The importance of rules

by Martin Reed on 27 March 2007 in Articles

As online communities become established, it is not uncommon for people to begin to argue and disagree. After all, if we all had the same opinions on everything the world would be a dull place, right? Public disagreements in a community are fine, and indeed they should be discouraged to a certain extent as they promote interaction and debate. When disagreements turn into arguments though, it is time for yourself or a moderator to step in.

This is when you will be grateful you have rules for your online community. If you are considering starting a community website it is essential you draw up site rules and make them public from the outset. If you already have a community website without any rules or guidance on expected behaviour, publish some as soon as you can and announce it to your members.

Rules are essential for all websites that publish user-generated content. Just as important is your enforcement of the rules. If your rules are clear and prominent on your website, your users have no excuse not to abide by them. Be careful when drawing up your rules to ensure you do not make them too long or complicated. This can confuse both your site users and moderators. Keep them as simple and as clear as possible. Here are the rules from Just Chat:

We do not permit:

  • Sexual or offensive language or content.
  • Harassment of other users.
  • Abuse or disruption of our services.
  • The impersonation of Just Chat staff.
  • Advertising of third party services or websites, unless authorised by us in advance and in writing.

These rules are basic and pretty straight-forward. By including rules on your website, everybody knows where they stand. If a user breaks your site rules, it is worth kindly notifying them of the rule they have broken and asking them to familiarise themselves with your rules page.

There is always a fine line between clamping down on the type of behaviour you do not want to see on your site and becoming overly dictatorial. Sure, give your users a little leeway from time to time, but when things do get a little too much you have publicly published rules that you can refer your members to so there are no excuses for them not to alter their behaviour.

I have lost count of the number of times I have referred users to our site rules – often people complain about being removed from the chat forums. Once I have directed them to the site rules page they soon understand where they went wrong and, for the most part, will adjust their behaviour and abide by them.

If you don’t have clearly stated rules, your users may feel any complaints you have about them are unjustified as you have made no clear reference as to what you expect from the users of your website. Take the time to publish clear site rules now. Believe me, they make things a lot easier for you and your members and you will certainly not regret the time it takes to draw them up.

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granolajoe May 23, 2007 at 1:01 am

I think you meant to say that disagreements are meant to be encouraged, not discouraged.

Martin Reed May 23, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Thanks for your comment. I mention in my article that disagreements should be ‘discouraged to a certain extent’.

Sure, they can be great at encouraging interaction but sometimes they can go a little overboard and have a negative impact on your community.

segnala sito October 1, 2007 at 11:37 pm

Applying rules is really good thing, but i thing sometime people avoid them and trying to talk in offensive language, it happenn in many forum moderated by me.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 3, 2007 at 8:24 pm

segnala sito – Having site rules gives you the remit to take action against users when they become offensive or abusive. If you don’t have site rules a user could simply plead ignorance.

Ann April 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm

I am starting a new mortgage help forum and this advice is very much needed. Thanks.

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