How to develop online community guidelines

by Alison Michalk March 14, 2010

Online community guidelines are the very foundation of your community. They are both your shield and your weapon when you go into battle to protect your community! Spend time with your community and get them right.

Guidelines set tone & expectations

A lack of guidelines, or poorly crafted guidelines, can create an unpleasant experience for members, expose yourself to legal liabilities and potentially threaten your brand reputation. It can be very hard to retroactively change users’ behaviour so it’s crucial that you spend time establishing a healthy tone and culture as the foundation on which your community can thrive.

The tone and atmosphere of a community is set in its very early days, and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong. If you want to be known for infamously banning people take a look at the Something Awful forums, or you want to set up a zero tolerance approach to all or part of your rule set, take a look at the Whirlpool broadband forums. Both are highly-trafficked forums with an unapologetic approach to their rules.

Should they be called guidelines or rules?

It is much more common for them to be called guidelines. If they are general or open to interpretation (be nice, show respect) they may be better off titled guidelines. If they are quite specific (no trading, copyright infringement etc) you could call them rules – although these are almost always covered by a site’s terms & conditions. Regardless of what you name them you are guaranteed to have troublesome members combing them for loopholes!

Lonely Planet quite cleverly call theirs guidelines with the sub-heading: “The rules we’ll shake hands on”. This does a great job at reinforcing that as a member you’ve agreed to these conditions.

Three prominent points to writing guidelines

1) Keep them conversational so they are easy to digest

2) Keep them brief (easier said than done!)

3) Refine them in consultation with members

Best Practice community guidelines:

Lonely Planet
Get Satisfaction
Yahoo Answers
Trip Advisor

I think the use of this sentence on Lonely Planet’s site is a great fall back/reference for members who persistently create problems:

“If you don’t agree with them, we won’t take it personally, and nor should you when we suggest might not be for you.”

These CIPD rules are also worthy of note, they’ve usefully been divided into two categories: “how to get value from the forums” and “things to avoid”.

The Australian Reach Out community members developed a video to explain the guidelines. It’s a great idea – and something more communities should consider doing. (Check out Australian company Explanimate if you’re looking for ways to do this.)

Rules to consider

Disclaimer: please seek legal advice when drafting your rules and/or guidelines.

Aside from the basic and obvious such as legal restrictions (copyright, defamation, discrimination, privacy etc) here are some issues you may want your guidelines to address. There are a number of ways you can group these to make your message coherent. A number of communities separate the legal and behavioural rules – which is an approach worth considering.

  • Stay on-topic and post in relevant forum
  • Identity protection: remind users of the public nature of forums (members sometimes want content removed and can sometimes be surprised that you can’t remove it from Google results.)
  • Clear thread titles
  • Duplication/cross-posting: can people post the same item across forums?
  • No capitals/shouting
  • Ghost/multiple identities: can people have more than one identity?
  • Screen names (not offensive, business names etc)
  • Data Protection Act (depending on what country you are based in)
  • COPPA (“)
  • External linking guidelines (will you allow contextual links? How will you handle planted requests?)
  • Trading: can users buy & sell? Are there restrictions?
  • Trolling
  • Impersonation: how will you deal with impersonators & verification?
  • Inciting denial of service (encouraging users to visit another site with the purpose of abusing/attacking)
  • Bumping (some forums don’t allow ‘bumping’ of threads)
  • Post-count ‘boosting’
  • Advice – no professional, medical, legal advice
  • False / misleading statements
  • Research (ask that journalists, students & researchers contact you first)
  • Moderation explanations – I suggest stating clearly that moderation explanations are not open for public debate, especially if they involve discussing members’ behaviour(s).
  • Freedom of speech – it’s always pertinent to remind Aussies we don’t have it per se.
  • Piracy / hacking
  • Images – do not post images of other people without their permission
  • Profanity
  • Voting – can members solicit votes from others?
  • Repetitive debates – it may preserve your sanity to cast a wide net that allows you to shut down the inevitable repetitive debates!
  • Languages – will your community be English only? Look to travel forums for advice!
The devil’s in the detail

Bear in the mind – the more general your rules – the easier to enforce. That’s not to say members won’t hassle you for the specifics but it is easier for you to wield discretionary power. Inevitably it is impossible to predict the breadth of issues user-generated content gives rise to. As soon as you’ve nailed down one very specific infringement, another will raise it’s head.

That said I inherited a community with 40+ detailed rules that had been developed over ten years and I found them effective, but I can’t guarantee how many people read them. They were however developed in consultation with members so plenty of super-users were happy to C&P them to remind other users about them. On the subject of which self-governance is your ally!

Self governance

Ensure you have an effective reporting mechanism (ie. flag content button). I would go as far as saying – don’t launch without one due to potential legal implications. Encourage members to own their community and report guideline breaches. A level of self-governance is vital for a healthy community.

Further resources

Patrick O’Keefe’s Managing Online Forums has a chapter dedicated to developing guidelines. His nuts & bolts approach is very useful for those of us in the trenches! Otherwise check out our popular post: 27 Books for Community Managers.

As a community member or manager, what is your experience with community guidelines? Do you have any suggestions or glaring omissions for me?