Remember when you were a kid, you would come home from school and your room would be “magically” clean? Now that I am an adult I know that it is not magic, it is a lot of effort that was done by a person and despite the development of technology, there are so many things that a Roomba just cannot do.
Maybe this is a bad analogy, but it’s similar to what we see online. There is someone, often behind the scenes, constantly cleaning up the trash, making sure that the majority of us have a pleasant experience. If you think what you see online is bad, remember that it is the cleaned-up version. Nasty comments online are nothing new, but on livestreaming platforms like Twitch, they are more challenging to deal with because they happen in real time.
I started out my research project on content moderation with the naive goal of trying to improve artificial intelligence. How can we learn from the practices of human moderators to help design better tools from them and/or offset their load? I quickly learned that there are things machines are not going to be able to do and that the work of moderators is much more complex than pushing a button to delete a nasty comment.
In the past three years, I have been looking at different aspects of content moderation. Some of it is about the technical aspects and how bots are helping out human moderators. Some of it is about relational work between moderators, streamers, and viewers. Some of it is about building statistical models and unique data-driven interfaces. The research I want to introduce today is about how people become moderators and the range of difficulties they experience. These are based on stories. Of people. This information will not be new to those people who have ever been moderators. But the vast majority of people don’t know. These voices deserved to be heard. These people deserve to be treated better and appreciated for their work.
I will be presenting it at CHI, a premier academic conference for work in human-computer interaction, in May. But this blog post is for the larger Twitch community.
1.How do people become a moderator?
It is apparently taboo to ask to be a mod. “Never ask to be a mod!” people said. There were several different methods of becoming a mod.
- The Token Mod: a friend or family that was appointed because they know the streamer.
- The Glorified Viewer: the streamer notices a viewer (usually over a long period of time) and appoints them to mod status. Sometimes viewers found themselves moderators without a prior discussion.
- The Recruit: someone who responds to an open request for moderators
2. What are the roles moderators play?
Not all mods are the same. There are different roles- not mutually exclusive- that mods play.
- A Helping Hand: These mods just want to help out. Some are motivated by the greater cause of making the Internet a better place; others are motivated by wanting to help the streamer
- Justice Enforcer: This type of mod likes enforcing rules. Some want to “sacrifice” themselves so that they triage nasty things for the sake of the streamer. Others enjoy the power.
- The Surveillance Unit: These mods don’t interact as much, they just watch and quietly take action.
- The Conversationalist: These people like to interact with other viewers, guide conversations, respond to questions, etc. They facilitate meaningful interactions with viewers, especially when the streamer cannot interact with everyone.
3. What are the emotional tolls of moderators?
- Lack of appreciation: All they want is a thank you. As much as many moderators said that they felt like a cherished member of the community and a
true collaborator of the streamer, there were also instances, either observed or experienced directly, where moderators thought they were not being valued as much as they should. This was disappointing, especially because they are volunteering their time. Some mods thought that streamers valued money (donations/subscriptions received) more than mods’ time.
- Misaligned relationship expectations: Some mods thought becoming a mod would make them a friend or a colleague, but these sentiments were not reciprocated. Some mods were upset because they were not considered part of the streaming team. There are also predatory mods who display “stalker-like” behavior toward streamers. The opposite case happened too- where the streamer was getting too personal and the mod did not want that.
- Dealing with negativity and guilt: Mods not only have to read nasty things and delete them, but also deal with harassment from disgruntled viewers, which included severe situations such as death threats. Mods also experienced guilt when they banned people, especially those who exhibit mental health disorders. One mod said:
- “There was this one guy who was depressed for so long. I
tried to get people to help and it just didn’t work out. He was
not interested in getting help. I still think about that, like
is there something I could say, some research I could have
done to convince him?”
- “There was this one guy who was depressed for so long. I
Obviously, being a mod is not all negative things, there are many positive aspects about being a mod, like building meaningful relationships, growing communities, etc. However it is important to understand that a moderator is not a robot that presses a delete button. They have to manage complex relationships with streamers and viewers, and handle risky situations– most of the time without having the proper resources to deal with them. They deserve our attention and appreciation and we need to find better solutions– both technical and non-technical– to address their needs.
Wohn, D. Y. (2019, in press). Volunteer Moderators in Twitch Micro Communities: How they Get Involved, the Roles they Play, and the Emotional Labor they Experience. In Proceedings of 2019 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’19)
P.S. Thanks to the National Science Foundation and Mozilla Foundation for supporting this research to understand online harassment and how to create positive spaces.