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How to be a Good Forum Moderator

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moderate a forum kittenThe Spam Attack Kitten: Original art by Flynn the Cat


This is a (not quite finished) guide for forum moderators. It covers more or less everything you might run into and need to consider (I hope), and should apply to any forum or anywhere else that requires moderating.

I’ve tried to cover everything from basic technicalities and tidying up to more complicated issues of policy and approach.

All pictures are mine. I drew them. Don’t use them without asking, or crediting me.

Feel free to leave questions and comments.

 (note: it’s not finished!)

 My moderator history and disclaimer:

I have been ‘on the internet’ for several years, which obviously includes numerous messages boards and forums. Some were great, and some weren’t.

I have been a forum moderator (as part of a team) of a reasonably active community of online writers for the last two years. For the first year I was a volunteer moderator at squidu.com, an official unofficial forum attached to the writing site squidoo.com. After that forum was closed without warning in mid-2012, I was invited onto the moderating team of the unofficial forum squidu.yuku.com, which currently has 351 members and is decently active.

This guide is entirely based on my own opinions and experiences, and is not an official guide to how moderating works on my current forum, nor representative of the opinions of my fellow moderators. This is a generic advice article for moderators on any forum.

 

Getting started:

Forum software and site

I’m not going to discuss choosing a forum software or hosting issues, as either you are joining an established forum, or… well, I just don’t even know enough about the forum options out there or what your specific forum needs are!

I suggest reading the whole guide, making a note of which features you really need, and then seeing which software will offer those features. Most are highly customisable anyway.

Setting up a moderator team

Assuming you’re starting from scratch, there are two ways your mod team will be assembled. Either community volunteers and votes, or a top down selection.

Regardless, there should be a range of opinions and experiences. Bear in mind that some people flourish within the constraints of having to behave (I had to stop trolling and picking fights with people, for example! I knew I’d have to clean up the mess!). Some of the most sensible people may be new to the forum or have other experience. And a hive mind is not a good thing; you need some healthy disagreement behind the scenes.

If you’re going to have a tiered mod system (generic flunkies and people with real power) you need a forum active enough to justify it, and enough of both to be effective. If you have two people in each group, you’re just being silly. If you have five real mods and fifteen ‘clean up’ mods, that’s probably worth doing. Make sure it’s really clear to everyone which mods have which powers. And consider ‘graduating’ moderators over time, and bringing new ones into the lower level for training up.

What kind of forum are you creating?

It’s important to know what kind of forum you have and want to have.

The moderators set and control the entire tone of the forum and are responsible for how safe a space it is. There are several different factors you have to consider which will influence you entire approach and any decisions you make.

Modkitten2

Bane of spammers everywhere, this adorably ferocious forum guardian loves to leap on links and chase trolls around threads.

The factors you have to consider include free speech, abuse, approaches to deletion/editing, warnings and bans, the topics discussed, whether new members are encouraged, freedom to leave links or wander off topic, and who gets to have the final say on any particular factor.

  1. What kind of forum do you want to be moderating? Do you have any particular opinions on free speech, link dropping, new members or anything else that might arise?
  2. What kind of forum do the users want? Bear in mind that you will have to balance different factions and strong opinions from different people, as well as consider those who do not speak up, but equally, if the forum is useless or unpleasant, you will lose all your users anyway.
  3. What kind of moderating can you actually do? Forum and experience limitations may control your responses. For example, you may not recognise when a thread is getting out of hand, or be able to hide or reinstate deleted comments. How quickly can you catch up to a spammer, and are you able to temporarily ban people? Can you all be trusted to respond as individuals or would you prefer the consistency of rote responses?
  4. What kind of forum does the owner want? If the owner is also the admin, and part of the moderating team, then this can be quite straightforward. If the forum is attached to a larger site or company then you’re going to need to be able to communicate with the owners occasionally. What topics do they want to have discussed in this forum, what is off-limits and what is their approach to free speech, spammers, and outside topics?

If you have no good way of communicating with one or more of these parties, or changing the limitations of your forum software, then you’re going to be stuck with a delicate balancing act which will involve a great deal of guesswork. If you do know what these parties want but they will conflict, then you’re going to have a tricky line to walk!

 What you need to know (or decide!)

  • Who is ultimately in charge? How are decisions going to be made?
  • The overall admin or owner of the site has the final say, and ideally, shouldn’t have to get caught up in daily moderating. They’re there as the person to moderate the moderators, and for going to if the moderators are unsure which direction to go (e.g. if either option is equally feasible, but sends a very different sort of message).
  • How many moderators are there, and do they all have equal votes? Is it a vote system at all, or are the moderators just there to do what the admin decrees?
  • What issues can be acted on with one (or two) people, and which need the whole team to discuss? Which issues need full agreement?
  • How quickly can you get that agreement?
  • How many moderators are reliably active? (And will they be actively moderating or actively discussing and voting? You need people doing both, but they don’t have to be the same people).

My ideal moderator system should have three or more people (scaling up with forum size). If the forum is recently active, 200 people or more, then four or five moderators is a good number.

Too small a team becomes overworked, and is far more likely to be paralysed by indecision or disagreement, or fall into the trap of everybody thinking the same way. Moderators also need to be able to take a break if they feel overwhelmed, or just have real life stuff that is getting in the way. So even if two people can do all the moderating, a third person should be around for backup.

Too large a team means that moderators may not have enough work to do, or feel their vote/opinion has any weight, which will lead to detached and inactive moderators. It also makes for an unwieldy moderating system, especially if a certain amount of agreement needs to be reached before any decision is made.

If the forum is quiet, but you expect to grow, lay down as many ground rules as possible while you have time to talk them to death – however basic and obvious they may seem from the start. This means that when suddenly something does crop up in the forum and everything explodes into drama or spam, whoever is around can just check the previously agreed rules and act without needing to wait for approval. It also reduces the chance of panic, or reacting to a situation while under pressure or out of personal dislike/favouritism.

Moderating decisions should be discussed in depth the first time a situation arises, and a clear precedent established for the next time. They should always be open to be discussion as necessary. If the situation is relatively straightforward, a moderator should only need one or two people to speak up and agree with the proposed/taken action (if they don’t agree, then it’s obviously not as straightforward as the first person thought).

Ideally, everyone should understand what they should do about spam, abuse, untidy threads (e.g. posted in the wrong section) and other problems, and how to actually do it using the forum software.

 

Dealing With Conflicting Approaches

Moderator morning star

The Morningstar of Moderating: +3 against Goblinoids, +2% to speed, 3 levels to Smite.If two or more equally relevant parties have different opinions on how the forum should work (and won’t change it), then you have to decide which one has priority. And stick to it.

Secondly, you have to clearly communicate to the other party that this is how it is, and that you have to enforce it.

However, your approach will be quite important here. If the moderators do not consider people leaving links to be spammers (and presumably the people posting will not consider themselves to be spammers), but have been told that they must remove all link drops, even the ones that have been left in good faith, then the moderators should clearly communicate this rule (and also make it clear that they are not saying the post is a spammer, just that they have to follow the rules set by the site).

On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t undermine the site decision publicly, as this would leave users confused over what they should be listening to and the site/owners may feel they cannot trust the moderators. (For example, you could say that “we know you are not spammers, but site rules say this and we will enforce that.”, But you shouldn’t say “this is a stupid decision, but we have to take your links out”.)

 

Actively moderating

Having a team of active, or reliably semi-active, moderators is extremely important. Active means that problems get fixed quickly, users are responded to, and issues are discussed and resolved behind the scenes.

Jumping on problems as they arise is good because
– people know where the lines are and can stay within them (boundaries)
– people know that if they go too far, a moderator will fix it (safety net)
– people know that other people will not be allowed to go too far (community safety)

Consistent, active moderating is necessary because
– exceptions will encourage more to follow, out of confusion or out of rules lawyering
– favouritism or perceived favouritism upsets people
– inconsistent moderating means people don’t know where the boundaries are, leading to insecurity

For example:
If moderators suddenly delete a thread, the community generally reacts with shock. If moderators regularly delete threads, the community feels censored and oppressed, But if the moderators a) warn, and b) only delete when necessary, the community generally shrugs and moves on, or actively calls for threads to remain open or be deleted.

And if someone steps over a line, they know that a moderator will stop them going further, as do other people. Moderators should have consistent responses in place; a warning, a followup final warning, thread locking, comment edits, temporary bans, permanent bans. Users should not be surprised or confused about why any of these things have happened, and moderators should be able to follow a consistent pattern of responses reasonably quickly (but with the freedom to modify this approach as necessary).

Moderator Powers

Moderators have two general areas of responsibility, and they may or may not have the powers that come with both. Some forums have tiered moderating systems.

1. General Spam control and clean up
The ‘basic’ area of responsibility – keeping the forum organised and free of spam. This usually involves spam flagging and deletion, and/or thread movement and bans. It may also involve helping members individually by fixing their signatures, and removing illegal content. In some forums, moderators have tiered powers and can only handle basic issues.

2. Community involvement 
This is much harder and requires more experience, personality and personal judgement. This involves keeping people in line with the forum rules and creating a safe, useful community. Most of this page focusses on this area.

3. Overall forum control
Usually this resides in the site owner or overall administrator rather than moderators. This level of power includes creating new forum sections, behind the scenes access, changing permissions and features (e.g. time between posts), and occasionally, sole access to banning and reporting functions.

Most of my advice will relate to point 2, as actively moderating forum content is a lot harder than just deleting spam. For point 3, this is mainly stuff that should be considered when originally setting up the forum, or modifying it over time (if this is possible). The most important point here is that all moderators are aware of how the forum itself functions.

 1. General Spam control and clean up

This should be fairly straight forward and can be delegated to ‘lower tier’ moderators. How much of a problem spam and the following issues are depends entirely on the forum itself, how easy it is to sign up to, how busy it is, and how strict the moderation is.

Links and Spam

Spam is usually easy to spot, it can either be hit and run posts of blatant nonsense and links, linkage snuck into signatures and apparently relevant posts, or more insidious link dropping from established members.

– hit and run posts are easy. Just delete them and ban the spammers. Most of these are bots anyway (this is the one time you don’t need to worry about saving evidence; just make a note that there was spam, that you removed it and who the spammer was).

– signature links depend on forum policy. If it’s an active user, you can ask them to remove it or you can just remove/edit/hide the signature (the forum software should offer at least one of these options; you may have to edit the comments themselves, or you may be able to directly edit their signatures and profiles). If they refuse, you can always remove their comments.

– general link dropping is a much tricker beast to tame. You will need an established forum policy on this. Link dropping can get out of hand very quickly, but can also sometimes be left to the community to be responsible about. If somebody is posting a link that is coming across as spammy and unwanted, by whatever standards have been agreed, then either ask them to remove it, or remove it and explain what you did. Do NOT assume they were spamming intentionally unless they do it repeatedly.

Tidying up the Forum: Clearing up confusion

What you will do depends on the forum, but presumably you have clearly defined sections for different topics.

– duplicate threads should, if they are confusing or are exactly the same conversation, be closed, with a link to the new thread (and an invitation to repost any relevant information there). This stops the forum becoming confusing and cluttered, and means that everyone can follow the discussion properly in one place. Do not assume the duplicate post was in the wrong, it is very easy to accidentally start extra threads. Generally, the oldest thread should be left open, but if far more discussion is taking place in a newer thread, that one should take precedence. (Some forums allow you to merge threads: use personal judgement on this as it can be even more confusing! And leave a note saying that you have done this).

– threads in the wrong section should simply be moved with no fuss, and a simple comment saying that this has been done (to avoid confusion and to educate people for next time). People will follow the examples of what is in the forum already, so it pays to be consistent about this. Some threads may benefit from added exposure in the main areas and then moved to quieter areas after everyone has read them. Some forums allow you to leave a ‘forwarding link’; this can clutter the forum up and ‘reward’ people with extra exposure, but can also be a good way to avoid losing important threads.

– editing thread titles: this is optional, but sometimes a thread title is just confusing or uniformative (or offensive – nobody wants a forum full of CAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!). Don’t go overboard, it’s irritating to have your posts constantly corrected and you stand a chance of getting it wrong, but it’s worth tweaking the odd title occasionally to improve the usability of the forum.

– threads wandering off topic. This is either a major pet peeve or a perfectly natural part of a forum. Moderators will need a consistent approach that is well understood (and preferably, agreed with) by the community. In general, I wouldn’t worry about threads going off topic; it’s a natural, healthy part of a conversation and heavily policing people’s discussions tends not to go down well (and feels like censorship!). If the original topic still needs addressing, however, you can post a gentle reminder, request or warning. Your only real recourse, though, is to go straight to heavy handed warnings or editing, or locking the thread.

– editing posts for clarity. This one really depends on the forum, but in general, fixing broken or incorrect links, fixing confusing quoting errors and any other basic formatting issues that render posts difficult to read should be done as a courtesy to users. Don’t mess with the content, and leave a note somewhere explaining what was fixed.

– removing personal information. Often people will post their personal emails without thinking about it, which is generally a bad idea (spam!). It is an optional courtesy to remove these and leave a note explaining why (and suggesting an alternative). If they knew what they were doing, then that’s fine.

Locking duplicate and zombie threads

I cover deletions and locking in more detail further down, but duplicate threads (i.e. multiple threads covering exactly the same topic) and zombie threads (threads dragged up from the depths that should stay dead as they are confusing or irrelevant) can be quietly locked with a note and are definitely just part of keeping the forum tidy.

Make it clear that users can continue the discussion in the pre-existing or more active thread, and that they can start a new thread to discuss any points from the now-confusing zombie thread, if a conversation has started.

 

2. Community Involvement

good moderator will be able to manage hurt feelings, handle policy issues, scare off trolls, encourage new posters, guide threads to productive ends, head off drama and stand up to bullies. This requires a great deal of experience, tact, courage, wit, backup, consistency and behind the scenes discussion.

It also is going to go wrong at least once, and blow up on you, or at least make you feel like forums are terrible, scary, not-worth-it places. But it can also be incredibly rewarding, and is necessary for running a good forum.

I hope these tips will help you navigate the much murkier waters of Feelings, Free Speech, Abuse, Confusions and Drama.

 

Locks versus deletions
Locked threads means that the original conversation remains, but can no longer be continued. Deleted threads means the entire thing is gone forever (or hidden from view).

Thread should be locked if they are actively going astray (what counts as astray is one of the things that moderators need to decide) and/or if the moderators do not want any more responses to it. Basically, control or tidying up.

For example:

  • duplicate threads (to be locked with a link to the relevant thread)
  • threads in which the conversation is highly abusive and not stopping (if the conversation has moved on, the thread does not need to be locked)
  •  old irrelevant  threads brought up by accident or by spammers which will only confuse people.
  • to handle temporary issues (or posters) that require a cool down period after which the thread can be unlocked again

In general, deleting is far more extreme and can be very confusing to people trying to figure out what has been going on. There is also often valuable conversation and context in the threads that is still worth reading, whether it’s in the discussion before it went sour, or in examples of a person’s behaviour. Deleting also makes the original participant(s) look worse by implication.

This goes for editing comments, as well. A slightly out of line comment should be warned, so that they know they’re out of line, but not deleted outright, as that just creates an atmosphere of censorship and makes the comment look like it must have been pretty terrible.

Threads that are removed outright should always be moved somewhere where all the mods can refer to them. Threads should never simply vanish. How this works depends entirely on the forum software – at worst, copy paste the contents.

 

Comments should be edited to remove:

  1. Active links (if against the rules or dangerous)
  2. Personal emails (unless the commenter willingly offers themselves for spam or it is publically available)
  3. Personal information, very offensive material, or media that will cause significant problems for people.

All the above are damaging however long they remain, and could be damaging even if all the commenters have wandered off and forgotten about it.

Insults and arguments are slightly different, and a lot harder to moderate. In these cases, the aim should be damage control, not clean up. Are they actively making things worse or still going to cause problems if somebody sees it later, once the initial furor has died? If the exchange of insults is over, and it’s too late to step and ask them to stop, then you may not need to bother editing it (and that can just add insult to injury).

If you do delete or edit anything

  • Always, always mention what you did (unless it’s very minor and self-explanatory, such as fixing a broken link). If the comments automatically show that you edited it, remember that it will look bad to other users (unless they’re used to you fixing up minor formatting issues).
  • If you delete a comment make sure it deserves it. Deleting anything looks extreme, will feel invasive to the writer, and makes it look they like wrote something awful.
  • If someone asks what happened to a thread or a comment, answer them. You don’t have to go into detail, but a) “we deleted it” (what) “because it was basically spam” (why) will be all most users need, or want to know. This is basic courtesy, a clear statement of where the line is, and makes sure that accidental forum glitches, or rogue moderators, don’t go unnoticed.

 

Behind the Scenes

Rules and Tutorials

It’s a good idea to keep guideline posts summarising any specific moderating rules and approaches (e.g. “don’t delete things unless…” ) and tutorial posts about how moderating the forum works, as well as any important contact information.

How much you need written out will vary from forum to forum, but having it there to refer to – and written out so that everyone can see what they are working from, and if they’re doing the same thing as other people – won’t hurt.

 

Accountability and Evidence

It is important to know whether or not any kind of automatic record is kept of moderator actions. Do posts automatically show who edited them? Is there a place where somebody can see that somebody deleted, moved, edited a thread?

If these are all automatically recorded, you only need to worry about:

  • alerting other moderators that something happened
  • ambiguous situations.
  • preserving deleted comments and threads in case of mistakes, or for future reference

If they are not automatically recorded, then moderators need to record their actions. Even the most minor edits can blow up on the rest of the moderators if they don’t know it has happened, or who did it, or what was edited. Having somebody delete threads or ban users with no accountability is an absolute disaster for any moderating team.

  • straightforward spam removal can be kept in a single thread (e.g. “deleted spam by user X, banned them as they were a bot/spammer/sockpuppet of Y”)
  • minor forum tidy ups like moving threads probably doesn’t need mentioning, unless there is any potential for confusion or accusations
  • anything that needs keeping an eye on should be pointed out and possibly discussed.
  • any warnings given or reports received should be shared (in full or summarised as appropriate) and easily found again.
  • links should always be given to the relevant threads and posts
  • posts that have been edited by the moderator, or that have caused problems and may be edited by the user, should be quoted along with the discussion and moderator decisions behind the scenes or moved to a private section for later reference. If you never need it, great. But you may need it if moderators weren’t around and need to catch up on events, if it becomes relevant in a year, if the issue arises again (to compare precedent) or if the same poster causes more problems. In some cases, you may decide to return the content to its original place, or it may have something important that should be preserved.

 

Making decisions

ANY issues should be raised behind the scenes, if only as a ‘recorded for posterity’ thread. All moderators should be clear on how decisions are made and what they should do to find out what to do about something.

If there are multiple members, which there should be in a reasonably active forum, then new or contentious issues should be discussed and – if a clear agreement can’t be reached – voted on.

  • If there is clear precedent and policy, action should be taken accordingly, and straight away. 
  • If the issue is unclear, but half the moderators have spoken up, there is general agreement, and the issue is urgent, action should be taken immediately.
  • If the issue is contentious or confusing, not immediately pressing and major (e.g. banning a user, majorly changing a policy) then a vote should be taken, or it should be referred upward to the admin or owner of the forum.

 

Speed versus Accuracy

One of the reasons for establishing as many ground rules as possible is to be able to act straight away should a problem arise. Posts should not linger over days, waiting for a moderator to take action while a discussion drags on behind the scenes.

Any reversible actions, such as temporarily closing or hiding a thread, should be used when necessary. Do not be afraid to reinstate threads with a quick explanation. (whether it’s “We think it’s safe to discuss this now” or “after discussion the moderators have changed our minds.”). There is nothing wrong with changing your mind based on new evidence as long as that is clearly communicated and your actions are consistent. Bear in mind that as soon as you do hide a post, it may have a chilling effect, or confuse your users.

 

Taking Part in the Forum

This bit isn’t finished! I’m still working on it, as it’s the really complicated part.

  • Don’t let it get personal (or even look like it). NEVER bring in personal history or insulting statements, just stick to the facts of “this is the rule you broke, you were/are being warned, this is what happens now”.
  • Switch out moderators – don’t let the same moderator moderate someone more than twice in a row (especially if it’s part of the same discussion). If the same person keeps posting, people can forget it’s an official moderator action, and start treating it as a personal debate. Bringing in other mods shows that they all agree, that one mod isn’t going rogue or misinterpreting things, and that it’s going to be uniformly enforced.
  • It also stops that moderator feeling too attacked; it’s very easy to get caught up and overreact to criticism or disrespect.
  • Remember to have rules set out specifying what is and isn’t okay for the moderators to refer to – it can be very easy to overlook behaviour in one person but not another.
  • Moderate equally. Be polite unless that damages the effectiveness of the message. Be straightforward.
  • Explaining makes things a lot harder to moderate and for people to take you seriously or pick out the important statements; it also opens up the floor to nitpicking and distraction. Give reasons, but don’t get bogged down in arguments. Arguing should never be a way out of getting moderated.
  • But equally, never explaining anything can be really unsettling and disruptive to a forum. Make it clear what happened and why.
  • Do not abuse moderator privilege or share details about members that were shared in confidence, or that they cannot defend against (and you only know of because of your moderator status).
  • Do not over moderate people you dislike or stir up the forum unnecessarily by being over aggressive.
  • Do not be afraid to moderate simply because the person involved, or the forum, may react badly. That way lies a forum controlled by the biggest bullies and tantrum throwers, and those are exactly the people that need a moderator to step in. Nobody else will dare, or have the authority!
  • Anyone should be able to post. Anyone.
  • But they should not be able to post anything. (If someone is being harassed simply for posting, that is unacceptable. If they are being harassed because they posted something abusive or idiotic, then that’s fine; they can try again).
  • Some people will always be viewed with suspicion or bring prior history into the forum. The moderator should try and be aware of issues, but remain impartial and judge people on their forum behaviour.
  • Encourage people to report posts, or contact moderators privately. Lurkers and quiet people often have the best insights, and sometimes, they notice something wrong before the more active posters (e.g. that they’re all too scared to post!)
  • Moderators cannot be everywhere, but should be able to check most threads, or be able to rely on people reporting any issues.
  • Private reports are often a fantastic resource for ideas, to allow people to let off steam behind the scenes, and to keep in touch with the ‘pulse’ of the forum.
  • Confidentiality is important. Even sharing that “someone” reported a post can bring suspicion and vengefulness into a thread. People must feel able to report things safely.
  • But equally, share relevant correspondence (summaries or in full as appropriate) with other moderators. Sometimes everyone gets the same message (so only one answer is needed), or an official group response is necessary, or someone is trying to play mods against each other, or it’s just important to know for moderating purposes.
  • Often a stern but reasonable request to redirect the direction of a thread is enough. If you’re worried by where it might be headed, or the overall tone, it’s perfectly okay to drop in and just say so. It’s a good headsup to posters (who may not have realised they were going too far), a reminder that the mods are active, and means that if you do need to take more definite action, it’s not an unpleasant, confusing surprise.
  • Have consistent approaches and a warning system. Don’t get caught up in endlessly warning someone who keeps pushing. Many people will back down at the last minute if they really believe that they will be banned after their final warning. And equally, nobody should be surprised that they were banned (just that they got caught!)
  • Moderators are people too. Moderators get to involve themselves in the forum along with everyone else. You shouldn’t have to give that up just because you got given some authority.
  • But make your official posts and your ordinary posts very distinct.
  • Also refer back up to the getting personal points from before.
  • The more involved in the community you are, the better, and quicker, you can react to things and the better you understand the community. This does bring in the potential for bias, which is why you check in with other moderators for any significant actions.
  • Moderators look official, and may become de facto authorities on anything related to the forum, even if they have no idea what they’re talking about. Be careful of this! Don’t talk about things you don’t know anything about, and try not to back up random posts. Be extra critical, you are recommending things with more weight than you realise.
  • Protect the newbies. Don’t assume anything.
  • Sockpuppets/Anonymous users are only an issue if they are using their status to be inane or abusive. There are genuine reasons to have multiple accounts, and most forums require some kind of log in and username, so are never truly anonymous.
  • If one person runs several account solely for abuse or self promotion, to attack people without repercussions, or back up their real account, it’s best to just ban the extra accounts and leave the real one.
  • If they are NOT doing that, just posting separately in separate discussions, then leave it be.
  • Moderate “anonymous” posters the same way you would anyone else. They look no different from newbie or inactive posters, and may be as valuable or  terrible as any member.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of assuming forum members are right, and ‘veterans’ are better. These statuses mean little on the internet except which part of it someone has spent time on lately. This leads to cliqueyness and inbred thinking and bullying. 
Completely sane and have the fish to prove it.
Librarian, webgeek person, cat owned, marine biologist, and generally argumentative (at least when safely behind a screen).
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