Interview with the Romstudyabroad Yahoo! Groups moderators team – the most impressive work I’ve ever seen for an Yahoo! group

In this message I interviewed three persons whose activity I admire a lot – the Romstudyabroad Yahoo! group moderators team.

Blog post structure:
A. Introduction
B. Interview:
1. Please tell me a few things about you, as a team
2. What is your role in the moderators’ team? If you were to present your activity for the Romstudyabroad Yahoo! group as a tutorial to a complete stranger of Internet, how would you do it? What do you do in a typical day of working for the Yahoo! group?
3. How does it feel to do your work for Romstudyabroad day after day?
4. What drives you to volunteer your spare time, in order to help people that most of the time you know nothing about and you’ll most likely never see in person?
5. What was the most rewarding experience you ever had as a moderator?
6. Why should Romanians study abroad? What’s so good about this experience?
7. What would top five tips you’d give to someone interested in studying abroad?
8. Let’s say I’m an investor and I wish to buy the group. How would you react?
9. How would you make a business presentation of the Yahoo! group?
10. How could others make your work easier? How could you be helped in your work?
C. Conclusions

A. Introduction

Romstudyabroad  is a Yahoo! group which currently has almost 9.000 members (this means that most of them receive the group messages in their inboxes). I personally know no other Yahoo! Group in Romania with more members. I don’t exclude this possibility, but I personally (Olivian BREDA) know of no other larger group.

In the past five years, the average number of monthly messages was 460 (in 2009, until this month), 376 (for 2008), 311 (in 2007), 452 (for 2006), and 511 (in 2005). Divide these numbers by 30 days, and you will see that, on average, in the past five years, at least 10 messages have been sent on the group each day. Each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Some of these messages came from the group members (and these had to be moderated), and some came from the moderators themselves (and these had to be formatted). Managing so many messages is enormous work!

Also, see below what “moderating” implies on this group. Typically, “moderating” means approving or rejecting messages, and sometimes banning members. On Romstudyabroad, it implies: editing messages (a lot of them wrongly formatted), editing the subject line (needed due to lack of care), and sending individualized rejection messages (so that you know why your message was rejected). And, of course, it also implies banning members.

In addition, gathering information for the group is a titanic effort. There are dozens of Yahoo! groups and online resources that are continuously monitored by the moderators.

And the team – to manage a team of 6 people which collaborate efficiently – now that’s a result! The 6 people are all located in different continents/countries. As far as I know, the moderators only know one another online.

Tell me how many Yahoo! groups you know that have a web site created especially for the mailing list.

One issue with the interview below that I acknowledge is that I don’t ask about the negative side of story. I don’t ask about the repetitive nature of the work, about “flame wars” (where spirits get inflated) launched on mailing lists, about hate mail and spam, and the precious time spent online for the well functioning of the group. Although I stayed away from these questions, you, the reader of this material, should retain one attribute about the moderators’ work – it is hard work.

From my experience with other mailing lists, when I have to choose between (i.) spending my time doing things I really love and thus limiting my presence on mailing lists, and (ii.) spending more time surfing the Yahoo! groups, I typically go for the first option. Thus, over time, my activity on mailing lists has shrunk considerably. And if I could pass on to others some of my moderating duties, I would gladly do so. But things are as simple as that: very few are willing to contribute their time and efforts for the good of people you have only met in a virtual world.

I won’t delve further on that as for to me it is emotionally difficult to become attached to a virtual community. I thus I admire the moderators of Romstudyabroad for their efforts and accomplishments.

B. Interview:

1. Please tell me a few things about you, as a team

Romstudyabroad is a six-person project: three moderators who administer the group (Bogdan, Camelia, and Raluca) and three group members who help out by posting information (Cristina, Laura, and Silvia). All of us have studied or are currently studying abroad.

2. What is your role in the moderators’ team? If you were to present your activity for the Romstudyabroad Yahoo! group as a tutorial to a complete stranger of Internet, how would you do it? What do you do in a typical day of working for the Yahoo! group?

Bogdan: I am the most inexperienced member of the moderating team. I only take part in those decisions that are relatively easy to take, for instance approving answers to threads already started, and approving new members. I also take part in the team decision-making process, and in promoting the group, if and when I have the time. The Romstudyabroad formula is a very common-sense and time-tested one, and that’s why I always have to ask for my colleagues’ opinion when it comes to dealing with more complex problems (i.e., opening up new threads, or the best way to calm down tensions between group members, etc.).

Camelia: I have been a Romstudyabroad moderator for 5 years now. When I joined, back in 2003, I used to send info to the group about summer schools, student conferences, advice on the application process, and my own views on the quality of some study programs abroad. About one year later, the group’s owners asked me if I wanted to join their team. I was sort of hooked on the group, so I immediately said YES. Back then, like now, Romstudyabroad was by far the best managed Yahoogroup I had seen. As a member, you only receive relevant information, and you have access to huge archives of Files, Links, Contact Lists, and Messages that are easily accessible with keyword searches. Furthermore, you never have worry about receiving countless reminders or spam.

Briefly, Romstudyabroad is a forum hosting relevant information about studying abroad, both by browsing announcements, as well as by taking part in discussions and interacting with other group members. Anyone who is thinking about studying abroad, or who has already done so and wishes to share their experience, can benefit from subscribing to our group.

Raluca: I am the oldest moderator of the team, both in terms of how long I have been with the group (6 years) and in terms of age. I was a group member from the beginning when there were less than 100 of us. We did not dream at that point that this initiative would be so successful. I became a moderator when we passed the 200 member limit and the group founder felt that some help was necessary. Under my very eyes the group has grown fifty times over its initial size, and at each step of the way, we had to reinvent our roles in parallel with redefining the group concept.

Nowadays, I am not as active, at least when it comes to the most visible aspects of our activity, such as finding and disseminating information, answering to members’ questions, keeping in touch with external collaborators and approving new members (though it is true, I do use from time to time the “ban” button ;). My work is rather that of a consultant, a supervisor and a crisis-cell member, partly because of the growing age gap with the average Romstudyabroad member.

A day on Romstudyabroad… Even if I am no longer involved in all the moderating activities, I review all the messages sent to us and all pending memberships. From time to time I give my piece of mind about some of them. I read and select some information on scholarships and academic jobs abroad and forward it to the group. I try to stay informed about the changing landscape of educational opportunities for Romanian citizens, even if this is no longer an area of personal interest. I exchange a lot of messages with the other moderators on administrative issues and “when disaster strikes” I intervene immediately to contain the damage. I work a lot “behind the scenes:” formulating disclaimers, setting up forwarding rules and messages that are sent out automatically once per week, at subscription or when leaving the group, and staying in touch with our external collaborators.

3. How does it feel to do your work for Romstudyabroad day after day?

Bogdan: It’s definitely extremely interesting work. Internally, as a new moderator, my main concern is keeping in with the line my colleagues have set to ensure uniformity in the group’s content. We on Romstudyabroad always seek to avoid needlessly throwing information at our members’ inboxes, and that’s why it always comes down to deciding which information is potentially useful to a sufficient number of group members. The messages that pass this test are not too much of a headache, unlike those messages which I have to reject for one reason or another. Most times we seek to give a reasonable reason for the rejection, and to offer as many leads as possible that can help the user in the hunt for information, if the question we have to reject is one we come across frequently. Also, if a user happens to post information we find interesting but not exactly on-topic as far as Romstudyabroad is concerned, we usually direct them to other forums that would welcome their contribution; sometimes we even redirect rejected Romstudyabroad messages to other groups ourselves.

Camelia: Working as a moderator has never been boring, although sometimes things can get a little frustrating. Most of our work concerns sorting messages, deciding which to publish and which to reject; writing back to those whose messages are rejected explaining the reasons for rejection––typically the messages are off-topic or the subject has already been discussed on the group. To the best of our ability we give suggestions where to look for answers, how to search the message archive, or where to look in our Files or Links collections. Finally, we edit the subject line before publishing messages. We insist on informative subject lines because these can help filter individual messages using Gmail or Yahoo! Mail labels. We also advertise our group on a fairly frequent basis, for instance by posting information about us on other Yahoogroups. Finally, we initiate and maintain contacts with many other Yahoogroup moderators with whom we have cross-posting agreements.

Raluca: This work brings me a lot of satisfaction, even if recently I have grown somehow frustrated with my inability to do more–mainly because I am now in another age group, at a different stage in my professional career, and have other personal interests.

4. What drives you to volunteer your spare time, in order to help people that most of the time you know nothing about and you’ll most likely never see in person?

Bogdan: As we always speak in the name of the Romstudyabroad team, our work on the group is somewhat similar to being part of a secret society, where no one from the outside knows your identity. I think of this as an extraordinary advantage, because unlike all other projects in my professional life, my work here derives me no visibility whatsoever. My satisfaction comes precisely from the group working the way it’s supposed to, as well as from the moderators’ presence being felt to the least extent possible by the 9,000 members. And if we’re talking members, it’s fun to look at the numbers every few days; I’m always excited by the fact that this informational flow to which I bring my own contribution reaches so many people who have actively chosen to receive a not-at-all-insignificant number of Romstudyabroad emails in their inboxes.

Camelia: This is a good question, and I do not really have an answer. There is no particular reason why I volunteer to do this work: I simply enjoy the thought that someone out there benefits from our group, be it by receiving interesting information about studying abroad, or by not having their inbox filled with Yahoogroup spam.

Raluca: Mainly because I have received help myself when I needed it. I also think we can only contribute to general growth and personal development by helping one another. I got the first kick from learning about various educational opportunities for which Romanian citizens were eligible, but which did not materialize because Romanians lacked access to that information.

5. What was the most rewarding experience you ever had as a moderator?

Bogdan: Once again my lacking experience prevents me from giving a truly edifying example. As a Romstudyabroad member since 2003 I have had nonetheless a good number of experiences from which I have gained a whole lot. After getting into college, I have personally advised around ten or so persons who have found my address and on the group, and I sought to steer and guide them as much as possible on the path to studying abroad.

Camelia: I would like to give a very concrete example here. Some 4-5 years ago I sent to the group some suggestions and advice on how to approach the admission process at master’s programs in some European schools. Competition for admission at the top schools is quite fierce. (Some programs receive 10-40 applications per spot.) A Romstudyabroad member was interested in applying to one of these programs, so she emailed me with additional questions. Over the course of about one year we continued our conversations and she kept me informed of how things were going. She actually followed my advice–now I’m not being too modest ;)–but I have to say that this year she got her master’s degree from a top European economics school. I am very proud of her and glad that Romstudyabroad facilitated this contact.

Raluca: Very hard choice. We frequently receive “Thank you” messages that simply make us blush. All of these messages are unique and extremely rewarding.

6. Why should Romanians study abroad? What’s so good about this experience?

Bogdan: In addition to the possibilities of getting to know other cultures, of traveling and so on, there are also the advantages of working in a modern academic environment, one that has better resources than its Romanian counterpart.

Camelia: Whether to study abroad is a personal choice that depends on many factors: personal interests, personal drive, the willingness to travel and to be away from family, whether one already has a family of their own, the family’s willingness to be apart or to move to a new place, and so on. Typically there are better educational opportunities abroad when it comes to graduate studies. I am of the view that–to make it worthwhile–graduate school should be pursued at well-known research universities abroad.

Raluca: Romanians can no longer afford to live in isolation. While studying abroad, one has the opportunity to learn about successes and failures of other educational systems, to become more tolerant and open-minded, to see that things can be done and/or interpreted differently, and to create social networks which can help later on in one’s professional career.

7. What would top five tips you’d give to someone interested in studying abroad?

Bogdan:

a. Persistence is what matters most here. Very few people receive a scholarship because they got lucky.
b. Choose your priorities wisely. What matters in Romania may have very little bearing abroad and vice-versa. For instance, many Romanian students choose or are forced to work full-time jobs during college, damaging their grades in the process. While in Romania a barely passing grade is oftentimes seen as sufficient in college, in many other educational systems such a grade does not constitute a good recommendation for a more advanced degree.
c. Motivation matters. If you want a scholarship solely because you feel like bumming around other countries, then your chances are pretty weak. You have to know what you want to get out of an educational program to be successful.
d. Be flexible in your options. A quality educational experience is not restricted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. You risk a whole lot by adopting an all-or-nothing strategy in any admissions process.
e. Adapting to a new culture is hard but not impossible. Especially if you do not have any experience of living abroad you may find that a lot of things are different and start missing Romania, especially in the first months after you leave. It’s a normal thing to go through, but you have to keep a positive attitude towards the new culture and avoid making value judgments during your adjustment period.

Camelia: Never give up, be patient, choose your study program carefully (quality matters!), prepare your applications carefully, and make the best of all the time you have on your hands!

8. Let’s say I’m an investor and I wish to buy the group. How would you react?

Bogdan: As far as I’m concerned this group cannot be for sale (otherwise we would stray away from the entire volunteering idea). Maybe a partnership could work though :) I believe Romstudyabroad is an extremely successful group. Not only do we have an impressing number of members who receive as many as hundreds of messages every week, but our group is one of the few truly professional Romanian e-mail discussion lists. Romstudyabroad discussions are exclusively on-topic, and that is why Romstudyabroad fulfills its mission. And unlike other discussion groups Romstudyabroad undoubtedly changes the life of many through the information the group disseminates.

Camelia: If we were to receive financing for our group, the money could usefully be employed to advertise Romstudyabroad, to make it better known among Romanian students. I would like us to have a permanent team of representatives in Romania and our own stand at university and job fairs. Looking forward, we could establish contacts with universities and have them send their announcements directly to our membership.

Raluca: I am afraid my feeling is that the group does not need a financial investment, but one in time and experience. We need dedicated people who want to invest their time and their knowledge in this project.

9. How would you make a business presentation of the Yahoo! group?

From Romstudyabroad (2009.09.17)

Romstudyabroad–arguably the largest Romanian language Yahoogroup–was founded in 2002. Since 2003, it has grown 18 times, with the number of members rising from 500 at end-2003 to 9,000 in September 2009. As of 2006, we have roughly 1,500 new subscribers every year, and we post some 10-12 messages per day on average. Despite the large volume of information circulated on our group, our members prefer to have the information delivered as Individual Messages rather than Daily Digests. Our announcements about study programs and scholarships, conferences, summer schools, etc. make up about 60 percent of all messages posted on the group, while discussions between the group’s members account for the rest.

Our highest growth rates in terms of membership and messages were recorded in 2005, when we clarified our group’s concept, set up posting and forwarding rules, became more selective and focused about which information was appropriate for posting. That year, we also started a large-scale advertising campaign including, among others, our participation in the Romanian International University Fair (RIUF), articles in large circulation newspapers such as Adevarul and Capital, and posts about Romstudyabroad on other online fora. Whenever possible, we renew our advertising activities, and we often benefit from our group members’ volunteering to assist us in these efforts.

10. How could others make your work easier? How could you be helped in your work?

Bogdan: My work is not really that complicated, so I do not see the need for any direct help. If members would better understand the way in which we format messages and that they have to do their homework prior to posting a question, this would definitely make our lives easier. But moderating the list is not a terribly hard thing overall, not even in the current situation.

Camelia: Yes, our members would make our life easier if they

— did not send off-topic messages;
— wrote meaningful subject messages–and every time you send a question, please write “Intrebare:” at the beginning of the subject message;
— filled out the short university and scholarship questionnaires they receive when joining the group–this helps our Contact lists grow!;
— were more proactive in sharing information about summer schools, conferences, study programs, and scholarships; and
— shared–out of their own initiative!–more of their experiences studying abroad.

Raluca: Oh yes… If we stopped receiving off-topic or irrelevant messages and requests for personalized advice… if more of our group members did not think about Romstudyabroad participation as a public good on which to “free-ride,” but rather as a forum where we “bring and share” our experiences… and if there were no technical problems with Yahoo!…

C. Conclusions

Conclusions to be drawn are simple: an united team, a tremendous work and very good results. For a Romanian version of this interview, you can see Fiieficient.com.

For details about the Yahoo! group, I invite you to Romstudyabroad home page.

I am a Freelancer. My expertise is in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) / UX (user experience) / WordPress. Co-founder of lumeaseoppc.ro (series of events on SEO & PPC) and cetd.ro (Book on branding for MDs). On a personal level, I like self-development - events, sports, healthy living, volunteering, reading. I live in London, and lots of things live in me.

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