Tuesday, March 8, 2022

An Interview With a Moderator

I'd been running online discussion for years before Chowhound launched in 1997. I was an admin, for example, on several Compuserve forums (including "Jim Leff Forum", one of my more noteworthy pranks, where I repurposed a dormant big corporate forum that Compuserve had neglected to switch off into my personal fiefdom - something every teenager enjoys online nowadays, but this was likely the first online zone dedicated to a regular person, the first home page, if you will - and it FREAKED PEOPLE OUT. They streamed in to see what was going on, and it turned into a massive party. Compuserve pulled the plug a few days later, and David Lindsay told the tale as a chapter in his first book - here is an earlier version he published in NY Press).

So I had already learned the two immutable laws:

1. Everyone Hates Unmoderated Discussion
Without firm moderation, online communities quickly devolve into arguments, commercialism, and off-topic digression. Complete suckage.

2. Everyone Hates Being Moderated
America launched with a credo of "free speech", which came with a very specific meaning that’s been misinterpreted by Americans ever since as "NOBODY CAN EVER MAKE ME SHUT UP, EVER". Even while hollering into someone else's microphone. Hell hath no fury like an American with their mic cut off.

So if you're foolish enough to run an online forum, your hands are tied and your fate is assured: You will need to moderate - expunge postings and expel users - and everyone will hate you bitterly for it. You can be loved, or you can run a useful online forum. Not both.

Chowhound was a very early web forum, before anyone understood any of this. We put up with more piqued antagonism from moderees than you'd possibly imagine, so our moderators worked anonymously. Only a special sort of good samaritan would work tremendously hard to help while being forced to cower from the specter of mass hatred and bodily harm.

The two anonymous heroes who are still working - strictly as volunteers - to this very day will never receive the widespread credit they deserve. Despite their principled hard work, they’’ve earned the social cachet of abortion doctors. In the words of Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country!"

In 2007, we went on the offensive, introducing the snarling hordes to the creep who'd been persecuting them. Behold the face of evil, chief moderator (at the time) Pat Hammond:
I interviewed Pat over drinks. Here's the audio, followed by a transcript (audio's better):


Jim: So, what’s your name again?

Pat: Pat Hammond

Jim: And what do you do for Chowhound again?

Pat: I’m a community manager

Jim: What does that mean?

Pat: I sort of ride herd on the postings just to keep things orderly

Jim: Oh my God. Are you telling me...no it can’t be true? Are you telling me you’re a...you’re a...

Pat: Nazi? [laughter]

Jim: A moderator?

Pat: Moderator, right

Jim: Wow, so you’re a moderator!

Pat: Yes I am!

Jim: When did you first notice this tyrannical, cruel streak in yourself?

Pat: I think I was born with it

Jim: Really?

Pat: Really!

Jim: Have you ever killed a man?

Pat: Not so you’d notice

Jim: I noticed you had to think about it

Pat: Right!

Jim: Um, this is a problem. We are not going to be able to do this interview because we have salty bar snacks sitting right in front of us. And it’s irresistible to me so I’m going to be chewing throughout this which is like a total radio faux pas. But you’re not eating them. You’re such a pro. You are SUCH a pro! I’m, like, scarfing goldfish and slurping back bourbon and you’re just...alert!

Pat: You’re too much

Jim: That’s why you’re a moderator, right?

Pat: That’s right

Jim: Because you’ve got that sort of stern ascetic quality?

Pat: Exactly!

Jim: When did you first join the back room, as it were, on Chowhound?

Pat: 2000

Jim: 2000 years ago?

Pat: It seems like it

Jim: How did you find out about Chowhound?

Pat: I read about it through John Thorne’s website, Outlaw Cook.

Jim: Can you do longer answers so I have more time to chew my bar snacks?

Pat: OK

Jim: Now 2000, if I recall, that was about the period when I was starting to completely freak out by the growth of the site.

Pat: Yep. It was scary

Jim: I was trying to do everything myself and it was like doubling in size every month

Pat: Right

Jim: And what did you do again?

Pat: Well, I had started posting to the site a little bit

Jim: Right

Pat: And one day I was sitting in my office. I worked for a doctor in St Louis and the phone rang and it was you.

Jim: I called you?

Pat: You called me.

Jim: Why did I call you?

Pat: Well, because Bob Okumura was going to be away and things were going crazy on the site and you just called to ask me if I could sort of keep an eye on things

Jim: And how did I get your number?

Pat: I didn’t know it at the time, but it was when I would email you it'd be with my signature. I mean I had no idea that my boss’s professional phone number was going out, but you had my phone number.

Jim: And thank God you said yes, because if you didn’t I probably would have closed the site the next week. I’m sorry...I have snacks in my mouth. Can you talk for another minute while I swallow?

Pat: But you didn’t have me do much in the beginning except delete duplicates or something like that.

Jim: Yeah, we had that huge problem that people would get impatient and keep hitting the post button and things would post like eight, nine, ten times.

Pat: Right. But every time I would delete a duplicate I would email you and give you all the specifics and finally you told me to lay off and don’t do that anymore! So...that’s how it started

Jim: And you were the first moderator on Chowhound, right?

Pat: That’s what you said!

Jim: How much would you say you established the pattern of sadism and censorship?

Pat: If you’re going to assign blame, it’s probably all mine!

Jim: Really? That’s wonderful. So it wasn’t me after all?

Pat: You were my teacher.

Jim: Oh God!

Jim: We have never interviewed a moderator for Chowhound. Ever. We’ve never done anything like this. And nobody really has any idea what it is all about. And really we’ve encouraged that because we want people to have the impression that everything’s happy and non-commercial and friendly on Chowhound.com and we don’t want them to see the war that we conduct quietly in the background to keep it that way! [laughs] Do you have any notes from the front?

Pat: I think the site’s going along great guns. That’s the first thing.

Jim: Yeah, right now it’s really going well.

Pat: Yes, I’m very, very happy about that

Jim: Yeah, I mean we’re like a year now after the CNET acquisition and it’s still the same great people and a lot of new great people

Pat: Yeah, a lot of new great people. Like you always say with large numbers you have a bunch of really terrific people then you have the minority who have other issues and agendas.

Jim: Really, like what?

Pat: Probably the most benign sort of thing are people who, you know, normally want to say what they want to say and they want to put it where they want to put it on the website. And that’s a human thing

Jim: Give me an example

Pat: Oh, they’re on the Manhattan board and they’re talking about the fois gras at Jean George. And suddenly that reminds them of the trip they took to Paris and the wonderful fois gras they had there

Jim: And seventeen people want to talk about Paris

Pat: They do. They’re so excited!

Jim: As I would be! As you or I would be as well!

Pat: I’ve done it!!

Jim: Me too! I've gotten deleted!! Both of us have!

Pat: We’ve ALL been deleted

Jim: It’s human instinct, right? We want to digress. I mean sure, I'm the same exact way. People are on a Brooklyn thread talking about fried chicken and I want to talk about a place in North Carolina and I make the mistake of mentioning it...and then like 17 people want to talk about...

Pat: ...and in many ways that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, that’s a great thing

Jim: It is. The problem is if we’re talking about France on the Manhattan board and we’re talking about North Caroline on the Brooklyn board...nobody’s ever going to find those tips!

Pat: See, that’s the thing! And you have to explain that to whoever did it in the first place.

Jim: ...ad infinitum for ten years...

Pat: ...but you’ve got all these other people who probably got swept away with the initial digresser and it’s unfortunate

Jim: And you can’t really explain it to EVERYbody

Pat: Especially not now. I mean there are too many everybodys.

Jim; Too many people. And what happens if you try to explain in public?

Pat: Everything goes beserko and off topic and...

Jim: ...instead of talking about fois gras in Paris we start talking about the talking about it. We start talking about the talking!

Pat: That’s right. So you can do that off the site, you can do emails and that sort of thing or often we don’t have the time for that and we just summarily delete someone’s post but...

Jim: ...because it reaches a point in scale when you just can’t get into it with everybody...

Pat: ...and we have posters who immediately say ‘Off topic! Off topic!’ and you rush to see what’s going on, and oftentimes no matter how fast you rush there are already lots of replies! But it’s hard to remove someone’s words. I mean, I’m a wordy person, and I love writing, and we have lots of great writers, and to delete somebody’s words....it’s hard.

Jim: You don’t enjoy it?

Pat: No, I don’t enjoy it. That’s the hard part.

Jim: You read pretty much everything, don’t you?

Pat: I used to. No, not everything now, but in the early days I read every single post

Jim: And what do you think of the community? What do you think about the people who post?

Pat: They’re terrific Lots of wonderful people who know so much. I mean, I’ve said this to my family. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something and that’s certainly still true and we have so many really, really good writers. Yeah, it’s a great community

Jim: Yeah, I feel the same way.

Pat: Save some for me!!

Jim: I love bar snacks. I’m going crazy. Sorry. My God, I’ve gone through the whole bowl!

Jim: Why don’t we put badges next to people’s names and say this is a moderator? Why do we keep it pretty anonymous?

Pat: I’ve never been anonymous. I’ve always used my real name and I’ve always signed my real name when I email as a mod

Jim: Right, you’re an exception.

Pat: But, you know, people just want to be able to be a regular poster, not to have some symbol next to their name that...

Jim: ...for better or worse...

Pat: ...for better or worse that denotes them as part of the management, in a way. And I think that’s a good thing. I started out as Pat Hammond, you know, God, 10 years ago and I’m not about to change my posting name now. But I can see the appeal

Jim: People who are like just great Chowhounds that take some time out of their day to help out, the last thing I want to do - that ANY of us want to do - is have them take flack or feel uncomfortable or have their user experience...

Pat: Right

Jim: Why do you think they take this job? Why do they do it?

Pat: I have to think the reason that you picked me...of course, there were only a handful to pick from way back then...was that I was very careful about my posting. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing half the time anyway on the computer but I was helpful and I was appreciative and so interested. I just thought it was all too exciting for words. And I think the people we have as moderators now just like the site. They care about the site. They want to see the mission of only exchanging tips. They want that to go forward. They don’t want things to deteriorate.

Jim: What do you mean by deteriorate?

Pat: Well, just a lot of chat, a lot of flames. A lot of crap, I mean, just unpleasantness

Jim: What’s wrong with chat?

Pat: That’s not what we’re about. We’re about meat & potatoes. Talk to us about food! Tell us where you’ve had something good!

Jim: What’s wrong with chatting about that?

Pat: Well, it just goes off into a long hoo-ha of more chat and more chat. And then it just dilutes the whole thing that we’re supposed to be about, which is exchanging tips.

Jim: And that way, if you want to figure out where to eat in Athens Georgia...?

Pat: You don’t have to read through post after post of “I went to the University of Georgia and isn’t it great?”

Jim: Or "Don’t you hate Rachael Ray?:

Pat: [laughing] Don’t you HATE her?

Jim: No! I don’t really hate anybody! I just want to get some chow tips!

Pat: Well, we do have some boards where a less structured conversation can go on. We have the Not About Food board. We have General Topics that runs a little looser. But the regional boards are supposed to be about discussing food in that region

Jim: You know what’s always surprised people about Chowhound - or maybe not surprised them enough - is that the information is reliable.

Pat: Well, that’s the whole point of Chowhound!

Jim: If you think about it what do we present to the world? We present many thousand avid readers. Who are like total consumers, consumer-frenzy people. And we let people message them for free!

Pat: Yep

Jim: How come there’s not more guerilla marketing and stuff? How come we never see that stuff? How come the information’s still reliable?

Pat: Well, there is a good bit of that!

Jim: *I* don’t see it...

Pat: Aha!!

Jim: Don’t hit me!!

Pat: You have the moderators to thank for that! WE see it!

Jim: Yeah, and what do you do?

Pat: We delete it

Jim: Really? I thought you did it to stifle the individual expression. That’s not the reason?

Pat: No, that’s not the reason

Jim: Really? You sound pretty censorious to me. You sound awful, Pat! If I can be honest...can I be frank with you?

Pat: No!! I’m sincere, not censorious!

Jim: What about the subject of taboo restaurants? Every once in a while we’ll have to send an email to someone and say “We deleted your post, even though we know it was an honest post about that restaurant". Why in the world would we do that? Unless we were horrible Nazi censorious people?

Pat: A restaurant doesn’t become taboo just overnight. I mean it’s a process. And we’re very good at...

Jim: A process of what?

Pat: A process of watching posts about a place that may strike us and even some of our posters as suspicious. People who sound like they are a little bit too inside or...

Jim: Ok, so you’re just saying if you get just the slightest nuance that the place is using us to guerilla market, you just wipe them off the map and stifle all expression?

Pat: No, no. I’m saying it’s a PROCESS...that we watch. And we’ll say, ok, we’ll keep an eye on this. So and so who lives in the same town says that this doesn’t sound right to him because our posters do let us know.

Jim: Ah, you mean the censorship is widespread? It’s not just the moderators?

Pat: You could put it that way.

Pat: [to bartender] We’re doing good

Jim: [to bartender] Another bourbon, please!

Pat: [to bartender] I’m fine, thank you

Jim: Throw caution to the wind, Pat! Have another seltzer, for crying out loud!!

Bartender: Go wild tonight!

Jim: Right, mods gone wild!

Pat: [laughing] Where were we?

Jim: I don’t know where we were at...we were talking about the wide spread nature of the...

Pat: Some things strike us as suspicious and people who are...

Jim: ...and you immediately ban them from the discussion?

Pat: No we DON'T! That’s what I said before! We then watch them and if anything untoward is going on, it’ll happen again. It might not happen by the same....

Jim: It’s like potato chips. You just can’t have just one

Pat: Well, yeah If you’re maybe posting about your brother-in-law’s place but you don’t identify yourself that way and somebody says “hey, yeah I went there, it’s really good” ...it’s very hard for those people not to just jump on the train and say “Oh well, terrific...”

Jim: Here’s what I don’t understand...Mr. Himmler, can I call you Himmler? Or is it Goering?

Pat: Go AHEAD.

Jim: OK. You find a pattern of guerilla marketing and subversion...why would you prevent even good posters...oh my god, calamari! That looks GREAT! Holy...what are they doing with such good calamari at a Hilton?

Pat: Smells good, too, doesn’t it?

Jim: It smells good!

Pat: We’ve got plenty to eat...

Jim: Ok, we find a pattern of subversion. Why would we also delete even good posters when posting about this place?

Pat: We do that because once enough stuff has happened, then any mention by anyone can draw out those people again. Because they’re not seeing their place mentioned anymore because we get them really fast and so if there is a mention that sneaks in from an innocent...those people are out there watching. We reach a point where we can’t tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and we just can’t take that chance.

Jim: Don’t you have encyclopedic knowledge of every single user on Chowhound and how good they are or not?

Pat: No

Jim: OK. So you’re saying you spot the patterns of subversion and you can’t tell the good from bad...

Pat: ...At a certain point you can’t, right...

Jim: ...but if you let some of the known good posters, the known good posters post, then what happens?

Pat: Well, then people will respond to her and you don’t know whether they’re good guys or not.

Jim: Let me ask you this. Does it give you joy when you delete a good poster posting about a taboo place? Does it make you think “I have power”?

Pat: No you feel terrible because this is a good guy! I mean, you know this person to be a good guy. You know they are not doing anything devious and, again, it’s hard to take away someone’s words. Something that they’ve worked on.

Jim: Tell me about the rest of the crew

Pat: We have a terrific bunch of people. Even if they weren’t mods, these are all people that I would be happy to have in my home. We have a doctor. We have a lawyer. We have a college professor. We have me, a retired grandma. We have a young mother. We have just, you know, a very wide ranging bunch of people and we work really well together and we don’t just willy-nilly go out there chopping posts off the board!

Jim: You don’t?

Pat: We don’t...not willy-nilly!

Jim: I read in the newspaper that you did...?

Pat: We confer. There are very few instances, you know, if they’re really clear cut, I mean someone cursing somebody out or attacking someone, those we just lop off. But anything out of the ordinary, we confer.

Jim: Is there like a certain moderator for each board?

Pat: Nope. We pitch in all over the place.

Jim: Let me ask you this, how often do the moderators delete stuff just 'cuz they disagree with a food opinion?

Pat: Never

Jim: Never?

Pat: Never!

Jim: Why are you laughing? Are you laughing in censorious glee?

Pat: We disagree with posters all the time! We disagree with some of the things they say but...

Jim: ...and then you delete them, right?

Pat: No we don’t!!

Jim: Really? Why not? You have the power.

Pat: Well, they have the right to their opinion! Like we have the right to disagree with them! But it doesn’t mean we’re going to throw our weight around!

Jim: If I wrote an email to the moderators and I said “This poster's an idiot, delete them as they post”, what would you probably do?

Pat: If you as a poster...

Jim: No, if I as ME said “Hey guys. I disagree with this poster”, what would you do?

Pat: We’d laugh at you!

Jim: So you’re telling me that agreeing with Jim is not a prerequisite for posting on chowhound?

Pat: Absolutely not.

Jim: Maybe that explains the 700,000 postings that I disagree with

Pat: What? I don’t get that.

Jim: Well because there are lots of postings on site - people saying they don’t like my favorite restaurants - and we don’t delete them, do we?

Pat: No!

Jim: What would you do if *I* deleted them?

Pat: We’d put them back!

Jim: How have things changed since CNET got into the picture? Are they imposing a different scheme on things at all?

Pat: So far, so good!

Jim: So is it the same people?

Pat: You mean the moderators?

Jim: Yeah

Pat: Yes, all brought from within the Chowhound community as it was...and as it is

Jim: Right And not all of them are CNET employees, correct?

Pat: No.

Jim: So we still have a number of volunteers?

Pat: The vast majority of the moderators are volunteers, which to me is extraordinary.

Jim: You sold out though, didn’t you?

Pat: Yes I did...

Jim: You sell-out!!! Why would people continue to volunteer to moderate a corporate site?

Pat: Because it’s still Chowhound. The aims remain. They do. The mission, the brand, it’s all the same.

Jim: Right. You know how I think of it? You could have a poker game in your kitchen and have your friends over every week to play poker. And you know, the snacks aren’t that great and the chairs aren’t that comfortable. Or you can move to a casino somewhere where it’s much better snacks, much more comfortable chairs, better lighting and you know you have to pay the house something here and there. That’s what I feel like. CNET’s the casino, it’s the house. You know, they gave us new tables. We’re doing exactly what we always did...it’s same the old nice folks playing poker. We've just got fancy new digs. Do you feel that way, too?

Pat: Yep. Good analogy

Jim: So you’re telling me the people who volunteer, they don’t just do it because they dig the power?

Pat: That’s got to be the least of it! [laughing]

Jim: On a daily basis how much do you enjoy the power of being able to delete people? Just the sheer POWER of it?

Pat: It doesn’t enter into the equation at all

Jim: So then why are you doing it?

Pat: I love the website. I love what I do. I always have. Ten years of being around Chowhound...I just like what it represents. It’s an honest place. And that takes good moderation - not everybody’s honest - but for the most part, when you read something on Chowhound, chances are the person went to the restaurant, came home, sat down at the computer and that’s how quick you get the person’s impression of where they ate. It’s almost real time and you come to trust people and it’s just...honest!

Jim: How can you tell a shill posting from a real posting?

Pat: It’s not always easy..... [whispered] We don’t want to say THAT!

Jim: No, don’t give too many specifics here. We don’t want to educate the bad guys on how not to get caught! But, just basically, without giving details, how can you tell honest from dishonest? Isn’t that just an abuse of power as you just make this arbitrary call?

Pat: We’ve been doing this a long time. We know what we’re doing! We know what to look for, and sometimes we just, you know, bide our time...

Jim: You’re saying you’ve seen every scam a thousand times?

Pat: We’ve see a lot of them! [laughing]

Jim: And even the devious ones, you’ve seen how many times?

Pat: Plenty!

Jim: So it’s hard to put one over on Pat Hammond?

Pat: ANY of us. Any of us!


Mattkn said...

Loved this.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this was funny and fun and it brought back early CH memories. I even ‘memba when Pat began posting. RIP CH.

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