Almost a year ago I wrote about the importance of having clear site rules for your online community. An online community needs rules as they define the expectations you have for your site and its members, and your members will know exactly what kind of content or behaviour is acceptable. However, just as excessive forum moderation can damage a community, an excessive number of rules can do the same.
The problem with excessive rules
An excessive number of rules sends out the wrong message to visitors and members. They show that the community does not consider free speech to be important, and that there is only a limited range of topics that can be discussed or only certain ways of behaving that are tolerated.
In essence, the more rules you have, the more you are restricting activity within your community. There is a need to have rules, but they should always be clear, concise and as non-restrictive as possible.
Why it is in your interest to keep rules concise and simple
Surely it is more effective to have a small number of rules that people read and understand that a huge list of Dos and Don’ts that most people will skip over?
Let’s say your community is attracting people that read every word of a website agreement before entering or registering. How do you think a brand new visitor to your site will perceive your community if they read through a huge list of rules?
A lengthy rules list gives the impression that either your community is so unfriendly it needs a massive list of restrictions, or that free speech is not particularly tolerated.
Remember: online communities need interaction and online communities need new members. The more rules you have, the more challenging it will be to achieve these goals.
Can an online community be successful with a lengthy list of rules?
Yes, of course. Just because a site has a huge list of rules, it doesn’t mean it cannot be successful. Let’s take a look at the rules list for Facepunch Studios. They have a massive 34 rules that members need to abide by, yet they have almost 125,000 members and 9 million posts! Perhaps the administrators feel that such a large online community needs a large rule list to help keep the community from falling apart. Perhaps they have implemented such a long list in an attempt to keep post quality high.
Regardless of their reasoning, the fact is a large community such as Facepunch Studios can afford to have a lengthy list of rules – attracting new members is less of a priority for them thanks to their huge memberbase. However, I would guess that when the site first started out, their rules list was nowhere near as long as it is now.
The Just Chat message boards are significantly smaller than the Facepunch forums – we currently have 1,500 members and 325,000 posts. Our rules are simple:
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.
I feel that our concise, clear rules help our visitors and members understand what is expected of them, but at the same time they are not discouraged to join due to an overbearing list of regulations.
In summary, my opinion is that if you want to encourage activity and new members you should keep your rules simple and concise. A lengthy list of rules should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
An excessive number of rules can discourage people from interacting within your community and can also put off new members – not a good idea if you are planning on developing a successful online community.
Does your online community have a list of rules? How many? Do you think your site has too many rules, or not enough? Do you feel that a long list of rules is actually beneficial to an online community? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.