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Moderating online: a linguistic perspective

The purpose of this blog is to answer these two questions:

  1. When people participate in online groups, are they presenting the ‘real them’, or are they projecting a persona?

  2. If participants are projecting a persona online, what skills do online moderators need in order to manage or see beyond that persona?

Questions like this are becoming more relevant as online qualitative research becomes more popular worldwide.

The paper that started it all

The motivation for this post came from a paper that was presented at the 2013 Esomar qualitative conference. The paper was called Freedom to Reveal or Freedom to Project".  It was written by Peter Totman of London based Jigsaw Research.

The focus of Peter’s paper was on social media, but there were also some implications for online qualitative research. The paper discusses the idea of ‘the real me’ - that much as we would like to think there is a ‘real me’, all of us project different personas to the world.

The paper argues that different research methods bring out different personas, so it is wise to conduct multi-method studies, i.e. have face-to-face qual and online qual in the one project. No arguments there.

However, Peter then went on to argue what to me was a surprising point – that face to face groups are non-judgmental and empathetic, whereas an online bulletin board group is prey to group effects. Our experience shows the opposite is often true.

To support his argument, Peter made two points that are particularly relevant to this discussion [1]

  1. Social media has made people more self-aware of the need to project an idealized self to the world rather than this ‘real me’, or even a ‘dreaded me’. He implies that this projection occurs in all online environments.
  2. His stated view was that in face-to-face groups, moderators can create an environment of ‘unconditional positive regard’ in which (presumably) people feel more able to let the ‘real me’ out.

The blogs that followed:

Edward Appleton blogged about it here. He wondered whether

a) this meant that online qual could be misleading, and

b) whether ‘linguistically attuned’ researchers would be the most skilled at online moderating. 

I sat up and took more notice at that point, being a little linguistically-attuned myself.

Steve August blogged in reply with the view that most online qual is a very different environment than social media, and has demonstrated its ability to get deeper on many topics (especially capturing key moments of experience as they happen).  His view was that the blanket idea that online qual is potentially inherently misleading is a misjudgment. I am paraphrasing here!

Then I commented on Steve’s blog, saying that perhaps the research industry needs to develop and share the kind of ‘linguistically attuned’ skills that Edward felt made good online moderators. 

Then I sat back and wondered what those skills might be …

Being linguistically-attuned means seeing interaction as ‘moves’

Let’s think about this idea of the ‘real me’ from a linguistic perspective, especially from the perspective of discourse analysis (DA) and discursive psychology (DP) which are both about how people use language in social interaction. DA and DP theorists don’t actually believe that the ‘real me’ concept is useful, because it is not testable. If someone expresses an opinion, we cannot say whether that opinion is ‘the real me’ or not; we have no way of knowing that. 

DA and DP should be able to teach us something about whether people would project different personas in an online or a face-to-face interaction, though.The concept they use is that conversations are a sequences of ‘moves’. in which people say things, avoid saying other things, and respond to or ignore the things that others say.

Exposing some myths

 Seeing conversations as moves exposes some myths about face-to-face groups. The myth about face to face groups is that the moderator asks a question and then participants discuss the issue, expressing various opinions more or less in turn. OK that happens sometimes!  But in fact if you break a typical group conversation into ‘moves’ you can see that there are lots of other patterns of talk in a face to face group, such as the one below.

Moves in a face to face group


Move 1

The moderator asks a question.

Move 2

Participant 1 responds to the moderator.

Move 3

Participant 2 responds to participant 1.

Move 4

Participant 3 agrees with participant 2.

Move 5

Moderator probes for further information or asks the question again

Move 6

Participant 4 makes an unrelated point


This kind of thing happens all the time. Participants do talk to each other, sometimes to agree or disagree with others, and sometimes to elaborate a point. They quite often talk directly to the moderator not about what the moderator said, but what another participant said. Sometimes, to the moderator’s frustration, someone will interrupt another group member and start to take the conversation into another direction. It can then take some time for the moderator to bring the conversation back on topic.

Moves in a moderated online bulletin board group

 The ‘moves’ in an online bulletin board group conversation are different.  A typical conversation could be:


Move 1

The moderator asks a question.

Move 2

Participant 1 responds to the moderator.

Move 3

Participant 2 responds to the moderator.

Move 4

Participant 3 responds to the moderator.

Move 5

Participant 3 responds to participant 2.

Move 6

Participant 4 responds to the moderator


Participants typically respond individually to the moderator’s question first. They do respond to other people’s posts but usually only after they have answered the moderator. I am talking about moderated group discussions here, not unmoderated online forums where debates escalate easily. I am also talking about stand-alone bulletin boards where each person has been recruited individually to the board and group members do not know each other. Actually, the ‘moves’ in any kind of affinity group are different from the pattern I have described.

Moves by the moderator

Online and offline, the moderator is in control, and should always be there as a presence, to clarify questions, restate them or re-explain activities, or deal with group dynamics.

Some people will tell you that an online moderator can be moderator in absentia, just posting questions in the morning and leaving for the day. This is a myth!  There are certainly times in the day when no participants are active, so you don’t need to sit and stare at your screen all day.My advice is never be away for more than 2 hours at a time. Use two moderators to do whatever probing, clarifying or activity-stimulating that you need. The good boards alert moderators to posts as they come in.

In the original paper, Peter implied that the kind of verbal strategies used by moderators to control the discussion flow in face to face groups are not possible in an online group. His example was when a moderator provocatively contradicts what people were saying with a third-person projective question like ‘some other people we interviewed said … what do you think  ...’.  I have no idea why Peter thinks that an online moderator can’t do this. In fact we like to reserve the last half day of our online bulletin board to just these kinds of challenges.

 Moves by participants

 Analysing the moves that participants make can also be revealing. As an example, imagine a scenario where one person has said something shocking or outrageous. If participants in a face to face group have already bonded well, and this provocative statement seems to threaten the group, other group members will usually respond to defend the group position. If they argue their point with sufficient force, the original speaker may then soften their argument the next time they speak; or choose to strengthen it. 

In an online group, participants can just ignore provocative statements. There is nothing as easy as ignoring someone else’s post.  Moderators in online groups need to focus on what was ignored or never repeated, as well as what was said.

 In conclusion

If we are linguistically attuned, we can see how the flow of discussion occurs in different types of group. The ‘moves’ made by participants and the moderator help keep the group operating as group. These ‘moves’ can be enlightening for the moderator, as it becomes clear what the group regards as ‘sayable’ or ‘not sayable’.  I therefore do not think that  we can say that any 'unconditional positive regard' created by the moderator in a face to face group necessarily implies that face to face groups are more 'real'. Moderators need to moderate online groups differently to take into account the way the typical 'moves' in the online conversation.

[1] I have left huge chunks of the paper out. It has lots of good points and is well worth a read!