ChooseFI is a great podcast run by Brad Barrett and Jonathan Mendonsa on how to reach financial independence (FI)—the point at which you have the monetary means to retire, even if you do not choose to do so. They've interviewed many people in the FI community on their podcast; some of the episodes are more focused on the interviewee's story and path to FI, whereas other episodes are more focused on specific topics, like taxes or estate planning.
Shortly after starting the podcast, they created a Facebook group to foster community, which I promptly joined. The group grew quickly, and because I'd already befriended Brad and Jonathan at Camp Mustache SE (since rebranded to Camp FI), they asked if I would help them moderate the group.
It's been over two years now that I've been a moderator for the ChooseFI Facebook group. I've seen the group grow from a couple thousand members to over 45,000 members, and I've definitely
learned some lessons had many grievances along the way. It is a thankless job, and I can never please everyone.
Before subjecting you to what could arguably be considered a rant, I'll begin with the positives of moderating.
Why Do I Moderate?
In a word, friendships. I've become friends with all of my fellow moderators. Could I have become friends with them otherwise? Possibly, but it's not the same. When you are forced to converse on a regular basis about issues with various members in the group, you naturally end up chatting about other things. We used to have only one group chat on Facebook, but the off topic conversations came up often enough that we had to create a separate sidebar group chat to keep things sane. And of course, when we all deal with troublesome members at some point or another, we commiserate together and bond over how we can't stand certain people or certain behaviors.
The moderator crew is wonderful and I couldn't have asked for a better team (well, maybe not that Sean Blair guy....)
Kristi Tanner Smith
Kristi Tanner Smith is the youngest of the moderator team (just barely), but you wouldn't know it by interacting with her. She and her now husband had lost three of their four parents by the time they were sixteen, so they had to grow up faster than most. Despite what others might say, she has the maturity befitting the moderator of a Facebook group as large as ChooseFI.
I almost met her and her husband at Camp FI Southeast, but she sprung it on her husband too late. Dammit Kristi Smith, plan ahead!
She just created a Medium account, so you can follow her journey there eventually. She's also got some guest posts in the works for other blogs, which I will link here as well when they are published.
Sean is a business professor who trolls me all. the. time. And unfortunately (from my perspective at least—the others love it), he's good at it too. Exhibit A:
I had even turned off commenting on that post so that other group members couldn't comment on it. However, Sean, being a moderator, turned comments back on, left that comment, and turned comments back off. That troll.
Besides being a troll, Sean is a great example of how not to be afraid to completely change your career trajectory. He got his undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering. But after a couple years of working as a nuclear engineer, he decided it wasn't for him, and went back to school for his MBA. Afterwards, he worked as a consultant, and then went back to school again for a PhD, leading to his professorship.
Was this an optimal path to FI? No, of course not. But don't let your desire to become financially independent deter you from living a fulfilling life.
My first in person impression of Jennifer was actually quite terrible (but it was all a misunderstanding! She's actually great). I was conversing with people at Camp FI Mid Atlantic last month, and this woman tapped my shoulder from behind and rudely interrupted my conversation to introduce herself as Jennifer.
Uhhh....ok? "Hi Jennifer?"
"OH you're Jennifer Mah!" (she, like me, has no photos on Facebook).
She claims the interaction was actually as follows (and that she interrupted me because she was afraid I'd be infected with viral meningitis again which prevented me from attending a previous camp. However, viral meningitis has an incubation period of 3 to 7 days from the time of infection to developing symptoms, so I don't buy this excuse!)
"Hi! Sorry to interrupt, are you Seonwoo?"
"I’m Jennifer, um, Jennifer Mah from the ChooseFI group."
I may have a selective memory. Or I may have taken some comedic license—I honestly do not know which 🤣.
She is the community liaison for ChooseFI and is fantastic at coordinating the efforts of the numerous ChooseFI local groups. She is a member of the majority of them (and there's one in every state in the US, as well as many countries throughout the world), and posts weekly in the ChooseFI Group Admins group, making suggestions to local group admins and soliciting feedback on what activities and strategies are successful. She's also on Twitter, but I won't link her profile because she's anonymous 😉.
She is too nice, but Sean and I have been teaching her our trash talking ways.
William is not only a moderator for the ChooseFI group but the Chief Technology Officer for ChooseFI (which I find hilarious, because he still insists on getting paper bills. He eventually eats these bills (he composts them and feeds it to his garden (and if you're annoyed by my excessive use of parentheses, it's only to mock his excessive use of parentheses in our group chats))). Can we really trust him as Chief Technology
Yes. Yes we can. He worked as an engineer for many years at Cisco and definitely knows what he's talking about. I won't go too much into his story because he told a lot of it in his podcast episode, but I will say that he has a lot of experience with special needs trusts (he set them up for his special needs kids).
William used to be a big softie when it came to banning members from the Facebook group; so long as members weren't breaking any rules, he was inclined to let people stay in the group. However,
I learned my lesson with <censored>. If you guys want to boot someone, I'm not gonna fight to keep them, especially when they annoy the shit out of me anyway.
Dillon is one funny guy. If you don't already follow him on Twitter, you should. He purportedly has a blog at Dollar Revolution, but ever since I joined Twitter last year all I've ever seen on his site are demo posts provided by his blog theme. He kept giving excuses like a washer exploding at his house, renovating his kitchen, etc. But what self respecting millennial washes their own clothes or makes their own food—he should be paying someone else to take care of that shit for him!
He tells me that he has a few posts written and will publish them sometime next week. I'll believe it when I see it.
He is, as best as I can tell from my online interactions with him, a great father to his son. And as a moderator, he always brings a voice of reason to discussions on issues with members.
He's one of the moderators that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person, but that'll be resolved later this year.
Sandra is an electrical engineer who started her career at a time when women engineers were far more rare than they are today. This certainly requires resilience, and it definitely shows in how she handles problematic members.
While she was on medical leave for an accident, her work group was eliminated. She wasn't quite FI at the time, but Googling how to make this work led her to the FI community (and the rule of 55).
As a divorced single mother, she brings a valuable perspective both to the group and to moderator deliberations as they arise.
Connie is an enigma. Not only does her profile photo not even have her in it, but she still hasn't friended Sean or me on Facebook (or any of the rest of us, I think). Heck, with her privacy settings I can't even send her a friend request!
None of us have ever met her in person, so for all we know, she's actually an artificial intelligence that passes the Turing test...
She's one of the people I recommended to become a moderator. She was always on point with the problematic posts and comments that she reported to us (this is a great way to add new moderators to the team). And that carries through as a moderator - she never tolerates bullshit from members.
You'll notice I left Brad and Jonathan (the actual podcast hosts of ChooseFI) off this list. While they did some moderating back in the early days, the podcast requires a lot more work than it used to and they simply don't have the time to moderate the group. I prefer it this way, actually - unless there's something fundamental to the direction we want to take the group, we (meaning those listed above) handle it so Brad and Jonathan can focus on producing quality content.
I also left out a couple others, including inactive moderators, and those who are technically moderators or admins for ChooseFI but fulfill different roles.
Lessons I've Learned by Grievances I've Had While Moderating
Try to Lock Comments Instead of Deleting Threads
For a long time we deleted problematic posts and rarely locked comments (preventing people from leaving more comments on the thread). While deleting posts definitely removes problematic content, it does not show the group members what type of posts and comments are not allowed. While we're not sure if it has had the desired effect of reducing the number of problematic posts and comments, it is definitely something that group members asked for.
Set Up Questions for People to Join the Group
If you have a closed Facebook group, you can ask people questions when they request to join. Even just asking a simple question like "How did you hear about ChooseFI" is enough to prevent bots and some fake profiles from entering the group; we never accept people who don't answer all the questions.
Include Introductory Information in the Questions to Join the Group
One of the best decisions we made was to ask people if they are aware of the "How Do I Get Started" page on the ChooseFI website. It has virtually eliminated the "I just found this community and I have no idea where to start" posts. When you have over 100 new posts a day, eliminating these posts is a godsend.
Communication between Moderators about Problematic Members is Absolutely Critical
While some offenses merit an immediate ban from the group, other offenses, like posting a referral link, just merit a warning. However, we will of course ban a member who repeatedly posts referral links after having been warned not to do so.
This requires coordination. Initially we had a Google Doc for this purpose, but it proved cumbersome. The easiest way is to message the group chat we have for just the moderators when we delete problematic posts and comments. Sometimes we post a screenshot, but when we do, it is imperative to also type the name of the problematic member into the chat; otherwise, we cannot later search the chat to see if they have committed prior offenses.
The best example of our lack of coordination was when I booted a member in the early days of the group. I unfortunately did not leave a message in the group chat as to why I booted her.
Later, she messaged a different mod and asked to be allowed back in. She only told her biased side of the story, and left out some crucial details. By the time I saw the activity in the group chat, it was too late; she had already been added back into the group.
Facebook Pages are a Great Tool for Moderators
We somewhat recently set up the ChooseFI Group Moderators page to help us coordinate our efforts. After setting up the page, we encourage people that want to message us not to message any individual moderator, but to message that page instead. Once properly configured, all of us moderators can take actions as the page - send and receive messages (though pages cannot initiate the conversation), and post as the page. By default all of us are notified if someone sends a message to the page. Hence, it is a nice way for group members to be able to get a faster response from us as opposed to messaging one of us directly. Additionally, we the moderators can easily see the responses that any other moderator may have sent.
When Building a Brand, Trademarks are Important
At one point, we banned a certain member for being a jerk. He was so offended that he started creating fake ChooseFI local groups with the ChooseFI logo. People actually joined these groups. We're not sure what exactly he did with these groups, but we can't imagine it was anything good.
Thankfully ChooseFI's trademark had just become finalized a couple weeks prior, and Brad & Jonathan were successful in getting those groups removed from Facebook for trademark infringement.
When building a brand, your name is arguably the most important asset. Without a good reputation behind your name, you're toast. Don't let someone else usurp your name!
Pick Out Good Moderators
We've added several moderators by observing those who write helpful comments, defend others when others are attacked, and report problematic comments and posts. When we asked them, some have said that they were too busy or otherwise not interested, but we've generally had success in adding moderators this way.
Don't Be Afraid to Exercise Your Discretion
Ultimately, while we do have clearly established group rules, we do exercise our discretion in removing members that aren't necessarily breaking any group rules but we feel are detrimental to the group. While rule of law is all well and good, ultimately we want the group to be a positive influence on its members, and sometimes that requires removing members that don't necessarily break the rules.
Don't Let the Assholes Get to You
This should go without saying, but you absolutely should not be a moderator for a group of this size if you cannot handle assholes. When you don't have any criteria for people entering the group other than "can they answer two simple questions," you're bound to get assholes in the group, of which some might harass you. Don't be afraid to use that block button, and don't be afraid to step back and let other moderators handle it if they're really getting to you.
Muting People can be Quite Effective
While we can certainly remove and ban members from the group, muting people is sometimes a better alternative. When you mute someone, they cannot post or comment in the group for a selected time frame (I believe the time periods were 24 hours, 3 days, or 1 week). There have been several members that we previously muted and effected positive change in their behavior.
Only the First Facebook Announcement is Generally Effective
In Facebook groups you can pin posts as announcements. Unfortunately, because of the way the Facebook groups interface is designed on both the site and mobile app, only the first announcement is displayed by default; the user needs to expand the announcements to see the others (which I'm certain most members do not).
Most People Don't Utilize Facebook Units
Now to be fair to the group members, we haven't done a good job of pointing out these units/lessons. But on the left hand sidebar of the group, below about and discussion, is a link for learning. In the learning section we have links to podcast episodes and blog posts that explain some of the basics and common questions in the FI community, like the Why of FI, a beginner's guide, our pillars of FI, traditional vs Roth retirement accounts, and one of the most common questions - how to access your retirement funds before 59.5 years of age.
Regularly Ask People to Report Problematic Posts and Comments
For small Facebook groups, it's feasible for the moderator team to read every single post and comment to make sure that they are not violating any group rules. However, beyond a certain group size, that quickly becomes infeasible. You have to rely on the group members reporting problematic posts and comments.
Unfortunately, many people are oblivious to the fact that we are volunteers that have commitments outside Facebook moderation, so we do not have the time to read the 75-125 new posts and 2000-4000 comments every single day in the group.
It's necessary to continually post reminders that keeping the community a nurturing, safe environment is a group effort. Here's my last such reminder post.
We are generally quick to respond to reported posts and comments. At this point, a lack of moderation is generally more reflective of group members' proclivity to report posts and comments than our actions as moderators.
Sometimes You Have to Delete or Lock Posts at no Fault to the Original Poster
We are very clear that we do not allow contentious topics such as politics or religion. The ban on politics proves to be particularly hard to understand, despite how simple our rule is: "Notably for politics, if you're discussing how things are (e.g. how to optimize the tax code), you're generally fine. If you're talking about how things should be, that's generally out of bounds." Note: I would love to allow political discussions when they pertain to FI, but beyond a certain group size it quickly becomes infeasible as people inevitably start insulting each other. We have to keep a hard line on this to keep order within the group.
Unfortunately, some posts, particularly posts that concern politics but are not prohibited, such as "My social security benefits are projected to be $X in 10 years. How should I adjust my investment strategy?" attract a lot of prohibited comments such as "we should eliminate social security" or "don't be a freeloader; save for yourself," or "we should increase social security benefits for everyone." While we can delete these individual comments, if there is a critical mass of such comments, the entire post devolves into a political discussion. Unfortunately, while it is not fair to the original poster, the best course of action in this scenario is to either lock comments or delete the entire post.
People Do Not Know How to Facebook
Far more people than I would like are not aware of how to
- Receive notifications of future comments on a post without leaving a comment themselves
- Turn off notifications for a post
- Report a comment or post (you have to click on the option for different platforms like the Android or iPhone apps)
- Use the search within the group (again you have to select your platform)
If it were up to me, I'd ask these as questions to join the group.
Whenever I see a comment of "following" or "f," I delete the comment and enter in the popup that they should use the turn on notifications for this post feature. By clicking a check box, this note can be shared with the group member.
You Cannot Please Everyone
There have been complaints about how some posts and comments are not moderated quickly enough. As previously discussed, to some extent this is a reflection of the group and how often members report problematic posts and comments. This isn't to say that we do not play a pivotal role in the moderation; we certainly do. But at the end of the day, there's only 8 of us (who are all volunteers, no less!) and over 45,000 members.
Some people have called for more moderators. This would help somewhat, but ultimately adding more moderators does not scale well. With each new moderator there is a training period; there is a tendency for new moderators to consult with other moderators on how to deal with every post. Over time, they learn that they have the autonomy to act on their own (though there are certainly ambiguous cases that are open for discussion). Additionally, with each additional moderator, there's more overhead in maintaining open lines of communication about problematic members.
Ultimately, we are not opposed to more moderators, but no matter what, we will always have vastly more members than moderators.
And yet, despite all of the effort that we put into moderating, we still have members that think we are too heavy handed with our moderation. We can't please everybody.
Facebook Needs to Step It Up
Facebook has built a decent platform through the Groups. However, I have a wish list of features and bugfixes that I'm sure Facebook will ignore.
Automatic Flagging of Posts and Comments for Nudity and Sexual Activity Is Broken
Every so often Facebook will automatically tag certain posts and comments for nudity or sexual activity. Literally every time it has been outright wrong. Sometimes the people in the photo or gif are hardly showing any skin because they're wearing long pants and jackets! Exhibit A:
Upvoting Capability like Reddit
Apparently this feature has been rolled out to some groups, but it desperately needs to be rolled out to all groups.
Sometimes I'll see comments to posts that are outright wrong, and have subcomments saying thank you. Without the ability to downvote wrong comments, the comments are only sorted chronologically. Also, once there are enough comments, Facebook by default collapses the oldest comments. You then have to expand the comments to see the original ones.
Facebook should roll out to all groups the upvoting system, which always shows the best comments (as voted by group members) first. After enough comments, it should by default collapse the comments that haven't been upvoted (not the oldest comments, like the current scheme).
You Can't Block Someone Who has Been Removed From a Group
When a moderator removes a person from a Facebook group, the moderator is given the option to also ban the person from the group (they will never be able to join the group again). Unfortunately, if you accidentally forget to check the ban option when you remove them, you cannot ban the person from the group. The only way to fix this is to add them to the group and then remove and ban them.
This is completely unnecessary; we should be able to ban people who aren't current members.
Notifications are Broken
This started happening a couple months ago—I don't get all the notifications I'm supposed to get anymore. This isn't just an issue with my account; my friends have reported the same issue. Sometimes I do not receive notifications of people reporting comments and posts in the ChooseFI group, which reduces our response time to issues.
Greater Control over Notifications
It is not currently possible to turn off notifications to new comments to a post while also receiving notifications to subcomments to your comment. This is especially relevant in the ChooseFI group, where we have weekly threads such as "What was the ONE THING you did this week to make your life easier, happier, wealthier, more efficient, etc.? Take action each and every week and let us know" that regularly get close to 400 comments. When there's that many comments, I don't want to be notified for everybody else's response, but I do want to get notified when somebody responds to my comment.
Some Features are Inaccessible or Unintuitive on the Mobile App and Mobile Site
As common as mobile app usage is, the fact that not all features are accessible in the mobile app is a pain point. Some of my fellow moderators rely on the mobile app almost exclusively.
When a moderator deletes a comment or post while using the desktop site, he or she is always presented with the option to select which of the group rules was violated, and provide that feedback to the offending group member. Unfortunately, on the mobile app, this feature is not available when responding to a reported post through the notification. Confusingly, this option is presented if you go to the group directly, and then delete the post or comment.
Additionally, if you long press on a post or comment in the mobile app, while there is a menu that pops up (as expected), there is no visual scrollbar or other indicator to signify to the user that the menu is in fact scrollable.
Furthermore, on the mobile site, it is not possible to turn off commenting on a post. I end up having to load the desktop site (which is a total bear to load on a phone) just to turn off commenting on a thread.
Reporting Comments on the Desktop Site is Completely Unintuitive
While it is easy and intuitive to report a comment on the mobile app (long press and select the option), the user interface is terrible on the desktop site.
Reporting a post to the group admins is easy enough—you use the little triangle at the top right of the post to bring up a menu, and select "Report to group admin."
However, to report a comment to the group admins (and not to Facebook), you must first hide the comment using the three dots to the right of the comment (which only hides the comment from you, not anybody else), and then click on "Give Feedback or Report Comment." Only then are you given the option to report the comment to the group admin.
This is utter nonsense. Reporting a comment to the group admins should be a separate menu option when clicking the three dots to the right of a comment.
Facebook's built in search in groups is terrible. I regularly find myself not being able to find, via search, previous posts I wrote in the group. I do know that they exist because when I search my previous Facebook messages (I sent links to some of these posts to my friends), I can find it.
Ability to Lock a Comment's Subcomments but Not the Original Post
Currently we can only lock an entire post, not subcomments under a comment of a post. Sometimes there are posts with only one or two problematic comments and subsequent subcomments. We could delete such comments, but this goes against the goal we have of trying not to delete comments and using the lock function to provide examples to group members as to what is not allowed.
Ability to See if a Person Has Been Banned from Other Groups
It would be helpful if we could see in the interface for approving new members the list of any groups that potential members were banned from. For privacy reasons, this should probably only show such groups of which the team of moderators are members. The ability to see whether a person has been kicked out of either other ChooseFI cohort groups, e.g. ChooseFI Real Estate or their local ChooseFI group, or other groups in the FI space, such as Mustachians on Facebook, would let us filter out some of the assholes before they join the group.
Additionally, if a reason was given for the ban while deleting a comment or post from the person, this reason should also be displayed in the list.
Ability to Turn On Auto-Group Membership Approval for Groups You Moderate, not Admin
There is a distinction between moderators, who can approve, ban, and mute members, delete and lock comments, and mark posts as announcements, vs admins, who have full control of the group (such as changing the group description, adding units/lessons, and promoting members to moderators or admins).
It is possible to link two groups together so that any members of one group are automatically approved when they request membership in a different group. Unfortunately you can only link two groups together if you are an admin, not just a moderator, for both groups. This is an unnecessary restriction - as a moderator you can approve membership when people request to join.
Ability to Sort Subcomments by Timestamp
Currently there is no option to view all subcomments by timestamp. To view all subcomments, we have to go through and expand each comment's subcomments. This is onerous if there were problematic subcomments on a post, and we wish to check back on the post in the future to see if there are any further problematic subcomments. A chronological sorting method would alleviate this issue.
Ability for Pages to Initiate Messages
Initially Facebook Pages were allowed to initiate messages to other people. Unfortunately, some people created Pages to mass spam Facebook users, which led to Facebook eliminating this feature (Facebook Pages can still respond to messages from users).
Sometimes I would like to message problematic members as our group Page, and not as myself. Facebook could easily turn this feature back on, and then limit the number of recipients to a message and/or messages per day that a Page could initiate. Facebook may also need to limit the number of pages that a user can create per day. However, I find it hard to imagine legitimate uses of Facebook Pages would entail mass messages or mass creation of Pages.
Ability to Add Formatting to Comments
Facebook has added the ability to apply some light formatting—italics, bold, numbering, bullets, and increased font sizes for headers—to posts. However, this feature is unavailable when writing comments. Oftentimes I use underscores around words that I want to write in italics.
Why Facebook Over Other Platforms?
Facebook Recommends the Group to People
Initially, we had to market the group to people through the podcast and the newsletter. However, once we reached some critical mass, Facebook started suggesting the ChooseFI group to users directly. While there are certainly some downsides to a growth, we run this group so the community has a place to "hang out" online.
Facebook Lowers the Barrier to Entry (Usually)
Because many people already have a Facebook account, Facebook eliminates the friction of having to create a web forum or Slack account.
On the other hand, there is a small but growing cohort of people that are leaving Facebook, which actually makes Facebook as a platform a downside.
Facebook Handles Fake and Bot Accounts
Facebook expends a lot of effort to make sure that each Facebook account corresponds to a "real" person, saving us the trouble of dealing with bots and fake accounts.
Facebook "Forces" People to Use their Real Names
While Facebook doesn't ask everyone for proof, they certainly do ask some people, as their terms of service require you to use your real name. This is merely speculation on my part, but I firmly believe that because there isn't any anonymity afforded by a choice of username, we get fewer mean comments and posts, as well as trolls.