About two years ago, we had a wild idea: create a Discord server dedicated to our podcast. It’d be great, we thought. We’d invite folks, let them ask questions, and hopefully make a ton of friends along the way! And honestly, how hard could it be?
Like so many things in life, my reality check was swift and hard. The moment we sat down and began planning, it was clear that unless we had some specific elements in place, the whole thing would crash and burn - and most importantly, it could damage the relationships we had with our audience and negatively reflect on the podcast we had worked so hard on.
Below I’ve listed out some of those key elements. I sincerely hope that if you’re ever in my position, this can give you a starting point and hopefully avoid some common pitfalls.
One of the first things we knew we needed as a mission statement. If you aren’t familiar, think of it like a “guiding light” or your “north star”. When you feel lost or the way forward isn’t clear, you should be able to look to your mission statement to reorient yourself. It might not be able to immediately give you an answer but it can push you in the right direction.
A mission statement doesn’t need to be a single sentence but it should be as concise, intentional, and specific as possible. For example, “Make a place to hangout and chill with fans of the podcast” is not a good mission statement. But we can make it more intentional by choosing our words carefully: “Foster and grow a community where fans can discuss the podcast.”
But we can go even deeper by adding in specifics:
Foster and grow a community where fans can discuss the podcast. We do this by uplifting marginalized voices; encouraging thoughtful, empathetic, and valuable discourse; and empower our members to continue these conversations outside of our server.
A mission statement can change over time - and probably should - but I would highly recommend spending significant energy trying to get it as right as possible the first time. If it changes in the future, you’ll likely need to go back to other decisions and re-examine if they still line up.
Guidelines and Rules
The next thing we knew we would need is a list of guidelines and rules. Not only would these help us moderate, but it would clearly showcase to the community what we value and what we do not tolerate.
Many communities will copy and paste guidelines from other communities - and that’s perfectly fine! But I think this works best if you first have a mission statement. This allows you to see if your guidelines/rules are actually aligned.
For example, many servers will often list “Don’t be a jerk” as a rule. And although this is a fairly straightforward rule, if your mission statement encourages people to disagree and grow, is this really what you want to be enforcing? Could this even be enforced?
Instead, you might list out more specific guidelines that support your mission statement. For example, this might be better broken out into:
- When disagreeing with other members, attempt to remain respectful while encouraging the conversation to continue. This can be done through clarifying questions or acknowledging emotions and/or intent.
- Moderators may ask a conversation pause momentarily if there’s no additional value to be had at the moment.
- If your voices are dominating a channel, we encourage you to create a thread to allow people to opt-in or out.
Even with a mission statement and guidelines in place, we needed something more - something to determine how we would support these ideas. We knew that our moderation team would need to make decisions and we needed tools to minimize the energy needed for each call. If we didn’t, we would risk burnout and run into consistency issues.
We needed to define our processes - a list of steps, questions, and/or checks that we would follow in specific circumstances.
For example, early on our team decided that we wanted a “call-in” process. Although the intent and reasoning was clear, there was a lot of room for interpretation and risk that we’d handle some cases differently and be seen as “playing favourites”. So we created a list - literally a numbered list in a shared drive - to make sure our call-ins were done the same way.
It was prescriptive where it needed to be (e.g. defining what elements need to be included in the call-in such as action items or next steps) but also explicitly called out where we would trust a moderator to make a judgment call (e.g. providing links to/quotes of messages).
And I know: a numbered list is about as sterile as it comes. But given what we wanted to achieve - offloading as much work to a process rather than a person - I think it was worth being a bit “distant”. Our priority was to free up as much of the team’s time and energy as possible.
And there was an added bonus (one that I wasn’t even thinking about): it eased the onboarding of new moderators. We were moving away from siloed knowledge which meant new team members had a starting point - enabling them to ask more valuable and specific questions.
I learned a lot more in the first year of being a Discord admin. I had to navigate interpersonal issues on the moderation team, work with people who needed to step down or step-up as a moderator, discuss recognition and compensation, and overall be a leader on this initiative.
I don’t know if the community would be in the state it’s in today if we didn’t take the time to develop a mission statement, vet and curate our guidelines, and define our processes. In the best case, we would have definitely spent a lot more energy and time just thrashing around.
But even then, we knew the work wasn’t finished. Yes, we had key elements in place but there were still concerns about how we would maintain/manage behaviours, how we wanted to influence our community’s growth, and what sort of culture we were fostering. But these are stories for another day.
For now, my hope is that if you plan on creating an online space in the near future, this short spiel provides you with a framework to set yourself up for success. More importantly, I hope it provides a foundation that you and your team can use to grow and learn with your community - just like I’m doing now with mine.