Your Online Community Doesn't Need Rules

Context: This post is specifically about online communities such as forums and group chats. Other situations will be different so keep that in mind while reading.

Just about every forum or group chat these days greets new users with a link to The Rules™. Usually this document is multiple paragraphs describing every little thing that you can’t do in an attempt to reduce poor conduct in the group. But how did this document come to be and does it actually have any effect?

I imagine this document originally gets created shortly after the creator sets up their new web forum and writes down a short list of things not to do.

Something like the following list:

  1. No spamming.
  2. Don’t be rude.
  3. No illegal content.
  4. Treat others with respect.

Seems reasonable enough right? We don’t want users doing these things so lets write them down so they won’t do them. But as any moderator knows well, even with the rules in place, people still break them. There are still rude users, there is still spam. The problem comes mostly down to the fact that a persons behavior very often is very slow to change, a rude person doesn’t read the rule “Don’t be rude” and suddenly shift their behavior to align to the rules. In fact the person may not even acknowledge their behavior contrasts with the rules.

I think many moderators will agree with the statement that bad users will not change to fit a communities rules. But knowing this, why do they still write a list of rules? The primary reason I hear for this is that the rules allow a moderator to reference when banning a user. The mod, after banning a user can send them a message saying “You have been banned for breaking rule 1”. The problem with this is the problem user will almost always also use the rules to point out how technically they weren’t breaking the rules because it doesn’t explicitly say to not do what they were doing. This causes the moderator to go and update the rules to explicitly ban the problem behavior, now next time it happens you can reference the new rule and all will be good right?

Nope, it never is. Problem users will always find new ways to point out the rules don’t technically mention what they do. They will also read the rules and push the boundaries to get as close to breaking the rules as possible without technically crossing the line. This process leads to the rules becoming more and more verbose until they look more like a terms and services document than a rule list. (Actually this exact same process is why the terms and services are so long). Something to remember as a moderator is you don’t owe these users anything, access to your online community is not a right and you are free to remove anyone who isn’t a good fit. If a user continues to dispute a ban then it is in your best interest to ignore further communications from them as they will only wear you out for no gain.

Another issue moderators will often encounter is problem users will be fast to point out any other users who have broken the rules and use it as a reason that they should also be allowed to break them so by having a rules list you must now strictly enforce it on everyone, even those who aren’t causing an issue or else you will be seen as biased against the user.

For these reasons I am against the use of a strict set of rules to attempt to govern the behavior of an online community. I instead propose an alternative. Allow moderators to use their intuition to make a decision on user bans. This allows the mod the freedom to assess the context of the situation and decide if a user is not the right fit for the community. Human interactions are complex and it’s next to impossible to try to strictly define what is and isn’t ok.

I believe that the most crucial thing you as a community owner can do to shape the behavior of a community is selecting mods who represent the things you want to see and share the same values as you. If you select moderators this way they don’t need to be told how to run things as they already know and want the same as you. Remember your moderators are not robots, they don’t need a well defined instruction list to keep order.

Of course it wouldn’t be right of me to make a rule about having no rules so like most things, this is more of a guideline and there are times when rules make a lot of sense. The times when it makes sense to create rules are when it’s not about behavior and it’s not obvious. For example OpenStreetMap has a rule saying you may not import data from Google Maps. This is a strict rule, it can never be broken and it’s also a rule than anyone can reasonably follow.

The upside of removing needless rules from your rules list is it’s more likely that users will read the bits that would actually help improve your community.