The subject of governance and communication in Ethereum came up again last weekend as some redditors campaigned to remove Ryan Zurrer as a moderator of /r/ethereum in response to Ameen Soleimani's assertion that Zurrer has been trying to bolster support of Polkadot at the expense of Ethereum. A subsequent thread emerged on governance of /r/ethereum that discussed who should be a moderator and the characteristics of a good moderator. The current moderators of the subreddit then posted a joint statement and call for discussion on the topic.
While the conversation is about moderation of the Ethereum subreddit, it has relevance for the broader issue of governance in the Ethereum community. I want to set aside the specific question of Zurrer's role and highlight the qualities of a good moderator that rose to the surface of this discussion.
Conversation curation emerged as a key idea: A moderator shouldn't just filter content, but regularly check in, share things, engage in discussions, and shape the culture. This involves acknowledging that different opinions exist between community members and cultivating an environment of open debate. There's an inherent tension in this: Discussions should not be echo chambers, but neither should they be platforms for people with authority to drive particular products.
To that end, honesty and transparency is imperative. Multiple redditors called for more transparency in acknowledging potential conflicts of interest. One lauded Vitalik Buterin for his openness about his interests and encouraged other devs and moderators to do the same.
The call to develop better mechanisms for discussion, preference signaling, and decision-making was picked up by the current /r/ethereum moderators, as the joint statement asked questions about what content should be encouraged, what role moderators should play, and what makes for a good moderator. One of the express purposes of the statement is to assess what the Ethereum subreddit should be and how the moderators contribute.
The Role of Moderator: Multiple Views
From the dialogue in this thread and the previous thread, it's become increasingly clear that the current moderators understand their roles differently from how they are understood by members of the Ethereum community who are not moderators and/or core devs. One very thoughtful post by ethacct emphasized that many are uncomfortable with "the lack of accountability among those who wield power over the direction of Ethereum."
Ethacct acknowledged that people in positions of authority in Ethereum already work very hard, often for free, and so it's understandable that a call for further transparency, moderation, and accountability might seem daunting. At the same time, ethacct gently asked that Ethereum leaders be aware of their power and keep it in mind when posting public statements: "[W]hile I understand the resistance to subjecting one's self to increased scrutiny for a labour of love, I would encourage these same individuals to realize what privilege and power they do have in making meaningful decisions when it comes to steering this entire community."
Soleimani wrote an extensive response to the joint statement, in which he named the disconnect between how some moderators see their roles and how the roles are perceived by many in the community. Soleimani writes:
"The mods see this as a chore, not a privilege. This is their burden. They do it in the name of community stewardship, not because it gives them status or credibility. And yet the community feels different. To many, the mods on this subreddit are perceived as representatives of this community. The first list of 'insiders' that new people exploring the Ethereum space see is likely the mods on this subreddit. Like it or not, agree with it or not, being a moderator on /r/ethereum is perceived by the community as a trusted position, and lends credibility to their statements."
Core dev and moderator Nick Johnson suggested that an ideal moderator would be someone who was less invested in the Ethereum community and, therefore, less biased. Taylor Monahan expressed concern that expecting moderators to represent the Ethereum ecosystem would 1) discourage moderators from voicing their own opinions across the ecosystem and 2) lead to a more subjective moderation process.
"[If moderators must represent ecosystem values] then being a moderator is suddenly a huge, subjective, values-based role. Each individual moderator would have to constantly ensure the things that communicate across all platforms align with this intangible 'Ethereum ecosystem and values.' They would also have to moderate posts that don't fall into 'Ethereum ecosystem and values.'"
How to Have a Conversation
Stepping back to survey the unfolding conversation about the role of moderators, I'm reminded of debates on pedagogy. I had a college professor who made a point of rarely (if ever) overtly expressing his opinion. In this teacher's mind, his role was to provide students with texts and ask questions to guide the conversation. It wasn't unbiased or apolitical, of course – the questions he asked shaped discourse, as did the texts he selected for students to read. But it was an attempt to create space for as many interlocutors as possible.
The approach exemplified by my former teacher seems like a blend of the different approaches to moderating highlighted on /r/ethereum. The Ethereum subreddit is not a classroom and moderators are not teachers, but the tensions arising are like those of other communal learning environments. On the one hand, many want moderators not simply to administrate but to shape the discourse by curating content and engaging in discussion, not just asking questions but giving their opinions. On the other hand, some see the best moderator as even less involved than a facilitator, as someone who watches the discourse unfold and tries to make sure it doesn't transgress established rules of discourse.
I bring up my old professor's teaching method not to suggest that a moderator should operate this way, but to propose that studying pedagogy could help the Ethereum community think through its approach to discourse. Educational resources that discuss pedagogy in a digital age or how pedagogy and discourse differ in the context of online education could add a lot to the discussion.
The conversation continues, both on the original thread and a subsequent thread discussing mechanisms for better communication. Monahan has compiled and is updating a list of ideas for what a moderator should be based on the feedback received. As intimated in the joint statement, the hope is to draw up specific qualities of a Platonic moderator and then assess current and future moderators based on them.
Others on the thread suggested that more specific guidelines for rules of engagement and how moderators should deal with specific types of comments would be a good idea. It was also suggested that Ethereum needs a more strategic plan for growth and that part of this should include more formal mechanisms to voice concerns.
Ethereum applies a loose approach that can, at times, feel like the antithesis of long-term strategy. Ethereum's ad hoc governance structure and grassroots development is both its strength and its weakness. While it would be a shame to sacrifice Ethereum's geist of rapid experimentation in the name of structure, the growth of the community may mean it's time for more than tacit agreements about how the community should operate.
As we continue to have a conversation on how to have a conversation, it's encouraging to know that – regardless of where we land on the level of moderator engagement – the community is full of deeply invested people.