I should note that this group has always said that it is open to feedback and often actively encourages people to share their opinions. We have a thread devoted to the process itself and people’s ideas and suggestions for how to improve upon it available year-round, and the moderators often actively solicit feedback at the end of the year from members about how the process was for them. However, for a group that claims to be so open to feedback, it often ends up feeling quite dismissive and hard to get opinions heard. After a discussion with a couple of other members, we noticed a tendency for longer comments to be interpreted as negative or rants, and for any form of constructive feedback to be interpreted as criticism or an attack on moderators. When other members jump in to remind us that the mods are doing a great job, it ignores the actual content of the feedback and switches the focus to a personal level, when that was never the intent. When members are criticized for the way they pointed out a mistake, even when they made every effort to do so respectfully, it leaves us feeling unwelcome to comment anything that is even remotely negative. It’s unfortunate that the process has begun to feel so chaotic, and I personally do believe it is a direct result of the moderators seeming less present. I honestly don’t know how much they were in the threads last year, but I don’t remember feeling that the threads weren’t updated or that the suggestions were confusing in the past. The mods are quick to point out that they don’t think they’ve been less involved either, and while that might be true, when several of us are giving feedback that the process has felt chaotic and confusing, going on the defensive doesn’t really help to solve that problem. All that does is cause bad feelings on both sides, and members really shouldn’t feel that moderators don’t like them or don’t welcome their comments. As I said last year, it is important for groups to be able to have open and honest communication and feedback, even including the negative, and I really hope this group can get back on track.