All new online communities, from dating apps to gaming to social networks, are tasked with creating and maintaining comprehensive community guidelines. You have a responsibility to not only to keep users safe, but to make sure you are clear about the rules, so when you take content down it’s justified and easily explainable.
Creating your community guidelines from scratch can be a daunting task. So here are some best practices for writing your own guidelines as well as real-world examples that you can emulate if you get stuck.
State Your Community’s Purpose
Perhaps the best place to start is a mission statement (of sorts) for your online community. Before you get to specific do’s and don’ts, layout your community’s general purpose. What do you hope to accomplish with this community? How does it help reinforce your organization’s brand values?
Be concise and to-the-point. A solid paragraph should do it. Here are a few examples.
“Pinterest’s mission is to bring everyone the inspiration to create a life they love. That being said, not all content is inspiring – so we have community guidelines to outline what we do and don’t allow on Pinterest. These guidelines are our acceptable use policy, so if you find content that shouldn’t be on Pinterest, please report it to us. We use your reports to learn and evolve our standards, and work with subject matter experts to inform and update our guidelines.”
“These guidelines summarize a thorough, thoughtful, and living internal policy that we spent time thinking about and defining with guidance from community and safety experts. We’re proud of these guidelines because we believe they will help creators build a safe and supportive environment in which they can continue to create, share and build intimate and lasting relationships with their patrons.”
Be Mindful of Tone
These guidelines are your opportunity to “set the tone” of your online community and, as always, stay true to your brand’s voice. Most community guidelines do their best to convey a sense of inclusion.
Speak in a way that’s welcoming and encourages engagement and interaction. You want to strike a balance between being familiar but not flippant. While you take these things seriously, avoid being overly punitive and scaring away participants.
GitHub, a platform for developers, does a good job of highlighting concrete examples of behavior that can improve the health of their online community as well as behavior that hurts it. Here’s some select language from their community guidelines.
“We want people to work better together. Although we maintain the site, this is a community we build together, and we need your help to make it the best it can be… Respect each other…remember to criticize ideas, not people.
Avoid name-calling, ad hominem attacks, responding to a post’s tone instead of its actual content, and knee-jerk contradiction. Instead, provide reasoned counter-arguments that improve the conversation. If you disagree with someone, try to understand and share their feelings before you address them. This will promote a respectful and friendly atmosphere where people feel comfortable asking questions, participating in discussions, and making contributions. Additionally, communicating with strangers on the Internet can be awkward. Try to use clear language, and think about how it will be received by the other person.”
Make Your Guidelines Accessible, In Every Way
The goal is to get your audience to actually read these guidelines, so make what you want to say easily digestible. Snappy subheadings are a good way of accomplishing this. Take Kickstarter’s guidelines for example.
“Don’t spam. Don’t be a jerk. If you see something, say something.”
Of course, these are just headings in Kickstarter’s guidelines. They grab the eye, but it’s also important to give concise of examples of what you mean. There’s a lot to cover, so use your words sparingly. TikTok does this with subheadings followed by a bulleted list. Here’s one segment of their guidelines regarding hate speech:
“Attacks on protected groups
We define hate speech as content that does or intends to attack, threaten, incite violence against, or dehumanize an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of protected attributes. We also do not allow content that verbally or physically threatens violence or depicts harm to an individual or a group based on any of the following protected attributes:
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Serious disease or disability
- Immigration status
Do not post:
- Content that dehumanizes or incites violence or hatred against individuals or groups, based on the attributes listed above, including but not limited to:
- claiming that they are physically or morally inferior
- calling for or justifying violence against them
- claiming that they are criminals
- referring negatively to them as animals, inanimate objects, or other non-human entities
- promoting or justifying exclusion, segregation, or discrimination against them”
On top of being easy to comprehend, community guidelines should be very easy to locate. Whether on your website, a blog, or Facebook Page, make sure your rules and policies are easily findable for first time visitors and existing members. You can find a link to this information on each page of both Kickstarter’s and TikTok’s site.
Maintain Transparency and Consistency Moderating Content
Violations of community guidelines are inevitable. Being clear about consequences is just as important as clearly stating the rules. Include a section that lists the actions taken in the event of a transgression. Keep it fair and uncomplicated and provide explanations for actions taken by moderators. Some information you should include is:
- What is the penalty for first time, second time, third time offenders?
- How many violations are allowed before suspension/ban?
- Will posts that go against community guidelines be deleted?
- Does your organization have a zero-tolerance policy for certain behavior?
As mentioned earlier, don’t be too quick to dish out punishment. There are better ways of dealing with guideline violations, whether they’re on purpose or by mistake. For example, you can guide the discourse of your online community. Offer up conversation prompts or industry news. This shows that you’re genuinely interested in community engagement and keep the conversation positive.
It’s also crucial that your moderation team is consistent in what they remove and their reasoning for doing so. Preferential treatment or inconsistency will raise alarm and perhaps even invite an increase in bad behavior.
Here’s an example of how YouTube addresses violations in their community guidelines.
“How does YouTube identify content that violates Community Guidelines?
With hundreds of hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every minute, we use a combination of people and machine learning to detect problematic content at scale. Machine learning is well-suited to detect patterns, which helps us to find content similar to other content we’ve already removed, even before it’s viewed.
We also recognize that the best way to quickly remove content is to anticipate problems before they emerge. Our Intelligence Desk monitors the news, social media, and user reports to detect new trends surrounding inappropriate content, and works to make sure our teams are prepared to address them before they can become a larger issue.
What action does YouTube take for content that violates Community Guidelines?
YouTube takes action on flagged videos after review by our trained human reviewers. They assess whether the content does indeed violate our policies, and protect content that has an educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic purpose. Our reviewer teams remove content that violates our policies and age-restrict content that may not be appropriate for all audiences. Our automated flagging systems also help us identify and remove spam automatically, as well as re-uploads of content we’ve already reviewed and determined violates our policies.”
Be Available and Receptive to Member Feedback
Ultimately, your organization should work to protect its community members as it would employees. If your membership doesn’t feel safe, they likely won’t participate.
Let your online community know where they can go to report abuse or give feedback. Also, allow and clearly promote an opportunity for community members to give feedback about the existing policies. This can help with compliance to guidelines as well as the cohesiveness of your community. Lastly, don’t be shy about showing the moderators who keep these communities safe and active. Having a face to put to a name naturally makes community interaction more personal. The more human element, the better.
For an example of how to offer safety to your members, here’s a snippet of the community guidelines of travel guide publisher The Lonely Planet. They call attention to the clickable flags they have for reporting abuse. Directly below, they briefly succinctly provide contact information for feedback and inquiries.
The Lonely Planet:
“Reporting abuse: All over our website you’ll see flags that let you notify us of stuff that breaches the rules. This helps you look after the community too. We do ask that you log in to report things – we think it’s the best way to avoid abuse of this function.
Contacting us: You can email email@example.com with feedback, questions or issues about our online community. If you have guidebook feedback, or a suggestion for a business that you would like to see listed, and all sorts of other queries you should use this form. This will make sure your feedback gets to the right person faster. Our Talk2Us team read every single piece of correspondence and will do their best to help you out, and get your feedback to the right people.”
Keep Them Fresh
It’s unlikely that you’ll get your community guidelines perfect the first time around. You can do your best to cover all the bases, but your rules will need to be routinely adjusted as you encounter new types of concerning content – which is normal. Knowing this, it’s important to have systems in place that allow you to be nimble as you create, communicate, and enforce new guidelines for new issues.
A healthy online community grows and changes with its members and the environment. Just remain open to feedback and true to your word and you can foster a level of engagement that strengthens your brand.