Thou Shalt Not Troll: Creating Community Guidelines

Planning a community is of high importance to its eventual health and your success as a community manager. One of the chief stages of community planning is the creation of community rules and guidelines. Without rules or guidelines, your management duties are simply going to be a nightmare. You’ve got your target audience, and topics to focus on, but how will you know what’s in and what’s out of bounds for content, discussion, and interaction? How will your community members know? Obviously, this is where those rules and guidelines come in, and where effectively communicating the intent behind them is key.

I’m a moderator over at the Coffee community on Google+, and that experience has taught me a bit about creating and evolving community rules. While the community itself is simply called “Coffee,” our main purpose is to encourage discussion of specialty coffee – beyond Folgers, beyond Starbucks, to the point where coffee is treated as a culinary product, much like wine. This distinction has always been communicated in the description in our sidebar, but it has created a small amount of confusion and tension, especially when a member feels their post was removed for some kind of bias. But we feel our rules spell things out pretty clearly, take a look:


Some of these rules are pretty obvious choices, some are aimed at protecting our members from spam or risky business (the MLM posts are especially notorious for phishing and malware), some are merely preference for our community, such as discouraging introductions (we don’t need over 22k “Hello” posts, which add nothing to discussion). The last rule on there, about foreign language posts (non-English) is mainly because most of our members only speak English (our moderators too), so non-English posts received almost no interaction early on.  But are we too strict? Should we be more inclusive? I don’t personally think so, and our members seem to agree that we’re being reasonable – with a few, occasional exceptions in the form of snide commenters who think we’re some kind of coffee gestapo.

So where should you draw the line in the sand for your community? Who gets to make those decisions? This was actually the topic of a recent #CMGRChat, where contributors offered that the initial rules should be simple and based in common sense (be civil, don’t post spam, etc.), but you should also turn to the community itself to help craft more particular rules. In one of this week’s readings, Do Your Community’s User Guidelines Only Protect People You Like?, the author emphasizes equality and fairness in rules; we are all entitled to free speech, even if some of our opinions are controversial.

In the Coffee community, we don’t remove a post just for mentioning something like Kopi Luwak (a.k.a. “cat poop coffee”), so long as it isn’t a commercial post. We would even encourage discourse on the issue, as hopefully it would raise awareness of some of the animal welfare issues or other drawbacks of the product. Censorship, in that regard, would lead to no discussion whatsoever, and leave our members feeling shunned and disappointed in our closed-minded approach.


Animal welfare.

So, when you’re crafting your rules, keep your community in mind. Think about what you want for your members, as well as what they might want for themselves. Then, as the community grows, periodically ask for input from your members, and revise your rules to support their needs and yours as you progress. And keep in mind that everybody has a right to their opinion, and that voicing an unpopular opinion in a civil manner is something that should be encouraged, not blocked.

1 comment for “Thou Shalt Not Troll: Creating Community Guidelines

  1. March 8, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Hey Michael,

    Glad that you are finding my writing to be useful.

    Quick clarification, regarding my article. I would say that no one is entitled to free speech on a professional managed community. Free speech as a term implies inclusiveness, it implies all. Whatever, wherever, whenever.

    When you remove one post, when you remove one piece of spam, one personal attack, one racist comment – what you have on your community is not free speech. That’s a good thing. What well managed online communities provide is an particular environment (all communities provide a different one) to discuss a particular comment.

    In your last paragraph, you mention “voicing an unpopular opinion in a civil manner is something that should be encouraged.” When you make people do it in a civil manner, it’s not free speech.

    Entitlement is an ugly word, in my view, and when you use it and you use terms like “free speech,” you are painting yourself into a corner you’ll have to fight your way out of in the future. In other words, part of this battle is in creating accurate and realistic expectations with your members and ensuring that everyone is on the same page, as much as possible.

    Hope this helps.



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