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When a large group of people get together, chances are that they'll form some kind of hierarchy to try and keep some semblance of order. Internet forums are no different.
Ranks can be assigned on a purely practical level — for example, the forum creator maintains the board, while moderators can ban members, meaning that their status is "official" and grants more actual power. Other members, however, form a cult of personality, with status being assigned according to fellow members' perception of them. Certain types of Online Personas gravitate toward particular ranks. This can seem strange, since most people start out as a Newbie, but can perhaps be explained by the newbie tendency to be quiet and careful until they gain some support and respect within the forum. That's when they relax and show their true colours, for better or worse. See also Flame Warriors.
From highest-to-lowest status, forum members can be grouped into these divisions:
- The Gods Themselves: If a forum is devoted to a specific topic, especially in entertainment or pop culture, these are the creators of the works in question. Be they writer, director, actor, or possibly even key grip, they get the celebrity treatment — so long as they can prove they are who they say they are to the other high-rankers. It's a huge event for the gods to quote your post, reply to your message, or debate your point, and saying anything even slightly insulting or non-lickspittle to one of them will get one labeled a troll.
Usually, the gods have tiny post counts and no administrative powers, but still may as well outrank everyone else. In other communities, the gods double as the Forum Creators, and sometimes that's not such a good thing. Spoil at Your Own Risk on forums frequented by the Gods, as Admins will frequently clamp down on any unauthorized future storyline leaks; in some cases it's defensive, to avoid staff members being blamed for the leak. Some Gods are so dedicated to their forums that they post there every day; Kevin Smith is an example of such a "God", who doubles as Forum Creator and Admin. Meanwhile, nerd icon Wil Wheaton didn't start his own forum but seems to have an account on seemingly every nerdy forum and website in existence.
Meanwhile, some forums are dedicated to bashing a particular creator or his work. If that creator visits that forum, they're still considered something of a "God" even if the users don't particularly like him. Reactions vary from amusement and friendly jabs to enormous Flame Wars. Regardless, they attract just as much attention as the Gods on a fan forum, and often only an Admin's unilateral action will see them kicked out.
- Forum Creator: Whoever created the forum is obviously hugely important. Some are very involved in the everyday life of the forum; others hardly post at all. Most have both administrator and moderator powers, but not all use them regularly — indeed, many owners tend not to be very technically inclined. Regardless, they set the tone and structure of the forum, and often they're paying for it too. They're the ones who will pull the plug if you piss them off. On IRC they are the "Owner", with status +q. Forum creators are often revered as a Memetic Badass within the forum itself, but if they're particularly hands-off that reverence is often combined with a bizarre Butt-Monkey characterisation.
- Administrator: The "admins" are the technically inclined people who actually maintain the boards. They're the ones smacking their heads against their keyboards when something goes wrong on the forum, because they're the ones who have to fix it — and also deal with the deluge of users bugging them about it. Admins are also responsible for establishing and organising the boards, conducting polls, and taking suggestions. Admins outrank Moderators and can be in charge of appointing and removing mods. Also a good idea not to piss them off. Many admins aren't particularly involved in the daily discussion, especially if they're too busy fixing things, but in some smaller boards, the Admin might be an Old Guard or Regular who happens to know what to do if the place should self-destruct. On IRC admins have status +a.
- Moderators: The "mods" are there to police the board's members and make sure they play nice with each other. They're usually the most recognisable of the "authority" groups because they're seen the most frequently by the general populace. The mod's great power is the "banhammer" — they can expel members from the board for breaking the rules or generally being a nuisance. They can also delete or lock discussion threads that have gotten out of hand. They're called "Operators" or "ops" on IRC and have status +o; there's also the "half-op" with status +h.
Good moderation is vital for a message board, and it requires a proper balance. Not enough moderation, and the board will descend into chaos with no one to throw out the Trolls, Spammers, and other unsavoury characters. Too much moderation, on the other hand, will stifle discussion and create a culture of dissent. In either case, it leads to a board haemorrhaging productive users. In some cases, there's a hierarchy of moderators, some of whom are responsible for a single topic or board and others of whom have site-wide power. Generally, if a mod gets Drunk with Power, you can complain to an Admin or Creator to have them removed.
- The Old Guard: They don't have any official power per se, but they're the power players of the board. Newbies and Regulars know they've made it in the fandom if an Old Guard praises their Fanfic or asks for their MSN address. As with Regulars, they participate in day-to-day discussion, but often not to the same extent; they've been involved for so long that they won't show up unless something particularly interesting catches their attention. In many cases, they've been around for longer than most moderators — the only reason they're not mods themselves is that they're unwilling to do the rather unrewarding police work, and they've picked up many allies in their time on the site. This makes the mods reluctant to cross the Old Guard. Most likely to be voiced (status +v) in an IRC channel.
Whether the Old Guard is actually helpful to other members varies considerably. Some suffer newbies poorly and have trouble finding the patience to deal with noobs who haven't been around for quite as long. A few may even be kinda problematic users like The Gadfly, who only avoid discipline because of their longevity. Others are friendlier and have near-encyclopedic knowledge of the underlying fandom, making them an awesome resource. A few even become the Shepherd, making it a point to help the Newbies acclimate to the forum and protecting them from the others.
- Regulars: The most active group, the bread and butter of any forum, usually the most interested in the forum's underlying fandom or topic. They hold debates, chat about the One True Pairing, and look for Easter Eggs and Chekhov's Gun. In terms of personality, they run the gamut. Sometimes they greet the Newbies like a proto-Shepherd — not enough clout to be Old Guard, but wanting to be helpful all the same. Others are Single Issue Wonks who want to talk about something specific. The Regulars tend to be impassioned and debates tend to be lively (especially if it involves Shipping); if they're not careful, they can start a Flame War, forcing the Moderators to step in.
- Bright Young Things: An odd group, consisting of Newbies who have been promoted more quickly than usual. Reasons abound; maybe they're a friend of a Regular, maybe they're a Fandom VIP (perhaps even the writer of a well-known Fan Fic), or maybe they just seem really nice and with-it. Their opinions are given more weight than those of other newcomers, but they're still expected to defer to Regulars and the Old Guard. In any event, it's not long before they settle into the forum and become Regulars.
- Newbies: Nearly everyone starts here. It's a bit of a dangerous place to be, as most Regulars suffer newbies poorly and this is the stage where Moderators weed out Trolls. On a typical forum, there are three ways a Newbie can go about things:
- Some introduce themselves (perhaps in a specific board dedicated to new users introducing themselves) and then step away for a period to lurk for a while as they get a feel for the board. They might post in this period, but fairly sparingly. Once they gain confidence and learn how things work, they become more productive and generally elevate almost immediately to a Bright Young Thing.
- Some dive in without lurking and see where they land. If they hit the right buttons, they become a Bright Young Thing. If they don't, they become a Noob. More often than not, these users miss rather than hit; the Regulars and the Old Guard all have their own Berserk Buttons and Fandom Enraging Misconceptions that users are highly unlikely to know without lurking. But these users tend to be earnest in their enthusiasm, so a forum with a good Shepherd will be able to straighten them out.
- The rest try the fast-track to Regular status. They tend to become Yes Men, looking for power users and fuelling the resident Small Name, Big Ego. They might inject themselves into fights they know nothing about by joining the side of someone they think is a respected user. They also tend to post for the sake of posting, often inflating their statistics with pointless comments like "Me too!". These usually don't escape Newbie level, and in many cases Moderators will suspect that they're Trolls.
- Guest Posters: These guys just show up for a particular topic that catches their interest. They post only intermittently, in some cases enough for the other users to recognise them, but never enough for them to be taken seriously. In some cases, they don't even have an account. If they do eventually commit to joining the forum, though, and the others still remember them, they usually skip Newbie status and become a Bright Young Thing.
In a few instances, Guest Posters are like minor Gods — like small-time game developers or PR people related to the Gods Themselves. The vast majority of them lack either the interest or the netiquette to last long on the forums. This is particularly common on GameFAQs, which does grant special status to these people, even though they generally just post a "thanks for buying my game" response and then are never heard from again.
- Village Idiots: Another odd category, this time encompassing people who probably should have been banned, but they haven't because they amuse the Regulars. Usually, these users are fairly harmless; they may be entertainingly immature, prone to hilarious misconceptions, or are otherwise fun to argue with. They're otherwise not taken seriously in the slightest. They may not even be Trolls; just extremely naive users who are indistinguishable from them. The problem is that such users can easily wear out their welcome, and if they do get banned, they become They Who Must Not Be Named.
- They Who Must Not Be Named: The Un-persons of the forum. Beyond people who were just banned, these are members who were so contentious that just mentioning them again will start a Flame War. They don't even have to be actually banned; if they're still around for whatever reason, their mere presence will generate disdain from the Regulars, if not outright arguments. This most commonly happens with former Moderators who abused their power and got it revoked by an Admin or Creator — they might still be allowed to participate in the community, but forums will hold a rogue mod in such disdain that they won't talk to them anymore. Other times, the banned user might make a Sock Puppet as a form of ban evasion, which achieves the same effect and leads to paranoia of other users being sockpuppets, particularly unwitting Newbies, which leads to unnecessary hostility. Because the users don't like to talk about past incidents that landed someone in this category, they become Noodle Incidents for people who weren't around to see them. Former Village Idiots are also in this category, because the forum doesn't want to revisit why it allowed them to stick around for so long in the first place.
- Off the Radar: Users who don't fit anywhere and seem to exist outside the forum's system. Some just post and then leave, never to be heard from again. Others take a more dramatic approach and become the Hit-and-Run Poster, where they'll ride into the message board, make a massive impact, and vanish just as quickly, leaving its regulars to wonder, "Who was that masked poster?" Too distinct to be Guest Posters, too infrequent and eloquent to be Village Idiots, on the rare occasions they do show up, they can challenge or show up even the Old Guard without suffering the consequences.
- Irregulars: High-ranking users with specific responsibilities that don't fit into the usual ranks of Moderator or Administrator. They tend to have low post counts but an oddly special status. In some cases, they may be called "techs" — they do certain technical stuff that Admins would normally do, on a larger scale but with less actual power and responsibility. Others are Rules Lawyers who act as pseudo-Moderators; they don't have mod power, but they know how to beat mods in arguments about the rules. In some cases, they're part of a special invisible user group with an unsettling set of permissions, like moderating staff-only boards. These have a tendency to get into clashes with the user base (and if there's more than one, with each other), leading the users to cook up conspiracy theories about how they're the ones who are really in charge of the whole thing, at least until an actual Admin gets involved and boots them out for stoking drama.
A note on the IRC statuses: While the given statuses are frequently found to be the way given, some networks do not support the +qa (owner/admin) modes, and will just give many members "Op" status; this can cause drama that is often not even Hilarious in Hindsight.