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Almost every community has rules and guidelines. Often these are buried in terms of use pages that users click through to register, or are shoved in a link in the footer of the page. These guidelines form an important part of the community and how members are expected to behave, yet they are wordy and hidden more often than not.

In some communities, not understanding the guidelines can have consquences. As an example, on the Stack Exchange network, questions can be down voted and closed. Repeat this a few times and the user can't ask new questions. From the community's perspective a troublemaker has been dealt with. From the new user's perspective, this community is stuck up and unwilling to help the new guy.

How can new members be encouraged to read (or at least skim) these guidelines prior to jumping in feet first?

  • 2
    To be honest, I rarely read the rules when I register in a community, because they are usually just a rewording of the same basic netiquette guidelines which are customary since the early usenet days. – Philipp Sep 4 '14 at 11:15
  • @Philipp Not arguing with your approach, as it definitely works most of the time, I want to note that some communities have some very special rules worth reading and are very quick to ban you forever with no option to appeal if you violate them. So checking the rules at least briefly is still a good option. – Baskakov_Dmitriy Nov 4 '17 at 23:07
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Great question! Silly answer: ask them to. Not with a big red flashing banner or a checkbox that says "I have read all these guidelines", but in the form of genuine human interaction. I think that any form of "automation" for solving this type of problem will never be as effective as reaching out on a personal level.

I'm sure we're all guilty on some level or another of ignoring all the fine print and skipping through the warnings to get what we want. Stack Exchange communities have their meta sites to set expectations and guidelines for good quality questions, but a new user isn't likely to seek them out (or even know they might exist). A well fleshed out FAQ is very helpful for these situations.

I think the most effective method is for someone that is already familiar with the community to spot the issue and help guide the user with targeted information. On Stack Exchange, the "First Posts" review queue is where this sort of interaction should take place. This interaction should be short, clear, and most importantly polite.


Example (from an imaginary cobbling Q&A site)

Question from a new user:

How do I fix my sole?

The sole on my sneakers just fell apart, how can I fix it?
-Chuck Schumaker

Comment from a veteran user:

Hi Chuck, welcome to Cobblr! Right now, this question is a little too vague for us to help you. It would be most beneficial if you could tell us what type of shoes you're trying to mend and post some pictures of the damage. While your at it, please review this post on guidelines for posting shoe repair questions for advice on how to improve your question.

8

StackExchange has some built-in safety nets to help catch people who are about to do something wrong, which gives them a chance to look up what they should be expected to ask.

For example there are lists of phrases which indicate a bad question which you are warned about if you're about to break them, for example:

  • Do you think

    Do you think - subjective

  • What's your favourite

    What's your favourite - subjective


    These indicate a subjective questions which we don't like, so we tell any user who tries to start a question with it.

Specific sites on the network also have their own lists which the moderators can maintain to blacklist problem words or phrases.

For example, you can't use the words "actually" or "really" in a question on Skeptics SE after the feature was requested on the Meta:

Really - weasel word

You also can't use the word "problem" on StackOverflow as it adds no meaning to the title (though not everyone likes this):

Problem - No extra meaning

These simple features will stop a lot of rule breakers before they even start and hopefully encourage them to read the rules more thoroughly, especially if you add a link to (or quote in full) the specific rule they are about to violate (as only happens in the last of my examples above).

5

Encourage them to browse the site either before their first posting or as soon as possible thereafter. Some ideas that spring to mind:

  • Only unlock the ability to post more than n times a day once they've voted on m posts.
  • Offer badges/rewards for reading (well opening) the help pages.
  • Require registration before being able to create new threads/questions. By becoming a member people are more invested in the community and more likely to want to abide by its rules.

This is no guarantee of success and may turn away a few people if they find their ability to post restricted in some arbitrary way so you'd need to consider each of these and what impact you think it would have on your community.

4

The bulk part of most community rules are, save for exact wording, the same across most internet communities. This is a big part of the reason why people tend not to read them, they mostly say something people already know. The problem is whatever rules people don't guess.

Identify the rule that is broken the most by new users. Put this rule, written as short as possible, on the registration form in a manner so that people can't avoid reading it.

This serves two purposes, it teaches the rule, and it serves to puncture the users's belief that they already know the rules. This will make it more likely that the user also take the time to follow a link to the full set of rules, and at least skim them for any other surprises.

The composition of the full rules should follow the same logic, start with whatever might surprise the users, go on to the common but not universal internet-rules, and end it with all the obvious stuff.

The counter-intuitive thing about this rules-writing approach is that it will put the rules about the most severe offences on the bottom of the rules page. But if you think about it, anyone who would break the obvious rules probably don't care about the rules in the first place, having them displayed on the site is pretty much a formality. The uncommon rules, however, are there to be read, so of course they should have priority.

2

In addition to asking them in comments and providing contextual warnings, it's important to give them relevant information in digestible chunks. Nobody but your most dedicated users is going to read a big long "rules" page; they're here to get a question answered. But you can provide smaller bits of guidance along the way with a better chance that they'll be read. For the most-important ones, you can require user action to dismiss.

On some mailing lists I've been on, a person's first post is automatically sent to a moderator for review. The poster immediately gets an auto-reply (so he'll know why his message didn't instantly appear), and that reply contains just a few reminders of key points about posting. These are points that were covered in the longer "welcome to $list" message the user got -- and probably didn't read -- upon signup. This contextual message only talks about acceptable content -- the person has already figured out how to send a message, after all, and this isn't the time to tell him about vacation settings or account maintenance or whatever.

On Stack Exchange, the first time somebody starts to answer a question he gets a message reminding him about what SE is looking for in answers. If I recall correctly, the user has to click to dismiss this. This paragraph or so (with links) is focused on the specific task at hand (answering the question), and like the email auto-reply, ignores tangential information. Similarly, on Stack Exchange, when a message is put on hold a notice is added to the post with specific guidance (and links).

One thing I've learned from years of writing documentation is that most people do not sit down and read the doc from beginning to end. If the interface is intuitive (and that's generally a design goal, for good reasons), people are going to jump in and start using it. So it's important to provide "wayfinding" -- context-dependent guidance that helps people get past problems they are either having or about to have.

0

The best example I have seen was on one Russian web-site for geaks.

When registering and reading the rules for your first time, you don't tick one "I have read the rules" box, you have to manually click on each small sentence to mark that you have read it. I might be mistaken, but there was probably also a small delay between each click. Anyway, you are forced to actually stick your attention to each of the bullet points for some time.

But that's not all -- after clicking on all the rules you need to answer a bunch of multiple-choice questions about the rules. They are more or less intuitive, but you are forced to read them to answer them anyway. You are not allowed to register if you fail the test and need to retake it.

To maintain higher quality standards, this web-site also doesn't allow new users to post on the main area right away -- they have to either be invited by an existing "established" user, and the number of invites you have is limited, or post in the "Sandbox", where, if their post is of high quality, they can score an "invitation" too, upgrading their account too. This way even those few users who still didn't read the rules are filtered. Basically, any issues with your content are filtered.

The web-site is also community-moderated. If you behave stupidly after getting an invitation or getting out of the sandbox, other users are allowed to vote down your posts, and if you get too many downvotes, your account will become "read-only". You will need to write a new quality post in the "sandbox" to be able to post again.

This leaves almost no room to users that didn't read the rules and hence post low-quality content.

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