3 Weird Rules Your Community Forum Needs
1. Limiting the length of discussions
Many community managers take pride in having giant discussions on their forum. They think that it shows how active and enthusiastic their communities are, and to a certain extent that’s correct. The discussions themselves however, can have a choking effect on their communities. Large threads have a number of problems:
They can scare off new users, who see giant, impenetrable discussions that they don’t know how to contribute to
They grow their own “treehouse” sub-communities which are only interested in posting in that thread. These treehouses, over time, become insular and hostile
In certain contexts (e.g, chat threads) they can cannibalise the traffic of other parts of the community.
The natural ebb and flow of conversation often means that over time the topic being discussed has little relevance to the original topic
These factors, put together, can make the topics a nightmare to moderate
Having the same discussions dominate the front page of your community can make it appear staid and boring.
I recommend most communities institute a page limit on their discussions. Where this limit lies is up to you; I’ve personally instituted a 100 page limit, but this may be too much for smaller communities. In most cases, I’ll also require a cooling off period once a discussion reaches that point. This prevents the community from congregating too much around a certain discussion and gives users an opportunity to explore other parts of the community.
2. Users shouldn’t post in spam or troll threads
The best spam filters in the world can’t keep a community completely spam free, and trolls will eventually target even the sleepiest of boards. While a proactive moderation staff should clear things up in good order, it’s important to ensure your community deals well with these issues in the mean time. Unfortunately, spammers in particular tend to propel certain community members to new heights in the creation of tedious witticisms. While some see this as a kind of release valve allowing users to let off steam at hapless spammers, the practise is damaging to your community.
One of the most vital parts of dealing with spammers is ensuring that they do not find an audience. Your efforts in this matter are stymied considerably when spam threads are repeatedly bumped so that some wag can make a hilarious comment. I’ve seen spam threads that reached multiple pages before a moderator was able to lock them. It makes the community look bad, and causes further problems down the line as spammers learn that your community is a great place to get eyes on their links.
Obvious trolls cause similar problems. A troll is, by definition, trying to rile up your populace. Despite this, forum members will inevitably decide that they need to argue with, insult or otherwise engage with the interloper. The stupidity of this action cannot be overstated, the user is tacitly admitting to the troll that the troll is smarter and was already won. While spammers may not check their metrics enough for extra attention to cause problems, a troll who gets what they want will return again and again.
Having rules against trolling and spamming isn’t enough. Every community has those. The real trick is in also punishing those who exacerbate the problems caused. After all, a spam or troll thread with no replies will soon fall off the front page of the community. The only way to ensure that spammers and trolls don’t get a foothold is to prevent your users from giving them what they want.
3. Users shouldn’t attempt to moderate from the backseat
I purloined the term backseat moderator from this rather excellent article, which uses a D&D style alignment chart to show common user archetypes. The backseat moderator does not lack for enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm manifests in constantly hectoring other users for not following the rules. Sometimes this is borne from a genuine desire to be helpful, sometimes it stems from a user attempting to curry favour or gain moderator status and sometimes it’s simply a personality that likes to boss people around. Either way, it causes problems for your community.
The first problem is the annoyance this will cause to your other users. No one likes being told what to do, but most will accept it from a moderator or official representative of the forum. From an ordinary user, it can be exceptionally grating. Understandably, the user being ordered around will often react poorly, at which point you either have a flame war on your hand or the kind of slow, building resentment that leads to toxicity in the long term. Indeed, the user may leave entirely.
The second problem lies with the judgment of the backseat moderator in question. What if their interpretation of the rules is faulty? What if (invariably), their manner and tone is so obnoxious and condescending that they cause more problems than they solve? Moderators should be the most astute and aware members of your community, because the job is difficult and requires excellent judgement. Allowing any user to perform this function is a recipe for trouble. If the backseat moderator were suited to the task, you should have asked them to be a full moderator already. If you have a rule against backseat moderation, you give would-be moderators an opportunity to slip up and show that a sense of power is more important to them than actually upholding the rules of the community.