The third rule of the Virgin Media forum moderators…

…is don’t piss off the Virgin Media forum moderators.

This post follows up the first and second rules of the Virgin Media forum moderators, was updated on 1st May, 2011 and followed up in You can blog about it all you like – we’ll allow you to do that.

The story so far:

I questioned a moderator’s behaviour on the Virgin Media forum, and that thread got deleted. Amused, I wrote about it, and referred to it in my signature file on the forum. This wasn’t received very well: I was banned from the forum and presented with an unhelpful error message, referring as it did to something I couldn’t read as a banned user. I then bypassed that ban (simply by registering again) and deliberately brought the fact to the attention of the moderators by posting an ‘open letter’ to them on the forum. That message was deleted and I was banned again, as expected, and presented with a slightly longer error, clearly written by someone who was responding in a somewhat childish manner. Finally, after sending complaints off in a couple of directions, I bypassed the ban again, and sent a private message to the forum administrator regarding this, and copied it to the moderator I believed responsible.

The story continues:

I was certain that last action would result in another ban, and said as much – so it will hardly come as a surprise, then, if I now report that outcome: I am again banned.

Before I discuss the actual ban, and another – directly related, but better handled – example of censorship on the forum, I will refer back to those complaints I mentioned:

Complaint 1: Using the fairly limited online forms for contacting Virgin Media, I sent a complaint referring to both the ban and the NNTP problem that led me to the forum in the first place. I’ve received an automated reply, saying that I will be contacted about it within five days. It’s a long weekend, so I wouldn’t expect to be contacted immediately, and I imagine it could be as late a contact as next Saturday (7th May) or even Monday (9th May) if, as is likely, they mean working days (and depending on how they define them) – though I would hope I’ll be contacted sooner.

Complaint 2: I sent an email to a number of what appear to be higher authorities within the company, such as present CEO Neil Berkett. I found these addresses on this page of a site called Virgin Media Complaint, a site dedicated to grievances with Virgin Media. That email again covered my two issues – this repeated banning situation, and the NNTP problem, including a summary of each.

In particular, I likened the banning to bullying and provided links to my two previous pieces on the subject, pointing out that since the forum is designed as a support mechanism, denying someone access to it could amount to denying a support avenue to a customer, which isn’t a sensible policy. (There are, of course, other avenues for support, such as the woefully inadequate contact forms and the telephone, but I’ve seen complaints that calls are often dealt with badly, and frequently by staff of an Indian call centre who have problems making themselves understood, as well as not always understanding the caller.)

I’ve received three emails in response. The first two, out of office replies, came back almost immediately. The third, which came back three hours later, was from Neil Berkett. It didn’t say much, just this:

We’ll have this investigated immediately, sorry.

Not a lot, but it’s something. Being a one sentence, top-posted reply (but no HTML – well done, Neil!), I can’t be sure if there will be an investigation into the actions of the forum moderator, the unfair bandwidth throttling, or both – or neither, if it’s just a reply to attempt to placate the situation. If something is done, however, then the long weekend will again be a factor: I wouldn’t expect ‘immediately’ to actually mean ‘immediately’ but rather ‘when people are back to work’ – so if anything is going to come of this, it won’t be before Tuesday (3rd May), and is more likely to be after.

So that’s the situation regarding the complaints I’ve sent to Virgin Media. Next up, a little more censorship on the forum, directly related to the subject of these bans, but handled differently – handled better, if not perfectly.

I commented yesterday that I’d created a new sig on my latest account on the forums:

This is my sig, not a part of the message…
The first rule of the Virgin Media forum moderators… is you don’t talk about the Virgin Media forum moderators.
The second rule of the Virgin Media forum moderators… is you DON’T talk about the Virgin Media forum moderators.

Those questions about the NNTP throttling remain unanswered.

At some point last night, a moderator spotted that, and changed it to read:

{Signature removed by admin due to inappropriate content.}

Although it says this was done by ‘admin’ I don’t think it means ‘the forum administrator’ who (at that point and now) does not appear to have logged on since before the weekend. In this case, I think admin is a more generic term, and it was actually one of the moderators. I don’t know which moderator did it, only that it wasn’t the one I suspect is responsible for the bans (he hadn’t yet logged in since before I set up the new account and sent him a copy of the message I’d sent to the forum admin).

As I’ve pointed out already, the forums don’t state that you must not discuss bans, instead it’s worded as a request:

Please don’t discuss forum bans or other moderator actions on the forum.

The next sentence after that reads:

If you need to discuss moderator actions on one of your posts please use the private message system.

Problem: I don’t know which moderator removed my sig, so it’s not possible for me to use the private message system to discuss this moderator action. I therefore decided to send the moderator a message using the sig itself. I changed it to read:

Can the moderator who did this please contact me: {Signature removed by admin due to inappropriate content.}
I strongly disagree that the sig was inappropriate (read your own guidelines properly) but since you haven’t identified yourself, I can’t contact you and discuss this matter privately, which I’d like to do. I’d also like to send you the same message I’ve sent to both Andy and Mark Wilkin – but again, I can’t if you don’t identify yourself.

Note: Mark Wilkin is the forum administrator. Andy is the moderator I suspect is responsible for the bans (and I’m positive his profile page showed his full name a few days ago, which is why I referred to him as Andy Kaye in my first write up – it doesn’t seem to do so now; there could be a number of reasons for this, such as the fact I’m looking while not logged in, having been banned.)

The content of that message speaks for itself – in order to avoid discussing this matter on the forum, and instead by private message, I need to know who the moderator concerned actually is. If they want me to use the private message system, they need to make it possible for me to do so!

Despite not knowing who the moderator is, it’s worth noting the different behaviour between this person and the one who favours bullying banning. Assuming this second moderator glanced at those links in the sig, he or she will know I’ve been banned – yet they left my account fully accessible, only removing the sig that (they believe) breaks their rules. This is considerably better behaviour – though somewhat flawed, given the anonymity of their actions.

Unfortunately, though, sometime after I left things like that last night and before I took a look this morning, another ban was put in place – with a short, but sweet, error:

Virgin Media Ban Notification 3
Virgin Media Ban Notification 3

I don’t for one moment believe that the person who put this ban in place is the same person who removed the signature. Firstly, because that person didn’t ban me at the same time as removing the sig – and secondly, because the newly modified sig (containing the request that the moderator contact me) is still in place as I write this; I don’t think it would be.

I’m also not inclined to believe it was a third moderator, for similar reasons: Firstly, because he or she would be following the same moderator rules and guidelines as the one who removed the sig, and that person didn’t ban me – and, secondly, (and again) because that sig remains in place as I write this.

My instinct, therefore, suggests it was Andy [Kaye], the same moderator I believe responsible for the two previous bans, who appears to be working from a different rule sheet to the other moderators. A possible explanation for the shorter, to the point reason given (rather than the total mess that was presented previously, including the baseless and quite ludicrous “Defamation of VM employees published online via a blog without their explicit permission“) is simply that he’s read my comments, and realises I will publish and discuss them here – and let’s be honest, this whole affair can’t be said to be painting him in an especially good light.

It’s worth noting that Andy logged in during the early hours – some time after I turned in for the night, and after the sig had been removed and I’d modified it to include the message, and some time before I tried to access the site this morning. That log in, therefore, fits the timing – as does the fact that he knew I’d created the third account because I sent him a copy of the message I’d sent to Mark. I should have grabbed a screenshot of the relevant part of his profile page this morning to show the time he’d logged in, but between checking that and writing this item he’s since logged in again, and the time shown is therefore more recent – it’s too late to do that now. Ho hum.

The question now is what I’m going to do next. I could, obviously, start another variation on this Groundhog Day cycle by creating a fourth account – making it obvious and public, as before, or perhaps specifically to try and start a dialogue with the forum administrator about this, and not bring it to Andy’s attention. He should be able to spot it through other mean, though.

Or, questioning if it’s actually worth it before the complaints I’ve made are looked into (assuming they will be), I could just leave it for the moment – but if I do that, then am I not allowing myself to be bullied off the forum by this person?

I will think about this for a while, before I decide what I intend to do.

Besides, lunch is ready.

Minor update:

After posting this and having lunch, I checked my email and found I’d received the following from Mark Wilkin, the forum admin:

The moderation team have passed your complaint onto me, I’m going to sit down on Tuesday and go through this with them then. At that point I’ll review what’s happened and respond to you before the end of Tuesday. Your ban from the forums will continue until then.

Note that he says he’s emailing me because the forum moderators (plural, not a specific moderator) have passed my complaint onto him – which is interesting phrasing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, because I haven’t actually been able to make a complaint directly to the moderators (since I don’t know for certain which one is responsible) other than repeatedly drawing attention to the bans by making comments in the signature and linking them to here. That ‘noise’ has clearly been recognised as a complaint, though, if that’s the reason it’s been passed onto Mark.

Secondly, because it’s not worded as a reply to the private message I sent to him from my third (and now banned) account. Diplomatically, there is some sense in that – he’s the forum admin, and the moderators are his colleagues. If I was in his shoes, I’d probably use similar phrasing. More importantly, unlike the rabid text of the error from the second ban, it’s a perfectly polite, well written and reasonable message. And for that reason, I’ll honour it for the moment: I will not set up a fourth account in order to bypass the ban once again, and will instead wait for the outcome of his review (not to mention the complaints I’ve sent by other means).

Unfortunately, the address Mark has sent his message from appears to be a generic one, which means that if I reply to his email, I can’t be certain that what I say will reach him. I imagine it probably will – I just can’t rely on that, though I will try.

Specifically, I want to ensure he’ll take into account everything I’ve said on the subject, by referring to these articles, and not just what he’s been told I’ve said.

Not that I’m implying any particular moderator might be somewhat less than totally honest, obviously.

As a final thought until I hear the outcome of Mark’s review: I’d suggest a number of changes to the way the forum is run.

Firstly, that a new board be added to the forum, one intended specifically to allow users to openly discuss complaints and other issues regarding the forum itself, the way it’s run, and the way it’s moderated – without fear of being banned as a result. This would achieve a number of things, not least of which would be to avoid situations where a user might think a moderator is behaving unfairly and engaging in bullying tactics, since that user would be able to openly discuss the matter, preferably with the moderator(s) concerned, as well as other users. And, conversely, if a moderator is abusing his position, which was the question I raised that started this ridiculous charade, he’ll be less able to hide it.

Secondly, since that won’t work if a banned user is unable to access the forum and, therefore, that board, introduce a system whereby a moderator must warn a user that their actions could result in a ban, and give them the opportunity to discuss the matter (and air it on the relevant board, if they feel justified) – before actually banning them if they really are deserving of a ban, and continue down that road.

Thirdly, the mechanism by which users are banned needs to be reconsidered. I’d strongly suggest that rather than prevented from accessing the forum altogether, they instead be put on moderation (which means any posts they make would have to be approved by a moderator) – and they would therefore still be able to read the forum, and any posts by others that might help them with any problems they have (it is titled the Help & Support forum, after all!) , and they would still be able to send and receive private messages unhindered. Again, though, they should be given fair warning first – otherwise this is still open to abuse, since a moderator could choose to only allow such a user to say what he wants them to say, and prevent them voicing concerns on the new, more open board.

Those three changes would make the forum a much less unfair one, not balanced in favour of the moderators and against the users – who are, let’s not forget, paying customers of Virgin Media.

Hmm. I have I just openly provided Virgin Media with some free consultancy and advice? Oh well. 😉

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