The short question is: What factors do you take into account when you decide on rules for a community?

I live in a puzzling community for 5 years. It has an entry test. It is simple enough, but it filters people. Therefore, on the community forum we do not have rules at all; we envision that the users are intelligent enough to not spoil the forum.

I would say this worked quite well up to now. Recently we had two problems with it:

  1. A user appeared and provoked others by making strict judgments about their personality. As result, the others would react similarly and the forum started to become ugly.

  2. One user brought up a political topic. The topic would provoke people so that it lead to a similar result as the one in problem 1.

Both problems were solved in strict manner. The first problem was solved by banning the user, the second by closing the topic and issuing temporary bans for some users, who offended the others.

I do not like this situation, because the bans were not based on rules, but on the subjective feeling of the community moderators, that they "have to do this". This, in my opinion, can result in an unsafe feeling for users, who are not able to predict the behavior of the moderators. Worse still, the moderators could provoke a banned person to feel offended and deal more damage to the community.

I tried to figure out some rules, which would prevent such situations, but two things are quite hard for me:

  1. How can one make rules objective enough? If you say, "respect the others", then what does respect mean? Everyone can understand it differently. As result, the same unsafety for users is present, as moderators and users share differing opinions.

  2. How can one avoid situation when users find loopholes in the objective rules? When you formulate rules very specifically and objectively, there are always loopholes in them and members will use the rules against the moderators. For example, when I gave a user a ban saying, "You are banned for offensive judgments about another person's personality (Ad hominem)", he replied, "Ok, I see, so I can't say that he is xxxx, but I can say that his mother is xxxx?".
    On the other hand, another user said, "So I can't say anything bad about others explicitly, but I can mention this implicitly, putting a hidden layer of meaning in my words", which is also definitely not what we wanted for the community - it is even harder to rid the community from implicit, offensive behavior of users.
    In addition, moderators enforcing such rules looks like tyrants: nothing is allowed. So, how one can formulate rules in such a way that moderators can ban unwanted issues falling under these rules, rather than using their own opinions to the extent that community members rebel against moderators?

Are implicit rules bad at all, or should the rules be explicit?

  • Chris, I've now amended the question. Hopefully this is more specific enough?
    – Talisman
    Jul 30, 2014 at 9:57

3 Answers 3


Rules should be explicit as possible, but there will always be people who try to get round the rules and will try to interpret them to their benefit. There is nothing you can do to stop this. All you can do is try to minimise the chances of this happening.

Some points to consider:

  1. Set up your system so that the community can feel like it owns the rules. Have a mechanism for suggesting new rules and amendments to existing ones. Allow enough time for a consensus to be reached and then implement the new rule with adequate publicity. If the users have a stake in setting the rules they are going to be less tolerant of people breaking them and will be more likely to back you up.
  2. Have a generic rule like "be nice" in there from the outset. This should cover general abusive behaviour - name calling etc. and can and, indeed, should be bolstered by specific rules against sexist, racist, homophobic or other such language/behaviour so you can have different levels of sanctions.
  3. Have a mechanism for users to report transgressions. Consider having different levels of report so that if you get enough reports of spam (for example) the system can automatically delete the post rather than waiting for human interaction.

Anything subjective is always up for discussion, and users who misbehave have a tendency to hide behind the keyboard. Discussion over internet Q&A or forum often gets a higher tone than it would do in real life. That’s a fact we need to bear in mind while moderating.

Having community rules is good, but it cannot cover all possible situations. You could say that in order to get a user banned – she need to get at least three flags against herself. However, would this be enough? Is five enough? Alternatively, should we go by the rules of the law where you only need to have one person offended in order for filing a lawsuit? Where do we draw the limit?

Personally, I think the crucial thing is how moderators are selected. If you are a friend of the forum owner, you don’t have the implicit powers elected moderators have. Elected moderators are even more credible than employees are, just because they were elected in an open race, rather than hired (NB: This is my personal opinion). To conclude – the way you select moderators is a key factor. Maybe there should also be a specific time period for moderators to act as moderators so the community can vote again whether or not the moderator fits community standards for a second term. This may not be possible everywhere, but it is an idea. The reason for this is accountability, which may be lacking here on StackExchange?!

My advice is:

  • Review your moderator election process
  • Support judgments based on flags, it will be more credible if you do
  • Discuss the matters with other moderators before taking drastic actions such as banning users for a period of time.
  • 1
    I've edited the original question Benny, to improve its flow and readability. You may wish to just have a look and see if you'd like to amend your answer at all :)
    – Talisman
    Jul 30, 2014 at 9:56

I've been thinking a lot about these issues while creating a public site. This is what I came up with. I see "rules for a community" as one part of a set of statements about a site:

  1. mission statement or positioning statement explains why the site exists.
  2. values statement, including examples, describes how certain values are instrumental to accomplishing the mission.
  3. rules of conduct details allowed and unalloyed user behaviors.
  4. moderator's policies [1] charts events which trigger moderator actions supported by rules and values.

When we're moderating the site we begin with the moderator's policies. Some event has occurred. Look up the event in the moderator's policies to figure out which rules are being violated and what are the necessary consequences. At the level of a clear rule violation the moderator's policies is near to common sense.

The point where having a framework or cascade of statements becomes useful is for those outlying events. In other words, those events which are a net negative but regarded individually are insufficient to trigger moderator action.

You say you have borderline cases where someone is arguing a rule, now you have a clear conceptual path right back to the purpose of the site. Instead of arguing about semantics or the threshold of doubt, you have recourse to the larger narrative. You have a path from behavior and events to rules and values which are necessary to create the culture of your site.

My silly example imagines a site's purpose of existence is to "improve the punctuation of writers everywhere", and someone uses a hyphen instead of an em dash (violating a common grammar rule for English), you have recourse to your value statement. And maybe your value statement says hyphens and em dashes are a concern for typographers and not writers. Or maybe the mission statement's 'everywhere' subject includes languages without this punctuation rule (doesn't sound like a really popular community. The only universal punctuation would be, I don't know, the period?) Thus the denotation of good grammar changes to suit the community. Then you might choose a moderator action based on education rather than something punitive.

UPDATE: A real-world example of points #1 & 2 can be found with Toastmasters International's Mission & Values statements:

Club Mission We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.

Toastmasters International Values: Integrity Respect Service Excellence

If you're unfamiliar with Toastmasters, its an international organization which promotes leadership and personal growth through public speaking. Its organized into local clubs and commonly, anyone can join. In other words its exactly like a public web site, only much smaller.

[1] I concede to using the title moderator's policies to suit my purpose. What is contained in documents made by others I do not have access to is not important to understand this outline.

  • Are you sure toastmasters don't just make toast cooked just right? (sorry, the name, I must comment…)
    – bjb568
    Dec 20, 2014 at 3:59
  • @bjb568, and as punishment under the moderator rules of conduct, violation of pun on secondary update, you will write 50 times on the blackboard: I will not take toast lightly.
    – xtian
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:59
  • :O Then I will always have to be like those Japanese or whoever who fakes having everything handed too them being too heavy because of the honor or something.
    – bjb568
    Dec 23, 2014 at 16:15
  • @bjb568 Make it so
    – xtian
    Dec 24, 2014 at 20:37

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