The first thing I do when I enter a new community is check out their community guidelines. It’s not because I’m worried about breaking rules (I’m well behaved at least 65% of the time), but because what those rules are and how they’re laid out will tell me most of what I need to know about the community itself. I can tell what the community manager thinks about the users, how much effort they put in to the basics of setup, and what kind of community I can expect to see when I start posting. It’s also part of the community that rarely sees any real effort or thought, which I’ve always found strange. It’s the template for how your community acts and behaves, and it should be a high priority for any community manager.
The community guidelines of your forum aren’t just boilerplate, simple terms and conditions that you have to have for legal protection. They’re the constitution of your forum. They’re something that, ideally, everyone should read. The vast majority of users actually want to contribute to your community, and they need a way of knowing what’s up. What they absolutely won’t do is read an awful, legalese-style text block. This causes problems for you, because you have to spend more time and resources moderating the community when users don’t know what’s expected of them. Your community guidelines can be many things, but they can’t be boring to read. The less they look like legal terminology, the better.
Putting in Effort Upfront Lets Your Community Guidelines Pay Off Long-Term
Rather than seeing your community guidelines as a quick piece of writing that you need to get done, see it as an opportunity to let new users what kind of community they can expect. They could be serious, quick and to the point. They could be funny, if you’re good at that. I manage a community for a comedy website, and my community guidelines are hopefully at least amusing enough to get people to keep reading them. There are other issues that come up when writing your guidelines. How are your moderators going to be interacting with the populace? If you encourage a more irreverent, sociable style, that should be reflected in the tone of your guidelines. let your users know what to expect by not only onboarding them to the procedures of your forum, but the atmosphere.
Don’t worry about covering every possible option. You can’t. In my second decade of managing communities I’m still constantly amazed by the amount of different ways users find to wiggle around rules and mess up in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of. Trying to cover every possibility also leads you to the aforementioned “legalese” problem. That more you act like a lawyer, the more users will expect you to act like one in your moderation. Instead, figure out the effect you want from a rule, and draft it to cover that effect. Concentrate on the spirit of your rules, rather than detailing every possible scenario.
Which Rules Does Your Community Need?
Different communities require different community guidelines, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. There are a few rules, however, that I think most communities could benefit from:
- Rules restricting the type of images that a user can post are a great idea. For most communities this will at a minimum include content restrictions. If you want your users to be able to post from work, this is vital. I also recommend restricting the size of images that users can post. In a free-for-all, mobile users are going to avoid your community for the sake of their data plans.
- Be specific about what kind of tone users should have with each other. Irreverent? Serious? Respectful? Simply saying “no flamewars!” leaves users with a lot of wiggle room to be passive-aggressive to each other. My personal guideline to users is “don’t say anything to someone here that you wouldn’t say to them in a bar if they were much, much bigger than you”.
- Make it clear to your users what they should do if they have a complaint about a moderator. Leaving them a clear pressure valve prevents that drama from spilling out into the forums. No user should be confused about what to do if they have a problem.
- Outlaw rules lawyering. “But technically…” is something no moderator should ever have to listen to. Users should be more interested in upholding the spirit of the rules than quibbling over the technicalities
- “Don’t be a jerk”. This rule doesn’t work on its own, or its the only one you would need. Nevertheless, it should be there. Users should be reminded that above all, they should be treating each other with respect and courtesy
- Don’t allow gender, racial or sexuality based discrimination in your community. Insular, laddish communities are dying fast. The internet is an open platform, and it’s for everyone. Communities that ignore this rising tide don’t have long to live.