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Alex Angel for The Community Club

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What to think about when creating rules for your community

How many times have you found yourself in a position where a member of your community has done something you don't like, but you don't have specific rules to reference to curb that bad behavior? Or perhaps a group of users go wildly off the rails and you're without the proper code of conduct to ensure they don't do so again (not that I have any experience with that…)?

Having the right rules in place at the right time is critical for the health and safety of your community, and oftentimes it's a tricky thing to get right the first go-round.

Thinking about how to craft the best rules for a given community is now one of my favourite community-building activities because there's something satisfying in successfully anticipating things that could go wrong and preventing them from happening. It took a while to figure out the best approach; many years and mediocre attempts. The recommendations below stem from my personal process, but there are plenty of thoughts from other community builders on their approach to creating good, solid rules for their communities. Ultimately, this is more of an art than a science.

It looks a lot like this

Figure out your goals

You'll see a common theme in many of my posts: to do these things well, you must understand your goals. All communities, whether they're built around a business or product or interest, should have goals. They can be simple or lofty, but if you don't understand WHY you're creating this community, you're probably going to have a bad time.

Determine your ideal member

Next, you'll need to figure out who your ideal community member is. Create your rules based on the behaviors you want to see from your best community members, not just the worst ones. There may certainly be overlap, but that's okay. For example, if you want your best community members to share their blog posts and content they're writing while also participating in conversation organically, you could create the rule "Light self-promotion is permitted." Short, sweet, to the point (Carter's going to hate me for this one, though). This, however, leads me to my next point…

Be clear and understandable

Craft your rules to be understandable, direct, yet flexible. The more specific you get, the easier it is for people to skirt around the rules. So to maintain a clear basic rule you can get crafty and add examples to support the intent of these rules. With the rule "Light self-promotion is permitted," you may find certain KINDS of self-promotion to be acceptable, but most unacceptable. Define what is permissible and what is not with examples you can point to: e.g.
- Things you can do: post links to your own website once per week
- Things you can't do: only post self-promotional posts/comments; send unsolicited private messages to members about your self-promotional content; use redirects to obfuscate your self-promotional content; etc

Don't go overboard with a bunch of rules

Not only should your rules be clear, but you shouldn't overload your community members with dozens of 'em. I tend to have 10 or fewer core rules any time I draft rules, as I find more to be overwhelming and difficult to remember as a community member. If you have too many rules, people will eventually stop reading your documentation and any critical rules below that point will be lost to the ages.

Make rules easy to find and hard to ignore

It's important for you to get these rules in front of people's eyes as soon as you can once they've joined your community. If you can include them as part of their initial onboarding that's ideal, but make sure that whenever it happens it's before they have their first opportunity to engage with the other members of your community. A great way to drive these rules home is to lead by example. If you show people how they should be acting by doing it yourself, they'll internalize it faster and better than just relying on them reading a page on your site. You need to live by your rules, too--so if you have the rule "Light self-promotion is permitted" you need to stick to that (which can sometimes be difficult as a community manager, when you need to promote various initiatives that you and your company are leading).

Create an escalation and enforcement plan ahead of time

I cannot overstate this enough: CREATE AN ESCALATION AND ENFORCEMENT PLAN AHEAD OF TIME. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. If you don't have a way to deal with the bad actors in your community, what was the point of spending all of that time creating rules?? I like having public enforcement plans so people know what to expect when they break the rules, but I know that doesn't work for all communities. Just think about what makes the most sense for how you and your community interact and go from there. But seriously, do this work up front becaaaause…

Prepare to defend your rules

Rule-breakers are going to rules-lawyer you no matter what you do. No matter how clear your rule is, no matter how many examples of good and bad behavior you provide up front, some folks will ALWAYS try and argue that they didn't break the rules. Have the rules and enforcement plan ready to go so you don't find yourself fumbling for a justification in the face of a very grumpy individual.

The rules should apply to everyone

As much as it pains me to write this, you should also plan on not making exceptions for rule-breakers. Some day, one of your most beloved community members is going to slip up and break a rule. If you don't enforce the rule for their behavior, people will remember that until the day they die and use it as a way to get out of any rule-breaking behavior of their own. It will be painful, but you gotta do it (ask me about the time I banned /u/Unidan). Hopefully you'll be able to quickly resolve the issue and reconcile, and turn it into a positive experience for everyone!

Stay up to date

Finally, be open to updating your rules. You'll never catch everything in your first round of rules (or your second… or third…), and as your community evolves it will make sense to keep things up to date. This is not a failing or weakness, simply part of the process.

Here are a couple great writeups from other community builders. We may not see eye to eye on every detail, but I think that's what keeps community building interesting--everyone has different approaches and ideals, but ultimately what works for you and your community works.
Carter Gibson's post on How Simple Moderation Rules Can Create Worse Communities
Cindy Au's post on Designing Good Policy for Online Platforms and Communities

Discussion (7)

cartergee profile image
Carter Gibson

Aw, thanks for the shoutout. The thing that resonated for me here was, "And be prepared to enforce them." So many places fail at this - or don't do it well enough. Everyone gets so scared the moment they need to make a decision, but making decisions and then adjusting based on feedback is almost always better than having rules that are never enforced.

noeleflowers profile image
Noele Flowers

I lol'd at "rules-lawyer.' It's true though 😂

8bit profile image
John @ YEN

rules apply to everyone.

exactly. this is how most communities fail though.

mac profile image

Yup, once you start bending or ignoring the rules, it becomes a slippery slope that is very difficult to recover from.

lvrsnfrnds profile image
Samy (he/him)

Guidelines > Rules

alex profile image
Alex Angel Author

Would love to hear your thoughts on guidelines over rules. I'm generally a fan of guidelines when there's less at stake within a community, rules when you need something concrete.

lvrsnfrnds profile image
Samy (he/him)

In my case (a paid/curated community) I prefer to have guidelines than rules as it allows to make my members think/reflect on their general behaviour vs obey.