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The Downside of Power

by kahoku

disclaimer: i wrote this mainly in order to show people that being a mod, or whatever powerful person, is not as easy as it looks, and very ungrateful at times. the article about how mods should behave comes next. ;)


The Downside of Power (with a focus on internet communities)

1. The basics

Power. A magical word.

In many areas of human life you can observe people striving for power (and popularity, which often implies power). No matter if it is the leadership over a team, the mod- or adminship in a forum, a position in politics, or being a superstar. People are willing to do practically anything in order to reach such a goal.

What are the reasons for this? Most of them believe that it will solve all their problems. Being powerful means being the one in control, being able to let others work for you, you will decide what others should do, nobody will dare tell you what to do, and overall you'll do everything better than the one currently in power. (The latter basically is a noble intention in many cases.)
Sometimes it's also about the ability to say "I'm the leader of...", or just about the money involved.

Unfortunately, this is not how it works.

The illusion of being free of superiors is just that: an illusion. There will always be someone you'll have to listen to. You're a team leader at work? The managers will tell you to work more efficiently no matter what you do. You're the manager? There will be at least a CEO above you, telling you to do twice the amount of work using only half the staff size in order to secure the profits. Even the CEO is not free to do what he wants. His superiors are the customers, the shareholders, and, if applicable, the labor union. If he fails, the company will go broke and he will lose everything.

This pattern can be applied to all sorts of power positions. not even the president, not even the pope is free to act the way he feels like.

Another illusion: being able to boss people around. Yes, in a professional environment, people will work for you, but you will be responsible for the "greater cause". You will have to tell your subordinates what to do, when to do it, and how to do it in order for them to do it right. If they fail, no matter whose fault it was, you failed, because your work will not be finished when it's supposed to. Thus, all of a sudden, your well-being does not only depend on your own performance, but on everyone else's too.

So, in fact, the power has not made you stronger, but weaker. This is the opportunity for a common phenomenon: the bashing of superiors.

It is a behavior pattern deeply rooted in members of our society that, as soon as someone has some kind of power, it seems most rewarding to bring this person down. The more power, the more reward. Any random reason will be taken as a cause to attack the person in power, preferably in a most personal way. Their qualifications will be questioned, their common sense, and in some cases people don't even shy away from putting mediocre statements like telling leading women to go back to the kitchen.

It also adds to the problem that powerful people usually stand in a kind of spotlight. Whatever happens to them will be known to a number of others. Every mistake, even the smallest, will be open for everyone to laugh at or get mad about. And, due to the fun factor of bashing superiors, people will react like this.

The terrible truth, however, is that there are very few absolutely correct decisions. In 99% of the times a trade-off is needed, which always leaves one party as the loser, the one who disagrees with the decision, and thus very often the one who starts attacking the superior. In a way, no matter what you do, you can only do it wrong. And suddenly you have developed into the person you never wanted to become.

One way out is to make a certain standard you'll cling to, which, in many cases, consists of the rules in the given place. This is also a good excuse - "I did it because it's what the rules say" is sometimes the only weapon you'll have. But never ever act against your own standard. Even if you'll suddenly have to act against a friend. Oh, sorry, ex-friend.

Do you still like your position? Does the extra income compensate you for this?

2. Implications for internet communities

In case of an internet forum (or an MMORPG guild, or... let's just focus on forums), people will strive for a mod position or even open their own forum in order to be in charge of something. To be all-powerful in their own little place. Or because they really want to change something for the better, to help people. It doesn't make much of a difference, except for the fact that those greedy for power normally don't last very long.

The difference between a work environment and an internet community is basically the fact that everyone is free to leave at any time, without losing anything manifest like their income. Still, the same rules apply.

Congratulations, you are now in charge of keeping up peace in a forum. Free to punish each and every person for breaking the rules or getting on your nerves.

...or not? Let's see what we discussed earlier.

Superiors. If you aren't the forum owner, then that will be your superior. Otherwise, believe it or not, your users are your superiors. In any case, if you act up and randomly reprimand people, or if you fail to solve a conflict as peacefully as possible, you'll have a problem very soon. Either you will be demoted, or people will leave your forum. Suddenly you are powerless again.

Also, if you are the leader, you will be responsible for your moderators' mistakes. And their alleged mistakes.

Another one of your responsibilities will be to keep the forum users happy, and to keep everything running smoothly. Which implies dealing with certain things silently, therefore not earning any prestige. However, if things go wrong, and that they will once in a while, you'll earn a lot of negative reputation. This is the fate of a mod.

You will also have to stay incredibly calm and friendly, no matter what happens.

The internet is a fairly free zone. Generally, people are more confident in doing things they would hesitate to do in real life. This also applies to the bashing of superiors. "The evil mod told me to shut up when I was trying to express my opinion! I feel censored!" is one of the nicer examples.

In a place where swearing around is frowned upon, the moderators have to be twice as polite as everyone else. Even if someone acts up, you'll have to ask them to stop in a friendly manner. Very often you'll earn even more insults for that. And again, you aren't allowed to respond "STFU n00b", but you'll have to put it like "I have to ask you to change your manners, or I will be forced to pass out a formal warning." Nothing is more damaging to a forum's reputation than a mod who lacks self-control.

Especially when dealing with people and their opinions, there's almost no way of making 100% right decisions. Is "How can you believe this crap?" an insult? Does it make a difference if it's said in a political topic or in a religious one? Is "crap" a swearword per se? Is a person who disagrees with everyone else a nuisance or just expressing their opinion? If a person acts up because of personal problems, will you support them or save the other users from their insults?

In some of the cases, not even the rules can help much. You'll be the big bad person, no matter what you do. But there's even worse.

As a mod, you'll have your own little spotlight following you, even if you're not executing your duties at a given point in time. People will remember your words, and come back at them whenever they feel like it. For example, you might state that you disagree with the Christian belief system at one point, and months later, when having problems with a certain user, they will tell everyone that you only hate them because they are Christian.

Another not-so-nice scenario arises when a person you grew to like suddenly gets into conflict with the rules, and you are forced to reprimand them. In a human psyche, there's the tendency to switch between extremes. If someone liked you very much before, and you have to do something against them, they may very well hate you afterwards because they feel deceived. However, if you don't do it, everyone else will hate you for being biased. So, whose a*****e do you want to be?

Another side effect is that you're inseparably connected to your place. So a person who has a problem with the community's ideas might very well pay attention to you and let you know exactly, and often not very politely, what they think of you (i.e. your community).

3. My personal experience

I have seen most of the things I described myself, and others, even more hurtful ones. Do I regret being a mod? Not at all. I think it's very rewarding to be responsible for a community I really care for, even if some of the work goes unnoticed. However, if I didn't care about a community, I'd never do this job-I'm-not-even-paid-for.

I've received pm telling me how bad my decisions were. I've received emails in which a person from outside the community vented about how bad we all were (they had my address from the staff page). I've seen how a moderator was blamed and harassed by an ex-member of his board. And I've been up 50 hours straight when my "home" was being attacked by a bunch of people who have no life.

Especially spriritual communities are often attacked from the outside, and I know that forum owners have been attacked and/or harassed in real life, via phone or even personally. Talking about standing in the spotlight, heh?

But, and in my opinion this is very troubling, I've also seen this kind of behavior in games. The World of Warcraft guild I was leading almost got destroyed by a person who acted like a friend in the beginning, helping to build up the whole thing, and then started to act disrespectfully and egoistically. I had to remove him from his officer position, for which he started a campaign against me that lasted several weeks (!), trying to destroy my guild and my reputation using everything he could possibly come up with. So much for the common perception of being the glorious guild leader. Rest assured, it was not him who destroyed the guild. Looking back, I'm almost thankful for the lesson. Although I cannot understand why someone would get that upset over a game, I learned for life.

Thank you for reading this article. You may have known parts of it, but I hope I could also provide you with some new insights. Perhaps next time you're mad at a superior, you'll think about this and find a way to solve the conflict peacefully.

website programmed by kahoku - kahoku(at)gmx(dot)net. the site owner is not responsible for linked content.

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Except in this case, you can see the trolls . . . and perhaps use them for target practice.
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