Rule Out Rules

I operate a real-time chat-centric community with about 500 concurrent online members, most of whom are teenagers. It has no rules. There’s no one you can even ask what the rules are. If you press the moderators, you’ll eventually get a circular answer. “If you’re thinking, ‘This will definitely get me banned’ you’ll probably be banned.” That’s as precise as it gets, and for good reason.

Just about every community you visit, whether forum, chat, or social network, has a long list of mostly historical rules. Each time someone does something the owners find undesirable, a new entry is added. Soon, it turns into a pointless wall of text not unlike a EULA. The basis for this is no more than an aversion to appearing fascist. If you want to seem fair, you’d better write down the laws in advance. It’s pretty sensible for the governing of a country. Not as useful when the true list of what’s disallowed only really resides in the moderators’ heads, and rules are simply appended as new disruptive behaviors emerge.

In the absence of guidelines, members with good intentions will behave about the same as they do in person. Rules or no rules, they won’t hurl racial slurs or escalate arguments into personal attacks simply because there’s not another human looking them in the eye to activate their empathy. Uncivil people, however, react very differently to communities with and without rules. If someone wants to create discord and understands certain behaviors will get them banned, they will modify their actions to skirt the letter of the law while retaining their goal of maximum disruption. The rules will not alter their internal moral compass — only their execution. In the very best possible case, rules will cause otherwise combative members to fake civility while they are watched. If that’s the benefit rules bring, you have to ask yourself whether you want to keep griefers around while they feign politeness or let them expose their true intentions early on and be ejected.

Many communities have likely attempted a no-rules beginning, but either caved to demands for guidelines or added rules as a cargo cult behavior to entice growth. It takes considerable resolve to resist such pressure, as it will come from both your users familiar with it and your moderators who need guidance, so expect considerable backlash and confusion. It won’t be because they’re unfamiliar with how to act in the absence of rules. Children as young as twelve have no difficulty recognizing their environment, whether it’s a museum, restaurant, or movie theater, and determining its prevailing norms. There’s no reason people cannot learn to do this in online communities, if given the chance.

You may consider rules to be just as much for your moderation team to know what is banworthy, or you may be concerned that without them, they will become dictatorial and petty. If that’s the case, the problem is not the lack of rules but your moderators. A no-rules policy requires more careful selection. Anyone who’s interested in the separation it gives them from peons or enjoys the “power” will invariably do a poor job in the absence of rules. Look for reasonable people who have no interest in power, rule with consensus rather than authority, and are frequently present. A moderator is a janitor, not a king. He has no power to enhance good situations, only clean up the mess of a bad situation.

It’s important to be decisive and unequivocal about bans in the absence of rules. If a behavior is borderline, like advertising another community, a moderator can offer a hint based on their own best judgement. They don’t need to be advised in advance of questionable behaviors. Instead, their warnings should take the form of a real-life analogue. “Imagine this is a cupcake shop and you came in and began yelling about your own cupcake shop. Would that get you kicked out?” Or, “If you were to say this at a crowded table, would everyone agree you were being a jerk and ask you to leave?” Soon, users will be able to think about what’s acceptable in your community as if it were a real place.

Truly unruly behavior, however, in which the person clearly had no intent other than to disrupt discourse, should be met with no warnings or discussion of any kind. An immediate, permanent ban lets lurkers know disruption for the sake of doing so is not an acceptable form of entertainment in your community. Griefers enjoy causing grief, getting reactions, and arguing about whether they’ve broken the rules. Deny them these three things and they will likely not return while letting onlookers know there’s no incentive for bad behavior.

A fringe benefit of a no-tolerance policy with no rules is much greater engagement from polite members. There is a wide gamut of how much incivility a person can witness before abandoning a community, and that is not a reflection of the quality of their contributions. Allowing disruptive griefers to mill around a little longer until they officially break a rule threatens to send your thin-skinned contributors running. Sure, the loudmouth who loves to argue won’t be pushed away, but the kind, quiet person who wants to discuss her passion certainly might. A thriving, healthy community usually has more of the latter.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 by the author.