Too many rules can damage an online community

by Martin Reed on 29 February 2008 in Articles

Avoid too many rules for an online community

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

Web users are lazy. When was the last time you read a terms of service agreement or a site’s privacy policy? Too much text, too little time – I bet you just clicked the ‘Agree’ button, or at the very most gave the text a quick scan or glance. A lengthy list of rules will meet with the same response – people will skip over the list and consequently not even be fully aware of your website’s rules and regulations.

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.

Your thoughts

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.

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Patrick Furey February 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

My 2 cents: “code of conduct” has self regulating and self-policing implications vs “rules” which is often can perceived as controlling and restrictive.

Michelle from the Coulee Region February 29, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Wow! That is a huge list of rules. I’ve been wavering about the rules on my site for some time. I currently have a very legal-y blurb that I’m sure no one reads. I got it (with permission) from another site. I’ve been considering simplifying it way down to something like you have. What I’m worried about isn’t so much people misbehaving as getting sued for something.

I’m in the US where people are sue happy. I’m afraid if person X says something bad about person Y that I could get sued for it if I don’t have a bunch of blah blah about not being responsible. I realize you can get sued for anything anytime but I figure I have more chance of winning if I can point to where it says “don’t say anything bad” in the rules.

Any thoughts on that angle of rules?



Smiley February 29, 2008 at 11:31 pm

I agree. Rules should be short and simple. When getting to the chat page users only have to read;

There is to be no abuse;
No sexual harassment;
No spamming;
No impersonating support staff;
No scrolling;
No e-mail addresses in the rooms;
No phone numbers in the rooms;
No residential addresses in the rooms;
No surnames in the rooms and;
You use the ignore button instead of arguing

Simple, to the point. We take a liberal approach to moderating. Although I’ve noticed as we grow we have to be a tad bit stricter on them.

A few members are complaining about Wellsy (my new forum management) because he isn’t as ‘soft’ as me. In his opinion, I’m “too soft”, but of course this could be because when we were a small site I got more personal with the members so I have that level of relationship with them all. He’s fairly new so I think they just feel off-standish with him.

Cody March 1, 2008 at 12:43 am

I have a terms of service but i doubt anyone ever reads through it. Rules are important though.

Amish Made Furniture March 1, 2008 at 2:31 pm

You are absolutely right in that you need less rules and more self policing by responsible members. If your community invites only this kind of members, you will hardly need any rules. The old adage “Rules are meant to be broken” is valid in any circumstance. The only guys who benefit from drawing up complicated rules are lawyers and corrupt members of the establishment.

Mike March 1, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Even I agree with the fact that too many rules can ruin the communication between people in a community. People should be given at least that much liberty that they could interact with the environment freely.

Online Furniture Store March 2, 2008 at 1:21 am

Too many rules and restrictions can actually be off-putting. You are quite right, no one bothers to read them either, so a small list of clear and concise rules are way better.

Bhumika March 2, 2008 at 1:50 am

I too don’t read the pages long Terms and conditions unless skipping them may have financial implications. A bulleted short version is good.

brackets March 2, 2008 at 3:41 am

Having too many rules is like having a suppressing government. They stifle creativity and progress.

Smiley March 2, 2008 at 1:55 pm

I have a TOS, Cody. All I do is have a small list of straight to the point rules, then “By clicking here you are automatically agreeing to our TOS” with a link to the TOS. I know nobody reads it, but they read the few simple rules and the TOS is there as a back up if you get complaints :)

Plumbing Course Andy March 3, 2008 at 5:50 am

Me too, i don’t have the patience to read long rules. I think they should make rules short but clear and easy to understood by the readers. And also they should put rules that are necessary in a certain community.

Eva White March 3, 2008 at 7:16 am

I agree to you, rules should be short and concise. I too just click on the agree button and go ahead. I don’t remember reading the rules properly anytime. I agree with ‘Smiley’ also that the rules should be in point form, it is easier to go through them rather than read full paragraphs.

Kevin March 3, 2008 at 6:44 pm

I have the default rules/terms of service for now since I am just launching. They tend to be something you don’t want to have to think abount until you need them! My focus now is rolling out my forum and getting some content posted.

Roleplay March 3, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Yeah, that’s something we’re huge on. We don’t let rules get in the way of our members’ freedoms.

Nicole Price March 4, 2008 at 6:02 am

I have never read a single Terms of Service Agreement. Its surely better to have a very concise list of rules that the members can read during the sign up process.

Soa March 4, 2008 at 6:41 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more. Rules should be as short and simplistic as possible. The longer you make them the less likely you are to read them(as Nicole said)

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 4, 2008 at 7:12 pm

Patrick – You’re right that the terminology you use can have an effect. Calling your rules a ‘Code of conduct’ can definitely result in your site coming across as more inviting and open.

Michelle – I understand your concerns. I have a much longer ‘terms of service’ which users need to agree to before they can access the interactive sections of Just Chat.

Unfortunately there is little you can do to simplify these without losing some degree of legal protection. This is why it helps to have your rules not only included in your terms of service (where they can be missed), but also on their own separate page. This way you can keep clear, simple rules and not have them hidden away in a lengthy legal document.

Smiley – New moderators will always undergo an ‘on-the-job’ training period whereby they learn what is expected of them and how to behave. Similarly, it will take a while for your members to learn that behind each moderator is an individual who will have their own personality, and own interpretation of the site rules.

Cody – Terms of service and rules can be two distinct parts of your site; one offers you a degree of legal protection, and the other details solely how people are expected to behave. If your rules are hidden away in a lengthy terms of service document, consider giving your rules their own page – even better, list them on the chat pages themselves so they are always present and highly visible.

Ramana – I think you make a valid point that rules should be considered more of a fail-safe in case people misbehave. Of course, in an ideal world none of your members would ever cause problems – however, from time to time they will, hence the need for clear rules.

Mike – I agree; without liberty and a decent amount of free speech, a community will struggle to be successful.

Reena – I am glad you agree! An excessive number of rules can definitely discourage people from joining your community.

Bhumika – Thanks for your input. I agree that short bullet points are the way to go.

Brackets – I love the example you give, and completely agree with you! Excessive rules can definitely impede progress and creativity.

Andy – You make a good point; some communities will need more specific rules than others, depending on their subject.

Eva – I am glad you agree ;)

Kevin – A focus on creating content is great, but make sure you have a few basic and simple rules for your members.

Roleplay – I am glad to hear it! I have no doubt that this is a contributor to the success of your community.

Nicole – You are bang on the money. Short, simple rules that people will read and understand are far more effective than long, complicated lists that people will skip straight over.

Soa – I am glad you agree! Thanks for your comment :)

flats March 11, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Yes, I think the same as you, if you forbid every word and everything people wanna say, your online community goes directly to restroom… cheers!

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 15, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Flats – Ha, I like your analogy of your community ending up in the toilets. This certainly can happen if you are overbearing and over stifling though.

Tom March 20, 2008 at 9:17 am

Have you considered providing both?

Some short simple rules with extended definitions and best practice?

This helps provide further education on board etiquette for those who desire it and still allows the lazier users to quickly assimilate the ground rules.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 21, 2008 at 8:03 pm

Tom – You make a very good point. It is a good idea to display basic rules in a prominent position, then have extended definitions/best practice/terms of service elsewhere for those with time to kill!

On Just Chat, I have the site rules and the terms of service on separate pages although I have the full text (rules and terms) in a disclaimer that people need to agree to before accessing certain areas of the site for legal reasons.

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